Whiteboard Sessions: ‘Attacking Rugby’

Written by Morné Nortier (Morné)

Posted in :Original Content on 12 Nov 2008 at 12:26

In this edition of the Whiteboard sessions we look at attacking rugby as a game plan.

A lot has been made of the approach or ‘vision’ of decision-making rugby, or the type of game Peter de Villiers apparently wants to use for the Boks.

We have read to absolute boredom on how every Tom, Dick and Harry has gone about structure and structure in rugby and specifically in the game-plan De Villiers is looking to employ. The fact remains that structure in rugby is a relevant concept – mostly relevant to what you are trying to achieve.

Any game (or anything in life) that is governed and controlled by laws or rules, operates within and through structure. Specific structures you choose to employ however will differ depending on your goals you want to achieve.

Peter de Villiers seemingly wants to get away from an over-structured approach, or for a better word, predictable rugby. He believes this can be achieved by changing the variables, and options he can give to his players by coaching them to adopt a structure which allows that. This structure invariably includes the ability of players to play ‘decision-based’ rugby, or the more known terms of ‘heads-up’ rugby or ‘expansive’ rugby.

Personally I hate using the term ‘expansive rugby’ as it is associated with a mindset of less structure, risky, airy-fairy rugby.

In reality it is far from it. I believe the best way to describe this style of rugby is to coach your players to apply variables to a dynamic, ever changing environment giving you more options and also allowing you to exploit predictable, structured plays.

All of this is dependent on how well your players can make, and execute any decision in real-time or actual game-play.

Current trends

Currently coaches spend about 40-50% on skills, 40-50% on fitness and strength training, and 10-20% on coaching decision-making skills.

It has frustrated me for years now to see how coaches across all levels are turning rugby players into humanoids by continually running mindless cone drills programming players to perform sequences and patterns of gameplans regardless of the context and situation they are performed in when it has to be applied live or in a game environment.

For this reason I decided to take up analysing rugby and playing patterns a couple of years ago, ala Jake White – spending hours in front of a screen looking and seeing if I can pick up trends and patterns, and then studying material from the likes of Pierre Villepreux, Wayne Smit and leading sports psychologists and mind coaches.

The common belief in most coach’s minds is that one should rather spend time on coaching patterns and sequences and specific game-plays and drill this into the player’s minds – believing that the more players are familiarised with set structures they only need to improve their physical ability to a level better than the opposition so they can be more successful (than the opposition) in executing them.

Unfortunately rugby and rugby players have evolved so much over the years that there is very little to choose between top athletes physically. If you want to succeed at any level, including test rugby, you need to give your athletes the edge over their opponents, and that means allowing them to out-think their opposition.

The Challenge

We have all heard the terms used to describe skilled rugby players, saying something like ‘the players seems to have all the time in the world’ or ‘he makes it looks so easy’.

The only difference between these type of players and your normal ‘grafters’ is that they have simply developed better decision making skills within the structures of the game of rugby. Every player is limited by the same constraints as his opponent or even team mate. The great players are not necessarily faster, or bigger or stronger and hence more successful – they simply use the current constraints and variables that the game of rugby offers and manipulates it by better decision making to give them the edge.

Players like Dan Carter, Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Gitteau is not necessarily bigger, faster or stronger than any other flyhalf – so they must have something that sets them apart, that makes them seems light years ahead of anyone else – and that is the ability to make better decisions than their opponents, and do it quicker and more effective than other players.

These players simply have the ability to;

a) Read the play better
(Superior perceptual skills, picks up and asses information around them better, and recognizes patterns with the ability to almost predict future events)

b) Create time
(Anticipating oppositions actions in offensive and defensive situations)

c) Take better options
(Has better judgment)

d) Execute better
(Is outcome driven)

Personally I do believe that certain players have the ability to learn these skills quicker, with some even doing so without even knowing it or having had specialised coaching to achieve it (Richie McCaw comes to mind) and some players will require more intensive training and time to adapt these skills (like Schalk Burger).

Importantly it is a skill that CAN be coached.

So how do you coach this?

Well I am only going to touch on certain aspects which should be considered to keep this relatively short.

