Why passing skills are tough to coach

Handling a rugby ball is more than just being able to catch and pass. It’s also just as crucial to know when to pass and which pass to use. Create better skills transference by adjusting your training sessions. 

I think coaches should be careful not to run drills to cover an area of the game. They must see a real transference of the skills into match days. Contact skills are easy to see, but catch and pass which goes with decision-making, needs more thought. To do this in training, I am creating situations where the players should recognise WHEN and WHEN NOT to pass.

If there is an opportunity to pass and the player does not pass, there are two principle reasons:

  1. The player lacks the ability to make the pass required, so he holds onto the ball.
  2. The player does not see that he should be making the pass due to lack of vision.

We can work on passing skills in isolation, but we need to develop the players’ ability to use the right pass and on the right occasion. An example of how we do this is when we use simple 3 v 2 drills.

By changing the parameters of where and when the defence pressurises the attack, we can force players into making passing decisions. Initially, by having each defender marking the first two players, the passing decisions are obvious. By reducing the time and space and by changing where the defenders start from, the decisions are less obvious.

We can use 3 v 2 drills as part of our warm-up or primer for the main session. We might then develop this into a 12 v 8 and finally a 10 v 10. If we create front-foot fast-ball (by efficient rucks from go-forward ball), we will chew up defenders. With these defenders on the ground or out of position, there is a good chance to create the 3 v 2s that we have been practising earlier.


With our catch and pass decisions heightened, the challenge is to create 3 v 2s in matches so we can exploit our skills. Excellent execution of contact skills allows us to have front-foot (that is going forward), fast-ball.

The philosophy is simple. We want the ball carrier, if he is going to take contact, to be tackled side-on or only with the defender using his arms. Therefore, in training, I spend time on ball carriers developing the ability to move based on simple cues. To do this, the ball carrier should be running square at the defensive line and then, at the right moment, change the running line.

The simplest cue is seeing the defender “plant” before the tackle. A defender will dip his body to make the tackle, which means he stops his momentum temporarily. At this moment, the ball carrier can move off the original line, the line that the defender is prepared to tackle, and attack the “weak shoulder”. If the defender has planted to drive in with his right shoulder, the ball carrier steps towards the other shoulder.

Developing decision-makers

The most basic form of exercise has three attackers take on two defenders. The defenders focus on the first two attackers. Then, we can develop by changing which attacker the defenders will mark.

Changing the parameters

The 3 v 2 exercise can be changed quickly to increase the decision-making pressures. The size of the area can be made smaller or larger. The defenders can come from different angles and distances.

Planting the defender (from the diagram)

If the ball carrier expects to take contact, he can create more go forward if he can plant the defender

  1. The carrier runs straight at the defender.
  2. As the defender “plants” to make the tackle, he steps to the side.
  3. The attacker can now either break the tackle or be in a position to free his arms to offload the ball.
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