by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
In rugby matches, halftime is a valuable few minutes for rugby teams and coaches. Halftime has changed considerably from the days when the coach, by law, had to stay in the stands during the interval. Gradually, coaches where allowed to meet with their teams at halftime, which initially was only 5 minutes to what is now a ten-minute window. Each team operates differently at half, but there are a few important elements to a successful halftime that I would humbly suggest coaches consider for their upcoming matches.
Whether a team is able to return to the locker room or chooses to stay out on the field, a quick injury assessment by the medical staff should be performed as quickly as possible. If an injury substitute is required, better to know this before technical comments are made, as the personnel changes may alter the tactical adjustments coaches offer their side. While this medical check is occurring, the players should work to re-hydrate, refuel, and lower their heart rates.
Once the med-check is completed, a brief unit specific conversation should be considered. This separation of unit groups allow the forwards to talk through with their coaches what is working well, and what technical or tactical changes need to be made in their area of responsibility. Similarly, the backline and coaches can review and discuss what needs to happen in the next 40 minutes of backline play. This is a time efficient way to provide the players with exactly what they need to do, or stop doing, in the second half. After this brief time apart, it is important to pull the entire team back together for the last few minutes, emphasizing what the team’s second half adjustments and objectives are.
It is interesting how many spectators and rugby commentators misinterpret what happens during halftime with elite level teams. Often, when teams mount a comeback after halftime, it isn’t necessarily because the players were scolded for their first half performance, (although this certainly does happen). A well-executed interval sees the coaches provided clear and concise technical remarks, focusing on the most important fixes that need to be made. Although there may be a long list of things that need to be addressed, coaches should do their best to focus on what they feel are the most important technical areas and limit their remarks to just those areas. This might mean that the coach redirect the player’s focus should a player be concerned about a low priority technical adjustment.
As a young coach I was taught to circle up with the fellow coaches, including the head coach, to compare notes several minutes before halftime. This proved to be a valuable tool when learning the importance of sharpening your halftime comments. Once the technical content has been decided, how the fixes are presented warrants consideration. Coaches have their own way when speaking to their team at half, but remember it isn’t just what is said, but what is heard.
Sometimes a team might not need technical or tactical adjustments to be made to improve their performance. I was coaching the United States National Team in a Super Powers Cup test match versus Japan in San Francisco one year. We were “just okay” in a dozen technical areas throughout the first half resulting in a 17-17 halftime score. We stayed out on the field at halftime, finding some shade on the grassy bank at Boxer Stadium, as this would allow for more time together during the break. After several minutes of medical attention being administered to a handful of players, I circled up the team who were awaiting technical advice and although there were numerous little things we could have discussed, the fact was we simply were not playing hard enough and I said as much. Our technical systems of play were not designed to compensate for the team playing at less than it was capable of, full stop.
Backrower Conrad Hodgson took my comments to heart and opened the second half by sprinting down the field on the restart, erasing the Japanese ball carrier with a bone crushing tackle. That moment mirrored my remarks at halftime and, with increased effort, the team went on to a 69-27 test victory. The lesson learned was that sometimes it isn’t about the X’s and O’s, but the effort required. Each match is different and therefore the points of focus at halftime will vary. The key is to formulate what you will coach at halftime and how best to communicate these few points clearly in the time allowed.
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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