As a rugby player you are challenged by specifics or a frame – meaning you operate in a controlled environment thanks to laws mainly. Your ability to use this frame and manipulate it to your benefit is what will set you apart. And simply put, it is your ability to make better decisions than the other 15 players on the park who also operate under these same limitations.

Changing constants (for a better word) will only give you an advantage for a short while – after that the opposition will simply create an alternative to combat your strategy. Humanoids are limited, because they operate in structure which is predictable – what you need to achieve is something unpredictable and variables ‘in the moment’ which again, simply means, you need to coach players to make better decisions or play what’s in front of them.

You can create a Jonah Lomu who weighs 120kg’s and runs the 100 meters in 10 seconds. He will be effective only until the opposition creates a player that weighs 130kg’s and runs the 100 meters in 9 seconds.

So what are your players challenged with and what do they need to improve to get the edge?

Well firstly there are constraints in place for any rugby player.

You have speed and size, fitness, motivation, the surface, the weather etc. What makes rugby exceptional though is that these constraints are dynamic and can change within the game. Also, the specific dynamics of the same thing, or situation changes in a game and this influences your decision-making skills, and why I have such a problem with patterned coaching.

For instance, a coach today will coach players to enter and clean out a ruck. He will identify specific players and give them specific roles and because we have programmed humanoids, come hell or high water this player will execute what he was programmed to do, like clearing a ruck. Now in a game you will have a ruck with let’s say 5 opposition players involved, the next ruck there will only be 3, or maybe 7. By applying the same structured, programmed execution, you lose the advantage. The player needs to have the ability to make a decision of knowing to enter/clean, stand-off, or fall back into support given exactly what is presented to him.

But because players are programmed in patterns, the simply do the same thing over and over again making them predictable.

So coaches need to deliberately manipulate key areas in the game during practice to alter the dynamics of that situation, and force or rather, encourage the player to make decisions based on what he sees. This will also allow the player to consider multiple solutions to a specific challenge adding an unpredictable edge to his and his teams game which cannot be predicted by the opposition.

This brings me to my next point which is perception-action coupling. It sounds complicated but it really isn’t.

Human beings are essentially open systems. We co-exist within our environment and need information to adapt and survive. This is applicable in rugby too.

Human beings through this develop complicated perception/action systems. The idea is to develop or help your players develop a better perception/action system than the opposition. Your perceptions on your immediate environment in rugby (support players, opposition, field position) will influence your action you take, and the action (passing, kicking, running) you take basically affects the environment directly again (result) changing the environment constantly in rugby.

For you to develop superior perception/action systems you have to coach your players to gather as much information as possible, because essentially the information will influence your perception, which will influence your decision and directly influence your action. Where do we get information from? Quite simply visual (what you see), sound and somatic (touch and displacement).

Perceptual training and sensory manipulation are some of the tools which you use to develop this.

Pierre Villepreux was a master at this introducing these skills in training where he coached his players to identify pattern recognition and learning through situational awareness. Simply put, you sensitise players during play to identify solutions opening up through patterns emerging in front of them.

Of course this goes hand in hand with other factors like sounds (communication) and physical constraints where you have to attain information through multiple sources at the same time to help you with your decision making. Great example is Tiger Woods sometimes practices his putting blindfolded to increase his senses in other areas and does not only rely on visual information gathering.

He effectively couples his sensory system (sensory manipulation) to improve his perceptual skills (gathering information) to enable his to make better decisions.

The last thing coaches has to do in the training environment is change the stability and variability in the rugby frame during practice.

Decision making is directly influenced by the stability of the environment you operate in – which is where so many coaches fail.

As an example, in training your environment is stable with little variation. Pattern reaction and pattern training and decision making is then encouraged, i.e. doing the same drill over and over again because the environment does not change.

In a game situation however the environment changes constantly, and the effect or result is that the pattern training and drills become meaningless in a live environment.

The two environments creates very specific results. As an example, a stable environment is essentially a ‘closed skills’ environment where the other (dynamic environment) is an ‘open skill’ environment.

