Rugby league to rugby union skills

Denis Betts, former head coach of Rugby League side Widnes, spent four years as a rugby union skills coach at Gloucester. Here he shares his thoughts.

Sam Tomkins shows fingertip control of the ball

Coaching is about creating habits in players – repeatable skills accurately performed under pressure. I set up systems at Gloucester to work on the core areas of handling, running and tackling.

Hard graft on the basics means that players can make the split second decisions which can lead to line breaks or close down attacks. For instance, I worked on better handling techniques.

One area I found needed particular attention was the use of the thumb. Catching is taken for granted by many players and they forget the significance of the thumb to help them catch the ball and then carry it.

Some players will catch, carry and pass as if their hand is a paddle. To coach it well, I first made the players aware of the importance of using the thumb. I then outlined the benefits (control, more successful catch and pass). Once they are convinced of the benefits, they are happy to practise hard to improve and make it a habit.


Putting skills into game situations, I work on rugby decision making: that is positioning opposition players so that you can dominate them. In attack that means either by beating them in the collision, avoiding them or fixing them so you can pass to another attacker in space.

In defence, that means manipulating the ball carrier before they reach contact, or if they come into contact, the best tackle to use. In league we concentrate on the ball carrier positioning the defender by his angles of run. Defenders come from different angles in matches and ball carriers have to know how to fix a player who is front of them (the most regular training scenario), and from the side, behind them and at different paces.

We continually revisit 2 v 1 situations in training. The ball carrier has to know what is in front of him and understand how the defender might move. He uses his eyes to make the defender move and know where the support player is.

A 2 v 1 is culmination of plays which might start from say a 5 v 5s. Again, training needs to create situations where players work on their linebreaks, making them and then finishing them off.

I think these sort of details get lost in training sessions because we have to revert back to working on set pieces all the time. Yes, they are an important part of gaining possession, but you must score when you make a linebreak.


A short passing game will create the opportunities for linebreaks and completing 2 v 1s. Spin passing still has a role to play, but we need to work on the detail of quick accurate short passes. This passes are easy to catch, allowing the receiver more time to see the next decision.

I think we are spoilt by the new ball technology, making players lazy passers because there is so much grip on the ball. In the old days, we didn’t see long spin passes. Instead players had to push the pass because the ball was heavier and less sticky. Short passes are really push passes. The player should have the sensation of squeezing the ball through his fingers and towards the target.


Make sure the players are carrying the ball with their fingers spread across the ball. More use of the thumb gives more control of the catch and pass.

Squeeze the ball for a push pass.

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