by Kimball Kjar
I came to rugby first as an 18 year freshman at BYU and I knew very little of the game and of course I knew very little of the rules of the game.
I had just finished an above-average wrestling career and was in probably the best shape of my life.
I tried out for the rugby team and was fortunate to make the team on account of my fitness and not because of my rugby skill or the serious lack thereof.
That first year I was introduced to a phrase that our head coach David Smyth used repeatedly: “Let the ball do the work.”
At the time BYU was still very much a formative program with an eclectic gathering of athletes with little to no rugby experience by in large.
Looking back Smyth was wise to use this phrase as it helped me and the other players who knew little about rugby to understand the objectives of the game.
Not only has the phrase stuck in my mind and I have re-used the phrase in my own coaching, but it describes succinctly the difference between rugby and the sports many American players are most familiar with—i.e., football, basketball, etc.
To contrast the phrase “let the ball do the work” epitomizes the difference between rugby and football.
In football the mode of thought is to have as few people touch the ball minimizing the chances for error and turn over. The result is a highly diversified set of players with specific skills pertaining to their roles.
With just three players touching the ball on average in football (center, quarterback and possibly another skill player like a running back or receiver) the decision-making is highly centralized around the quarterback.
In football, the phrase “let the player do the work” would be core to decision-making process.
However, in the game of rugby the higher chance for more players to be involved in any given phase distributes the decision-making load across the team with the halfbacks serving as the core managers.
Letting the ball do the work in rugby means players must understand their role and be willing to share the ball in order to gain as much momentum as possible.
But more importantly letting the ball do the work means players must see space, get to the space and as the phrase says, get the ball to the player in space whether through a pass or a kick.
At youth levels coaching this concept is sometimes easier said than done.
But a simple game of “keep away” or a game I call “four corners” helps players not only have fun, but also helps them understand the concept of the letting the ball do the work.
Four corners starts with two teams of 10-20 players each on a field that is half of a regulation-sized rugby pitch or some other size based on the experience level or player numbers.
In each corner of the field four cones are placed 5 meters by 5 meters a part.
The objective is to advance the ball in any direction available and throw the ball to a team mate who is standing inside one of the corner areas.
Defenders can’t stand inside the corner areas and a dropped pass or an attacking player touched by a defender while in possession of the ball results in a turn over. And teams can’t score in the same corner area that was just scored in.
The key points to be taught are spacing, quick passes, vision, communication and moving into space to advance the ball with momentum.
This is a fast-paced and fun game that helps young and even experienced players understand the concept of the letting the ball do the work.
At some stage all rugby players need to understand that the ball can move quicker than he or she can with the ball.
It took me a while to understand this concept in the manner that Coach Smyth meant, but eventually it sunk in and I knew it would be far easier for me to set things up with the ball or as a support runner, rather than trying to do things myself with the ball in hand.
And that meant letting the ball do the work.
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