Closed skill is not context specific, whereas the dynamic environment is – i.e. closed skill environment teaches skills in isolation (not in context) like a scrummy passing to a stationary target all the time (never happens in a game) – dynamic changes variables and influences decision making (game-relevant).

In a stable environment your situational awareness limits your solutions to any specific situation. A dynamic environment presents multiple solutions to specific situations. As an example a set move might look great in practice, but has very little relevance in game play where the situation changes or is dynamic and where the move has to be executed in context to the game situation where there are constant changes in space and time.

Lastly, a stable environment does teach you skills – but skills without perception/action coupling means very little if you cannot apply them to, or use them (skills) in contexts and situational specific moments in a rugby game when they occur.


All of this seems impossible to most, but the difference in developing these skills is the difference between a Frans Steyn and a Dan Carter – a Schalk Burger and a Richie McCaw. Is it just by accident that New Zealand has these Dan Carter’s, or Stephen Brett’s, Cullen’s etc.?

Quite emphatically – NO! Most of the materials I have studied are from New Zealand and Australian sources where these types of skills are coached from a young age.

I have not invented these things or came up with these revolutionary ideas, same as Peter de Villiers has not sucked all this out of his thumb. In fact, Villepreux has penned his theory almost 20 years ago!

In South Africa we limit ourselves to pattern coaching, creating monster athletes with skills, but no brains. Not only do I believe this so-called ‘style’ of rugby will work, I have seen it work.

So why is it not working currently you may ask?

Well it is simple, we are not coaching it. How can we expect players to acquire skills if we do not coach it as my opening paragraph stated that only 10% of times is spent on this?  You need a paradigm shift, a mental shift or for a better phrase, a dawning period (a lightbulb moment).

I was excited when Peter mentioned he wanted his players to acquire the skills of situational awareness, because in my mind, with the talent we have, Springbok rugby will take its place in world rugby as the best team in the world – the leaders of world rugby, and not followers like we currently are.

Whether Peter is able to coach this remains to be seen. I believe he did not surround himself with the right people or expertise to do this successfully and is perhaps a bit naive on how ‘easy’ this is to implement – which is why he will probably fail – but that does not mean the system or ‘vision’ failed or cannot work.

Even if Peter’s stint only plants the seed of this to be developed in later years, you will have one very happy Springbok and rugby supporter.


  • Great article Morne.

    Read every single word – agree 100%.

    Make that 2 very happy Springbok Supporters.

  • Comment 1, posted at 12.11.08 12:34:21 by Kamov Ka50 - blckshrk Reply
    blackshark - I'm back!
  • @Kamov Ka50 – blckshrk (Comment 1) :

    Either you do speed reading or you are lying 😉

    It is one of the longer ones but it is actually only touching on the subject.

  • Comment 2, posted at 12.11.08 12:39:21 by MorneN Reply
  • @MorneN (Comment 2) :
    I’m a fast reader, honestly.
    Read it all before it had all the bold stuff…which would’ve made it easier to read. 👿

  • Comment 3, posted at 12.11.08 12:42:23 by Kamov Ka50 - blckshrk Reply
    blackshark - I'm back!
  • @Kamov Ka50 – blckshrk (Comment 3) :

    Okay….now give it to me and KSA in a nutshell… 😈

  • Comment 4, posted at 12.11.08 12:47:27 by Ice (Bébé de Glace) Reply
  • @Kamov Ka50 – blckshrk (Comment 3) :

    No worries I believe you!

    @Ice (Bébé de Glace) (Comment 4) :

    Take lessons from Kamov on how to speed-read! 🙂

  • Comment 5, posted at 12.11.08 12:49:45 by MorneN Reply
  • @Ice (Bébé de Glace) (Comment 4) :

    It’s all in the mind.
    Think about your high school biology…how your body responds to stimuli.

  • Comment 6, posted at 12.11.08 12:51:30 by Kamov Ka50 - blckshrk Reply
    blackshark - I'm back!
  • @MorneN (Comment 2) : don’t mess with bshk 🙂 I honestly reckon he’s the brightest guy here by quite some distance 😉

  • Comment 7, posted at 12.11.08 12:53:17 by robdylan Reply
  • @robdylan (Comment 7) :

    Doesn’t take much given the majority of supporters here :mrgreen:

    Seriously though, I know, evident in comments I have read.

