Slow ball: Prepare for it then use it wisely

You must train for “slow ball” and need to know where it comes from to make sure players know what to do to get into the best positions possible. Your team then needs to have several slow ball tactics to regain momentum. Tom Billups, coach at University of California, Berkeley and former US Eagles coach, explains more.

Not every slow ball is the same

Every team schemes to advance the ball toward the opposition’s try line with powerful efficiency through crisp passing, creative running lines and dynamic ball carriers.

Entertaining rugby contains lightning-quick phases but these exist alongside a high number of slow, laboriously recycled possessions. Due to the frequency of slow ball possessions during matches and the fact these possessions should be handled differently, all teams need slowball tactics.

Where does slow ball come from?

Slow ball comes from either primary or secondary phases. Slow ball instances occur in primary phase when a lineout ball is caught but the jumper is immediately put on the ground, or when the scrum creaks backward once the ball has been put in with the number eight doing all he can just to dig it out from between the lock’s legs.

Though possession has been retained, additional resources are required to maintain it. In these primary phase slow-ball examples, the offside line collapses, so the ball is “out” but hasn’t gone anywhere. For instance, the 8 is tackled at the base or the scrum.

Additional time and resources are needed to recycle the ball allowing defenders to reorganise and be in a superior defensive position if the attack elects not to kick away possession. The attacking team must identify that they have a slow ball and select a tactic to restart their attack, minimising this risk of turning over the ball.

The 9 does not necessarily “call” slow ball, as it is everyone’s responsibility to recognise what “slowed or static” possession looks like. What 9 will do is help to organise which tactic will be used, and help assign our resources (players on their feet).

The 10 will also play a role in this as he might recognise there are not enough forwards on their feet to run one of the previously mentioned slow-ball tactics and he might decide to use the backs to run a simple cut (a switch which runs back into the forwards) as a way to share the workload and   help get some forwards on their feet from the previous ruck.

During secondary phases of play, slow ball is often caused by the ball carrier’s run, body position in contact and/or ball placement. In cases where the defender dominates the ball carrier in the tackle, the odds are great that if the ball comes back at all, it will be slow. Additionally, if the supporting players are late or ineffective at the tackle contest/ruck, slow ball is likely even if the ball carrier performs his role well.

Working on slow ball

To work on slow ball, we would first present the tactic and required skill techniques during a technical team meeting. Once on the training field we would then “install” the tactic using players as demonstrators. We would keep the training low and “rep” the tactic against opposition at the stated tempo.

We don’t scrimmage (play full-on training games) at Cal as we have found it creates a difficult landscape to teach in. Scrimmage is good to test out how we are progressing, but does not allow us to adjust or introduce new plays. We would train them during team runs, but not in a predetermined way.

In our approach, even when there is opposition in contact suits we call out “tackle” right before contact is made, the roles and responsibilities of all players remain unchanged but we minimise the amount of energy at the point of contact.

Just as “tackle” is called, “slow ball!” can also be called and the attackers are responsible for getting organised as quickly as possible to execute a slow ball tactic – but not in so much of a hurry that they use a restart to attack without the proper resources in place. It is silly to hurry up and use bad ball… it will surely lead to a turnover.

Slow ball tactics

The tactics attacking teams use to restart play contain a handful of similar traits. Slow-ball tactics are near the previous ruck, allowing for plenty of immediate support. Players are asked to be powerful more than skilful, and tactics are not very adventurous.

“Pick and Jam”

The most straightforward tactic is to get a player to pick the ball up and run it forward just around the corner of the ruck, thus termed “Pick and Jam.” As simple as that sounds, there are several important technical skills to successfully “jamming” the ball forward. Important to successfully jamming a ball forward is for the ball carrier to have a powerful, low body position using superior leg drive.

We use a combination of equipment, like ruck pads, to train players that once contact is made, their legs come “alive” not weaken. We look at MAC (metres after contact) as we know that the more MAC we can get, the more we are likely taking contact on our own terms.

Ball carriers should “wiggle” or otherwise use their footwork to offset the tackler and then power themselves up when contact is inevitable. This is good old-fashioned hard yards stuff. We say “go down hard, playing all the way to the ground”.

Since this happens from slowly-recycled possession, supporting players need to quickly nominate themselves for subsequent roles, hurrying to get ready, but not hurrying to pick and jam the next ball.

The post

Another common slow-ball tactic is typically referred to as a “post.” This has a similar organisational component to a pick and jam, with the addition of a player standing shallow, 2-3m away from the ruck.

The post-positioned player is available to either receive a pass and power forward or assist in providing immediate support should the player at the base of the ruck elect to jam the ball forward himself.

The post tactic offers a second possible dimension to the pick and jam, requiring fringe defenders to account for a slightly larger area. Again, immediate support is vital to the success of this slow-ball tactic.

The pod

A third slow-ball tactic that modern teams are employing sees a “pod” of three attacking players (typically forwards) standing 5-6m away for slow-ball possession in a very flat, shallow position. There are a few additional benefits to using the pod tactic although the depth doesn’t allow the ball carrier to be very powerful.

The pod tactic is positioned to challenge defenders that are located at the hinge of the defence. Flankers or midfield players, not front five strongmen, are usually tasked with playing on the hinge of the defence.

The pod slow-ball tactic also engages a new set of defenders from the previous ruck. Whereas the same small group of defenders are recycled and repositioned to defend a series of pick and jams, the pod looks to put other, more important organisational defenders, in the tackle.

  Tom began his rugby career in1984 with the Quad City Irish while an undergraduate student at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. He first represented the US at the 1989 Hong Kong Sevens and continued to play Sevens for the US until 1993. Tom earned the first of his 44 international Test caps in June of 1993 versus Canada and captained the Eagles in 12 Tests in 1998. He was one of the first Americans to sign a professional contract in 1996 when rugby became professional worldwide. He played for Harlequins and Pontypridd. After returning home to the US in 2000, he was hired as a national team assistant coach and has been a coach at the University of California – Berkeley since then. Cal has won 12 out of the last 17 National Collegiate Championships. He was US head coach from 2002 to 2006, with the highest winning percentage of any US coach.

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