What we’re doing to keep our rugby teams going while there are no fixtures

With the news last week that competitions aren’t going to restart until January at the earliest, a lot of people are wondering what to do with their players over the next few months. In this post, I want to share some of the things that we’ve been doing – some of which are in their early stages, others which are more advanced and are working well for us.

As a brief aside – there was an announcement today that the women’s Premier 15s is going to restart with some law modifications, so there may be hope for some contact friendlies before Christmas!

Is training an activity in its own right or just a way of preparing for matches?

I want to start with this question because, anecdotally, the picture I’m seeing is that the teams who use training solely to prepare for games are the ones with lots of players are dropping off. After all, what’s the point of training if you can’t play a match? It’s the teams where training is about something more than just the weekend fixtures that seem to be doing well – whether that’s just enjoying time with your mates if the team is younger, or having a chance to master your craft if you take your rugby a bit more seriously.

I’ve played in teams where Tuesday’s session was a bit of touch, then sometimes rucking practice and then lineouts for the forwards, moves for the backs. Thursday was a bit of touch, then lineouts/moves, then a team run-through. Fitness if numbers were low. I remember a session once where we had to do press-ups on near-freezing ground and hold ourselves in the down position so that our hands got super cold. This was because we’d lost a game particularly badly and were told we needed to “toughen up.” If you had asked me, the problem was that none of us knew how to tackle well enough and our defensive alignment was non-existent!

Now, that’s one of the more extreme varieties of “only for the game training” that I’ve experienced, but if I was still playing for that team, then I wouldn’t be keen on training right now either (although at least we wouldn’t get punished for losing games if we weren’t playing any!). I think the idea that competition is mandatory to keep people’s interest is a flawed one – as an example, I go to the gym three times a week. Well, most weeks. I don’t compete in powerlifting or body-buidling and I’m not especially strong or aesthetic, but I enjoy the challenge and the way I feel afterwards. It doesn’t lose meaning because there’s no gym-fixtures against other gyms. It has its own purpose and I think the same can be true for rugby teams as well. If you’re the sort of coach that thinks training can be an enjoyable and valuable experience even without being in the middle of a league campaign then I think there are lots of opportunities to engage existing players, but also to bring some new players into the fold as well. Some of these have the added side-benefit of helping with some revenue generation which is a concern for a lot of clubs at the moment.

Internal Touch League

At the moment, across our various men’s teams, our 1st and 2nd XV are training, our social team is playing touch on Wednesdays and there’s a group of parents and coaches of the minis section who play touch on a Monday. At the moment, Saturdays are a bit bare, so we’ve been putting together an internal touch league, both to keep our players engaged but also as a way of uniting parts of the club that are traditionally separate, which should have positive outcomes in terms of movement through the teams. We’ve come up with a set of rules that we’ve started showing to players and we’re having a test event in a couple of weeks where we’ll play some games, have a chance to get feedback on the rules and then we’re having six weeks of fixtures including a finals day.

We’re trying to make it special by producing social media content in a similar way that we would for regular league fixtures, so things like announcements, fixtures & results, league tables, photos of the games etc. In addition, we’ve named the teams after our sponsors so that we’re helping to give them a bit of exposure, especially considering that their support has been maintained at a time that we really need it. Finally, although our bar capacity is reduced, we’re organising social events after some of the match days when the bar is available to help bring some money into the club. As an aside, we’re also looking for referees for the league and we’re hoping this will help us to forge better relationships with our local referees – they’re probably just as bored with the lack of rugby as we are.

Hitting our transition goals

As someone who coaches a lot of women and girls rugby, there are a number of transition points at which we lose players. The extra time we’ve had available has allowed us as a girls section (U13-U18) to spend some time reinforcing our pathways. We’ve focused quite heavily on two main areas – one is engagement with our minis section for the players that will join us over the next few years, and the other is our engagement with the women’s teams that our U18 players will move into – especially as our top year of U18s (Y13) will have a shortened season this year.

Engaging our minis section

We hosted a session for the girls in our U10 and U11 teams to join our U13 players as a way of starting to integrate them into girls rugby. From speaking to a number of coaches who have gone through those age groups, we’ve found that U10/U11 is when a lot of female players drop out. With the extra time available, we’ve been able to put on a session and are hoping to do two more before Christmas. We’ve pushed it as a “bonus girls-only session” rather than as a replacement for their mixed rugby – we don’t want to take them out of their teams, we just want them to know we’re around for when they’ve finished or if they start to feel that playing with the boys isn’t for them. We had some of our U18 players help out with the coaching as well to act as role models – if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.