  • Comment 8, posted at 12.11.08 12:54:40 by MorneN Reply
  • OK I can’t read all that but I was thinking about this yesterday in the car. Does anyone else agree with me that PDiv has pushed back from the table on the “attacking” that went on in the Trinations? In effect, he’s returned to the style the Boks were playing in the WC.

  • Comment 9, posted at 12.11.08 12:55:00 by klempie Reply
  • @Kamov Ka50 – blckshrk (Comment 6) :


    and I did not like Biology…I was a Maths Nerd…

    I can read…and nottoo slow either….but do I WANT to…THAT remains the question.. 😉

  • Comment 10, posted at 12.11.08 12:55:25 by Ice (Bébé de Glace) Reply
  • “…and 10-20% on coaching decision-making skills.”

    How many coaches actually know enough decision making drills/exercises, that are at the sort of level to be effective, that will actually make a difference in the teams way of playing?

    I mean we are not talking your average 2 v 1 or 3 v 2 drill.

  • Comment 11, posted at 12.11.08 12:58:26 by Ollie Reply
  • @robdylan (Comment 7) : I’m sorry…what? 😯 All I want to know is does he know what an asymptote looks like?

  • Comment 12, posted at 12.11.08 12:58:30 by klempie Reply
  • PdV is trying to be Pavlov… 🙄

  • Comment 13, posted at 12.11.08 12:59:53 by Kamov Ka50 - blckshrk Reply
    blackshark - I'm back!
  • @Ollie (Comment 11) :

    Very few in my experience. And no you are not talking simple 2v1 drills either.

    It is not that complicated (these drills) but it is all in the application, communication and understanding.

    And most coaches falls short on all three but specifically the last two.

  • Comment 14, posted at 12.11.08 13:05:46 by MorneN Reply
  • @MorneN (Comment 14) :

    Agreed, I think most coaches rely purely on the instinctive ability of the players in this regard and don’t do much to actually coach it.

    But then again, it has also been my experience that players are not inherently open to to, they seem to want predictability in the drills and seem to feel uncomfortable when having to think for themselves. Or, they start telling the other players in the drill where they should (not) be etc.

  • Comment 15, posted at 12.11.08 13:17:55 by Ollie Reply
  • @Ollie (Comment 15) :

    I think Peter is there – relying too much on ability of the players. Whats the one line Brand always uses, where players say (Steyn) that once you become a Bok there is not much you can still be coached…? Ludicrous

    As for players and drills, I put it down to communication and understanding.

    Players do not understand half the drills they do, or why. They have no idea how it is applied in game situations and never ask questions with fear of looking or sounding stupid.

    Communicating with the players on a specific drills, using open-ended conversation methods (where they have to respond verbally) will help them understand.

    Currently, we have a more militant approach.

    “Boeties, sien julle daai blaarjie op daai boom – gaan fokken haal hom!”

    And they just run…

  • Comment 16, posted at 12.11.08 13:25:53 by MorneN Reply
  • @Ice (Bébé de Glace) (Comment 10) :

    The funny thing is we are blessed with these skills but all we need to do is LEARN to apply them to everyday situations.

    I’m sure you’ve read all those articles about “SAFETY, DEFENDING YOURSELF AGAINST an ATTACKER” etc. Same thing here really…just apply it to rugby. :mrgreen:

    Skill 1.
    The Scan:
    What is the situation? Who is around me?
    What are they doing? What are they planning to do next?

    Skill 2.
    The plan:
    Basically- what should I do next to make the situation favourable to me? Should I run? Should I slow down? Should I pass? Should I kick? Left? Right?

    Skill 3.
    ACTION :
    It’s all good having a master plan…but it still needs to be executed.

    Even a roach can do all of the above…but what separates the best from the rest is the ability to go through all of these steps in “record time”.

    The other factor that we can’t play down is the last one :
    The accuracy of the ACTION –
    Seeing an opportunity for a dropgoal is one thing – kicking it over is another. How many times do we hear the phrase ” Good idea- bad execution.”?

