The Roar
The Roar


Skills and drills in rugby? It's simple: Rinse and repeat

Tom Cusack splits the defence for the Australian Rugby Sevens side against South Africa in the Rio 2016 Olympics. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
Roar Guru
16th May, 2018
1111 Reads

The poor crowd last week at Bruce Stadium was not down to the weather. They didn’t all go skiing. They just stayed away.

The Brumbies faithful are not afraid of the cold weather, or the traffic. We’ve put up with all of that since day one.

It’s down to more sinister circumstances.

Hark back to the days of the George Gregan death stare and his management of referees. No doubt who was driving the bus in those days.

Currently there is aimless leadership – although Tom Cusack would make a great captain. He showed us last week that he is getting more and more comfortable in his role and all of a sudden acted as a great link man, so it’s no surprise he scored a try and set up another. Hopefully, he and Joe Powell can form that same sort of combo that Gregan had with Owen Finegan, back in the day.

Under Rod Macqueen, sublime handling skills and running lines had the team playing like a well-rehearsed orchestra. But then, back then, most coaches were still coaching to the ARU playbook. Along comes the internet and suddenly there is a plethora of coaching resources online, gurus everywhere and each with his own theory, like Eddie Jones wanting it to look more like rugby league.

I always think about one of the lunar landings when, after a flawless touchdown, the astronaut was heard to say “just like the drills”.

How many times had they practiced that routine? Who knows, but I would guess it was until they could probably do it blindfolded.

How many times should you do a drill? As many as necessary to make the skill second nature.


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The old coaching books had a drill called ‘no mistakes’, which players hated because it was boring and slow and repetitive. But when you coach at a club that has blokes playing from different backgrounds, schools and standards, you have to find a common denominator and if that common denominator is a low one, you have to lift the bar – and that only comes from drills. A rising tide lifts all boats!

You don’t earn the right to play the instinctive game until your instincts are properly honed, and that only comes from growing muscle memory through boring, repetitive drilling. Robbie Deans did Aussie rugby a slight disservice by talking about playing what’s in front of you, because it led to players going out there and chucking it around.

People like the Ella brothers or Quade Cooper could chuck it around with gay abandon, but they had massive natural talents – most of us mere mortals get whatever talent we have from working at it.

Deans’ ethos was founded on the fact the people he was used to coaching had all the skills because they had done the drills. After all, what is so different between the psyches of Aussies and Kiwis that the latter can change gears and put their foot on the gas at around minute 60? Why is there such a different mindset among all the Aussie franchises?

As for the Brumbies, I’m pretty sure that Laurie Fisher and Peter Ryan are pretty hard taskmasters, so who is the culprit in the backline?

We have to get better and the backs need to do a lot of running-straight and catch-pass drills. Most of all, everyone needs to be more effective at protecting the ball going into contact, and learning to be more patient and play the phases. We seem to run out of patience for grinding it out and putting together more than about five phases. That is where you win – by grinding the opposition down.

The frustration that can slowly build at not being able to force a turnover saps energy, and creates a certain mindset. It can force an otherwise good team to start taking chances and making mistakes.


On the flipside, if you are playing against a mistake-prone team, you know that all you have to do is wait patiently for a few phases. It’s a whole different attitude and the one the Kiwis seem to adopt more often than not.

Kicking to exit your rear lines is all very well, but you have to have a plan for it and be able to execute. Even if a kicking duel ensues, the endgame should be that you achieve a net gain when the ball finally goes into touch, or you bend the defensive line and find holes.

Good teams learn how to grind it up the middle until they have earned the right to go wide and use the edges. The team making the most mistakes is also likely to be the team that the referee focusses on, possibly unfairly – it’s just human nature and, believe it or not, refs are humans too!

So c’mon Aussie, lift your game – drill, drill, drill and then drill some more. But more importantly, get into the mindset of thinking your way through a game. A gameplan or structure should just be the framework that the team needs to adapt or improvise a little – that’s where the championship moments come from.