Rugby is a game of basic skills. Even at the highest levels, our beloved sport is about doing simple things well. While the mental and physical sides of rugby are hugely important, even international games are made up of players performing the basic skills with competence. As players and coaches, we tend to place too much importance on the physical side of the game, overlooking the need to work on improving our basic skills. One such ability that is getting less and less attention is perhaps the most fundamental of them all: passing.
As supporters of rugby, we revel in line breaks, big tackles, touchline conversions and powerful scrums. But how often does a pass thrill us? One of the most exhilarating games of the 2013 Lions tour was against the Reds, when Quade Cooper’s range of passing lit up the first half. Whatever your opinion on the Australian outhalf, it cannot be denied that he is one of the best in the world in this area. His ability to throw long, flat, hard passes helped the Reds to skirt an aggressive Lions’ defence. The issue here is that we just don’t see superb passing often enough.
Every game of rugby is partly about exploiting space on the pitch. As Jim Greenwood wrote, “space is like a door in the wall of defence: we need to locate it, and be able to get through it.” That’s exactly what Cooper did against the Lions, and what he regularly does with his passing ability. The crucial factor is that he is equipped to exploit the space. The likes of Dan Carter, Jonny Sexton, Aaron Smith and James Hook can open defences too, while Ian Madigan at Leinster looks like joining the list of excellent passing halfbacks.
Being a good passer is not just about firing out the spectacular long ones to your outside backs. It is also about being equipped to complete short passes to your teammates, in front of them and allowing them to gather momentum. Watching a team of excellent passers like Toulouse in the ‘00s, Joe Schmidt’s Leinster, or the current All Blacks is a truly electrifying rugby experience. But like much of our skills practice, we don’t learn enough from watching these teams.
So how do we equip ourselves to exploit space in a more clinical fashion through passing? We practice the skills to a level that gives us the confidence and ability to do so. While vision is a difficult thing to coach, improving a player’s passing game will certainly lead to an increase in the space they see. When a player is equipped to pass well, they will be far more aware of the space that they can now pass into.
Improving a player’s passing skills is all about quality, focused practice. Most skills coaches worth their salt will stress to players the importance of having a rugby ball in their hands as much as possible, but training to improve your passing goes beyond that 10,000 hour-based rule. While handling a rugby ball as often as possible is definitely desirable, we must be more deliberate in how we practice our passing.
Deliberate practice is anything that is designed specifically to improve our passing performance. A crucial component is continuous feedback, whether that is from the coach directly or self-feedback from the players after prompting from the coach. Standards should be demanding and concentration from the players is a necessity. Don’t read this in the wrong way; we’re not looking for a coach screaming at players every time they make a sloppy pass. We can certainly achieve focused, demanding passing practice in an enjoyable environment. By prompting players to evaluate what went wrong with their misplaced pass, we can make the learning experience challenging and rewarding.
When approaching passing practice, many coaches fall for the temptation of making things complicated But remember, rugby is a game of simplicity and that should extend to our training. Does a concert pianist learn to play a symphony while hanging upside down or with weights attached to his fingers? Of course not; instead he sits at the piano with his mentor and practices the piece, evaluating each mistake and learning from it. The same applies to our passing training: simple, focused drills with constant feedback and evaluation.
In highlighting the likes of Cooper and Carter earlier, one of the points was to illustrate that the best passers in rugby are very often halfbacks. While it makes sense that the guys who will complete the most passes in a game are the best passers, the simple fact is that many rugby players are not equipped to pass well. Most players live for the thrill of beating an opponent through physical power or footwork but if we can equip ourselves with better passing skills, we will realize that beating players with a pass is just as special.
We’d love to hear your views on passing in the modern professional game, as well as at amateur levels. Is passing a neglected basic skill or is it simply a less important ability in today’s game? How have you improved your squads’ passing ability, or equipped yourself to pass with precision? Feel free to share your thoughts, opinions and methods on all things passing in the comments section below.