    So in a nutshell…for me…Attacking Rugby means…QUICK, FRESH IDEAS -WELL EXECUTED.

  • Comment 17, posted at 12.11.08 13:29:27 by Kamov Ka50 - blckshrk Reply
    blackshark - I'm back!
  • @Kamov Ka50 – blckshrk (Comment 17) :

    The difference between all the matches in the 3N and the last one against Aus.


    Not change in game-plan as so many so-called rugby pundits or journo’s suggest.

  • Comment 18, posted at 12.11.08 13:33:21 by MorneN Reply
  • @MorneN (Comment 16) :

    Coaches should work with experts in other fields to improve their players’ skills. All of this stuff can be coached – but it doesn’t have to be done by ONE PERSON. Good on PdV to have all these exciting ideas but he needs to bring in people who understand and specialise on skills that are parallel to his vision.

  • Comment 19, posted at 12.11.08 13:33:52 by Kamov Ka50 - blckshrk Reply
    blackshark - I'm back!
  • @Kamov Ka50 – blckshrk (Comment 19) :

    The Sharks had such a person.

    Tim Goodenough.

    I wonder just how much of an impact he made while he was there.

  • Comment 20, posted at 12.11.08 13:36:56 by MorneN Reply
  • @Kamov Ka50 – blckshrk (Comment 17) :

    Thanks BS…

    I REALLY misunderstood your #6… 😈 😳

  • Comment 21, posted at 12.11.08 13:44:26 by Ice (Bébé de Glace) Reply
  • Okay…need some advise on my Investec picks…:

    Is it gonna be North or South this weekend to take the honours?

  • Comment 22, posted at 12.11.08 13:47:31 by Ice (Bébé de Glace) Reply
  • MorneN 😯 😯 , dude 😯 😯 , you are one 😯 😯 seriously bright individual!!! 😯 😯

    Why are you not touring SA giving them lectures?? 😈 Music to my ears. :mrgreen:

  • Comment 23, posted at 12.11.08 13:48:11 by Silver Fox Reply
    Silver Fox
  • @Ice (Bébé de Glace) (Comment 22) : Always South…and when in dount…pick South… 😆

  • Comment 24, posted at 12.11.08 13:50:03 by Kamov Ka50 - blckshrk Reply
    blackshark - I'm back!
  • @Ice (Bébé de Glace) (Comment 21) : You did? 👿

  • Comment 25, posted at 12.11.08 13:51:02 by Kamov Ka50 - blckshrk Reply
    blackshark - I'm back!
  • @Silver Fox (Comment 23) :

    Cause most intellectual (rugby) individuals hang around blogs like this so I would rather engage you guys! They are not involved in rugby!!!

    Crazy thing is, to some extent the above statement is somewhat true!

  • Comment 26, posted at 12.11.08 13:51:16 by MorneN Reply
  • @Ice (Bébé de Glace) (Comment 4) : I have done it for him?, I assume he is a he :mrgreen: ,put it in a nutshell, now go look for the nutshell. 😈

  • Comment 27, posted at 12.11.08 13:52:30 by Silver Fox Reply
    Silver Fox
  • @Silver Fox (Comment 23) : I might be completely wrong here…but you look shocked… 🙂

  • Comment 28, posted at 12.11.08 13:53:38 by Kamov Ka50 - blckshrk Reply
    blackshark - I'm back!
  • @MorneN (Comment 20) : you can lead a horse to water…

  • Comment 29, posted at 12.11.08 13:54:25 by robdylan Reply
  • @Silver Fox (Comment 27) :

    huh? 😐

  • Comment 30, posted at 12.11.08 13:56:27 by Ice (Bébé de Glace) Reply
  • @robdylan (Comment 29) :

    Also more truth in that statement of yours than you know mate when it comes to our rugby ‘custodians’ in our country.

  • Comment 31, posted at 12.11.08 13:56:38 by MorneN Reply
  • @robdylan (Comment 29) : …but you might get tired and decide to ride the horse?

