4 milliseconds for contact decision making

We’ve five key elements to our club coaching philosophy, one of which is “Protect”. This refers to each other and also to protect the ball. Here’s our ball protection policy.

  1. Offload if I can
  2. Keep the ball secure. Look after it like I would my baby
  3. Fight to the ground, don’t crumple
  4. Pop the ball up to one of my teammates or present

I support our coaches across all the girls’ age groups, (80+ players and 10 coaches),and we have worked hard to give each other coaching tools which make a real difference to our teams. We have a coaching philosophy which is represented by five key words, spelling the word SPICE. Each one has a rugby and a team relevance and applies across all aspects of our coaching: Support, Protect, Improve, Courage, and Enjoy.

Ball security is one area we have focused on more recently, under the “Protect” aspect. With all our girls’ teams, we have developed the language and approach to this. Research has shown that female players have tended to suffer more concussions in the tackle area because of the way they fall in the tackle as well as the way they tackle.

In the tackle area, we have found that the tackled player and/or tackler is more likely to end up on their back when they complete the tackle, allowing more chance of a head impact on the ground. Therefore, we have been concentrating on tackle technique, especially with wrapping around the tackled player, core-bracing and maintaining the C-shape during contact. A C-shape is where the tackler is curled around the ball carrier.

Another key area we have worked on, especially as we try to ensure our players are contact-ready after Covid, is how the ball carrier reacts to the tackle.

We have broken the ball carrier’s “if-then” scenarios into four parts in contact. Ideally, we want the ball carrier to avoid contact, either through evasion or by passing before contact. However, if they do take contact, we wanted to improve the tendency to lose the ball, either spilling it, or the opposition finding it easy to steal.

We talk about four decision-making moments in milliseconds as the contact happens.
1. Offload
2. Protect
3. Fight
4. Present or pop

We found that quite often our players were going from step 1 (can I offload?) to step 4 (I’m going to ground) without understanding the two steps in between. The two middle steps had the most impact on final body position and overall outcome of the tackle – we have been concentrating on better “protect” and more effective “present.”

With the protect, our focus is on how fiercely we are protecting the ball. It’s tight to the chest, in two hands or with arms wrapped around, not held loosely or openly under the arm. This has significantly reduced split balls in contact.

With the present, and reinforced by a recent visit from former England International, Fiona Pocock, we don’t want players to “pencil” or long present. Instead, they need to move their body around the ball, trying to end up in a shrimp position (or L shape, jack-knife).

When Fiona trained our women players, she had them falling forward from a kneeling, prayer-like position. They fell onto the ball, with the ball held between the forearms and hands, so their chest didn’t land on the ball. It was held in a sort of “suspension triangle” with their forearms, so landing was safer and more controlled. We’ll take that back to our girls over the next few weeks.

Millisecond 1: OFFLOAD

Can they pass the ball in the tackle? We want them to have two hands on the ball, but one hand is okay if they are secure with the pass or busy with the hand off.

Millisecond 2: PROTECT

If the player can’t offload, they need to secure the ball – it’s the most important thing on the pitch, it’s their baby, that means keeping the ball close to their body, both hands on.

Millisecond 3: FIGHT

Can they make progress through the tackle? Some players “take” the tackle, crumpling in the contact. We want our players to drive forward if they can, or at least stay on their feet or even shake/spin off the tackler when possible.

This enhances the protection of the ball because the defenders are less likely to be able to steal from a dynamic target, and may buy enough time for the support to arrive, allowing the player to go back to option 1 (offload).

Millisecond 4: PRESENT OR POP

Once the player has landed safely on the ground, with the ball securely in their possession, they have to think about best way to place. Or, pop as they are going to ground, with the ball secure, wrap around the contact. Then once on the ground, they can either pop it up to one of their supporting players or present back (“move your body, not the ball”).

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