We’re also running a session for even younger girls, although likely only two or three across the course of the season since they’re further away from girls only rugby. The feedback from the parents post-session and those who have heard the idea has been broadly positive, although a couple of issues to work out with the younger age-grade coaches. With the extra time afforded by COVID, we’ve also started to promote these sessions to new players outside the club – the hope being to get even more players in at the earliest possible stage.

Preparing our girls for senior rugby

The problem of the 16-24 age group is well known and well discussed so like a lot of clubs, we’ve run some joint training sessions in previous years to help acclimate players into the senior environment. However, the lack of fixtures this season has allowed us to plan a joint touch tournament – featuring players across both our senior women’s teams and our U18 girls team. We’ve also invited players from a local college and university to join in as well. The hope is not only to allow our players a chance to play alongside and against the senior teams but also to help recruit players from the college and uni teams into the senior section as well.

Time to become a better player or a better team

We did a brief questionnaire with a lot of players with the following 4 questions:

  • What do you want to achieve at training between now and January?
  • What things do you love doing at training?
  • What things do you hate doing at training?
  • What’s one thing you would change about training?

Which has helped us get some good ideas as to how we plan out our content over the next few months. A lot of the ‘achieve’ responses have been around a skill the player wants to develop, but some are even simpler, including a “learn all the rules of rugby.” I don’t have the heart to tell them just how many laws there are!

It might be different for your team, but for the girls teams we’re coaching, we worked hard and got a lot of luck in our first couple of years so we got to a large number of players quite quickly but were generally outmatched by the teams around us because they were more experienced. Additionally, over the years new players have come in at various different stages and so we have some players who have played a long time and others who are quite new. This four-month period between September and December has essentially given us a chance to get really good at rugby in a way that we wouldn’t normally be able to. We’ve discussed this with our team so that there’s a shared understanding around this – we acknowledged that it sucks that there are no fixtures but that the opportunity to learn and improve ahead of fixtures returning is one that we should commit to and then when fixtures do return, we’ll be in a lot better position than we are right now.

I can’t say for sure that it’s working yet, but our numbers have been consistent so far at approximately the same level as last year. We’ve also had a chance to work on things we wouldn’t normally have spent any time on in a regular season, including things like running technique and speed development.

But bad weather/football…

Some coaches are quite rightly asking what will happen if we get to November and it’s chucking it down – how are we going to keep people training then? They’re right that numbers will drop, although I will point out that pretty much every team loses players in the cold months even when there are fixtures! What’s interesting about this time around is that if the weather is truly abysmal, there’s a lot less pressure to run the session regardless. If you’ve got a crunch league game coming up but there’s standing water, it can feel bad to cancel your session. Since there’s no game, the opportunity cost of cancelling any given session is a lot lower.

And then there’s the fact that football is back and playing competitive games and how can we compete? Hopefully some of the ideas above, plus a load of other ideas that other coaches are putting into place will help to mitigate some of this. I think the doom and gloom can be overdone – there are going to be a lot of rugby players who have little-to-no interest in football, but there will definitely be some players lost to football for this season, and possibly beyond.

The challenge for rugby is therefore how we use the opportunity of non-contact formats to get new players engaged in the game. The women’s game has grown over the past few years because there are plenty of opportunities to get involved as a new player. Much of the men’s game, in my experience, is a lot more closed off – most teams run training that isn’t suitable for new players, and this can even happen as young as U14/15 for boys rugby. When a new player arrives at an older age, they have a lot of skills to learn, but because of the way a season operates, we tend to be rushed towards a game quite quickly. It then becomes a sink or swim scenario – the coaches don’t have enough time to dedicate to the teaching of one new player all the skills they require because there are a lot of other things demanding their attention.

A new player might only have a handful of training sessions by the time they get to their first game and that tends to be the lucky ones! I’ve seen brand new players turn up, be entered into the lowest team possible on a Saturday, get stuck out on the wing and have a terrible game because they have no idea what’s going on. Most of them don’t last. The three months between now and January is a prime opportunity to recruit and teach brand new players how to play the game – including building all the skills they need. The opportunity is that a lot of players who haven’t taken up the game because they have unfounded fears around the contact situation now have a chance to play and be introduced to these more difficult elements in a gradual fashion.

These are some of the things that we’re trying to do – what have you guys been trying? What’s working and what’s not? I’m planning on doing an update post to this one, maybe in  a month’s time so that I can feed back on some of the results of these strategies/initiatives.

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