  • Comment 32, posted at 12.11.08 13:57:23 by Kamov Ka50 - blckshrk Reply
    blackshark - I'm back!
  • @MorneN (Comment 26) : Well, it’s pretty hard not to turn into intellectuals seeing that we hang with knowledgeable people like yourself.

    @Silver Fox (Comment 27) : 🙄 😈

  • Comment 33, posted at 12.11.08 14:13:16 by Kamov Ka50 - blckshrk Reply
    blackshark - I'm back!
  • @Kamov Ka50 – blckshrk (Comment 33) :

    Although, some people on here seems to be immune against turning into intellectuals 🙄 😆

  • Comment 34, posted at 12.11.08 14:28:08 by Ice (Bébé de Glace) Reply
  • @Ice (Bébé de Glace) (Comment 34) : He he he… 😉

  • Comment 35, posted at 12.11.08 14:33:44 by Kamov Ka50 - blckshrk Reply
    blackshark - I'm back!
  • “Superior perceptual skills, picks up and asses information around them better..”

    Like Luke? 🙄

  • Comment 36, posted at 12.11.08 14:47:13 by PJLD Reply
  • @PJLD (Comment 36) :

    What you read the article? 😉

  • Comment 37, posted at 12.11.08 14:52:36 by MorneN Reply
  • @MorneN (Comment 37) : My teacher says im learning fast, i just finished Kathy and Mark two weeks ago.

  • Comment 38, posted at 12.11.08 15:18:16 by PJLD Reply
  • @PJLD (Comment 38) : 😆 ha ha ha …

  • Comment 39, posted at 12.11.08 15:20:40 by Kamov Ka50 - blckshrk Reply
    blackshark - I'm back!
  • Interesting read.

    Without detracting from it in any way, there is nothing there that does not form part of any military, business or political strategy in the least – the resources and variables might differ, but ultimately the method of maximising the performance of any limited resource in competition with an opponent with similar resource is not that different.

    Another pretty fundamental point, couched differently here, is that an action can only be as effective as the information it is based upon, irrespective of the skill with which it is executed.

    For me one of the greatest failing of SA players is that their decision-making on the field is hugely limited by the fact that they just don’t execute based on external factors – Jannie will run hard straight ahead cos Jannie likes to and is pretty good at it, even if there is a massive overlap outside him.

    Similarly, our appreciation of rugby holistically is very poor – it doesn’t seem to strike home to the average player that the amount of players and space during the game is limited – we can do something here and now with the intent of freeing up 2 other guys 20 metres away.

    Simple stuff mostly, but like has been said above, we concentrate on certain physical skills and traits above all else.

  • Comment 40, posted at 12.11.08 18:02:22 by Big Fish Reply
    Big Fish
  • Players in Ausie and NZ are exposed to Rugby League as it is hugely popular here. And I am sure this game exposes to players to another type of rugby mentality. I know that League is also played in Europe, but I don’t think there is as much mixing as there is in Ausie & NZ. A few years ago when not picked for the AB’s Nonu & Wipu considered defecting to League and likewise half the Ausie team is Ex League. As a youngster playing at school, a person who had an early growth spurt ie. was bigger than the rest of us and could run over the opposition was hero worshipped. Maybe its in our mindset to try run over everybody instead of nimbly sidestepping them???

  • Comment 41, posted at 12.11.08 22:02:49 by Dynamite Reply
  • I think what MorneN has written here is more or less what PDV has in mind, even as he does not maybe have the words for it.

    The only problem remains to get that style of play working effectively as against the Aussies (near perfect that ) in 9 out of ten games, not one in ten as at present.

    But, a coach rely heavily on the commitment of his players, and there we have a problem. The older guys(super stars) mainly think they can only pitch up and they will win. That inevitably does not work. When they get a serious wake-up call, then they destroy a team, just to sit back and gloat for the next 9 losses.

    To fix that problem, a HUGELY South African one, a lot more coaching along the lines that MorneN talks about is necessary. Plus cutting out the one in ten performers if they do not change their attitude. For to play only once like that show you can, then to my mind you have to.

    Only then you can become a great like Carter and McCaw.

  • Comment 42, posted at 14.11.08 06:58:26 by Silver Fox Reply
    Silver Fox

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