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  • Writer's pictureJohn Coumbe-Lilley

Understanding Rugby League (Part 3)

Learn More About Rugby League With Expert John Coumbe-Lilley

Rugby league is a simple game. Coaches and players do best when big ideas are simplified so that coaches can prepare their players in the best way possible, and players can learn and adapt to play their next opponent. Watching a game of rugby league we can appreciate the simplicity of the game but not know that hidden behind every play, movement, and break in the game are hundreds, sometimes thousands of hours spent over the career of a coach or player refining their skills so that they make the game look easy. I am going to take a look at an area of the game that top players and their coaches make look easy within the context of team organization and structure.

Players need reminding that every player is valuable to their team’s performance and every player has a contribution to make when their team has possession.

Possession and Completion

In order for a player to perform under pressure in red zones on the field coaches need to make sure their players know their position, the role they have in the team, the way their role complements the players around them, and the expected contribution their position and role has to their, team’s performance. Players need reminding that every player is valuable to their team’s performance and every player has a contribution to make when their team has possession and is working to complete their sets. Second, coaches need to have prepared their players to use their available technical ability in skill situations under pressure ensuring their individual capabilities connect with their teammate's qualities so that the team plays to its collective strengths. Let’s take a look at how coaches and players make possession and completion look simple.

Teams have six attempts to advance the ball before they give up possession. Completions are defined as the team in possession using all six attempts to advance the ball toward their opponent's goal line. That means there have been multiple runs with the ball, support runners attending the ball carrier, successful passes from dummy half, successful catches, agility before contact, perhaps some promoting of the ball from an offload, constantly focused loud and specific communication between players encouraging, instructing and reminding each other what to do, and where to be. There’s so much happening on the field of play that the untrained eye is looking at the location of the ball not the activity and energy off the ball. One of the features of possession and completion is the quality of the strength and conditioning of players so that they can repeat their workloads throughout the game. For example, following a kick downfield a full back might receive the kick-get tackled and then their wings combine to take the ball forward from the play of the ball from dummy half to give the front rowers and centers time to get behind the ball onside to receive a pass to possess the ball and carry it forward. This looks simple, but players are moving, pressure is on to perform, communication is high, and the dynamic of the game is fluid, and yet the top players make it look simple.

Top teams might complete 70-78% of the time but this does not mean they played attractive footy with imagination or creativity it might be they were risk-averse and conditions demanded a shorter passing game with direct running. On the other hand, when a team is in their red zone playing away from their goal line a high completion rate is important to reducing pressure and the risk of conceding position and points. In the opponent's red zone where their defensive pressure is highest when a team completes its set of six, they may not have crossed the line to score but they established pressure, field position and take confidence from having completed their set of six under in the attacking area of the field where it’s most difficult to achieve this objective. Completion rates are a tricky guide to the quality or kind of play which is why the whole context must be taken into consideration. Statistics tell what happened, but not why or how and coaches and players need to be able to zoom out and see the big picture of the game and zoom in on the details of the way possession was maintained or given up and the outcomes of these situations.

We finish where we started with coach and player preparation for possession and completion. Playing a possession game with high set completion takes a set of core technical skills such as passing, receiving, evasion, contact awareness, play-the-ball, game intelligence, and fitness in an organized and structured system of play every player in a team understands and is able to implement and contribute to. Coaches who prepare players to be technically sound and create the conditions for them to develop possession skills, and players who work hard, contribute and learn and adapt make great partnerships.

Last thought, Sean Dyche, Burnley Football Club manager whose team is consistently in the bottom half of the English Premier League and threatened with relegation once said during an interview when he was asked the secret to Burnley’s refusal to lose, ‘Fit, strong, and organized never goes out of fashion.’ The lesson here is if a rugby league coach prepared their team, and players are motivated to use what they have to gain results possession and completions in attacking areas of the field are possible which builds pressure on an opponent, positions the team on the field well and creates the opportunity to score points.

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