The adage goes that possession is nine tenths of the law. In rugby, possession is even more important than that. It’s incredibly hard to score a Try if you don’t have the rugby ball. Today, we examine several exercises that can help you become better at winning breakdown possession. Some teams are scoring as many as 40% of their points from breakdown turnovers. So mastering breakdown poaching should be a focus area for individual rugby training in 2017.
How important is possession in rugby?
Even the best teams in the world struggle to win games convincingly when they’re turning over the ball to the opposition. While it’s hard to imagine right now, during the 2015 RWC there were serious doubts being expressed about the All Blacks’ ability to retain possession for long enough to score points. So much so that stuff.co.nz were forced to put out this piece explaining that the All Blacks, despite their success in the round games, were losing a whopping 20 turnovers per game in the lead up to the world cup final against Australia. 20 turnovers per game!! To clarify, that doesn’t include kicking for touch, or dropping the ball or missing a drop goal. That’s just a reflection of possession lost at scrums, lineouts and most critically at the breakdown.
Points from turnovers
The breakdown in rugby used to be a pretty messy affair. People coming in from all directions, nobody sure of where the defensive line or the infamous “gate” really was. But in the past five years or so referees have gotten better at policing the breakdown. Requirements on the tackler to release and show daylight in order to attack the ball carrier have certainly helped with this. But the real difference it has made is to the defensive line as a whole. With the breakdown being more strictly policed, fewer players from the defending team are committing to the breakdown than they were in years gone by. This makes defensive lines both longer and stronger. In many instances, the defensive side will often have a numerical advantage over the opposition.
It’s this numerical advantage that makes turnovers so important. In the past, because defensive lines were stretched thin, when the defending team won a turnover, the first instinct was to kick away that newly regained possession to relieve pressure. Now, with the defending team often having an overlap, the #1 priority after a turnover is to shift the ball wide to exploit weaknesses. This new paradigm has resulted in a massive number of points being scored from turnovers in modern rugby. Looking at stats from the 2015 Super Rugby season, you’ll notice that three team in particular are scoring well above one quarter of their total points from turnovers. The Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes. With the Crusaders getting a massive 30% of their points from stolen ball. This isn’t necessarily because they’re winning more turnovers (in fact this has declined slightly) but because when they win a turnover, they often have an overlap. If you include kick returns as a turnover, the Crusaders would be at almost 50% of total points scored from turnovers.
Winning breakdown possession
With up to a third of points coming from turnovers, it’s fair to say that stealing the ball at the breakdown or “poaching” is an incredibly valuable skill that can turn a game. But note that those steals need to be clean. While many of the top players will win penalties at the breakdown by staying on their feet and competing for the ball, winning a penalty is not as likely to result in points for your team as a clean steal with the opportunity to counter-attack. So it’s important that rugby players, especially the loose forward trio and hooker, practice breakdown poaching in order to regain possession. Unfortunately, this is a difficult skill to work without a group of training partners. We should take a moment here to give the boys from Milwaukee Rugby a shoutout. Their Pocock Drill - which we’ll be covering in another article this month - is a great example of the kind of training you can do in a group even if you’re snowed in for the winter.
BREAKDOWN POACHING EXERCISES
Today though, we’re going to cover three exercises that you can do on your own, in order to improve your breakdown poaching. The three exercises cover the three physical attributes most important for winning a breakdown turnover.
1. Body Position - weighted crawl
Start on your hands and knees with a 45lb plate to one side. Shift the plate onto the center of your back and rise into a scrumming position with the plate balanced between your shoulder blades. Walk forward in this position. For beginners, always maintain three points of contact with the ground. For more advanced athletes, move your opposite hand and foot simultaneously, then switch.
Reps: 20-40 seconds total
Rest: 2x working time
If you’re finding this too easy, the best was supersize this breakdown workout is by making it omni-directional. Instead of just walking forwards in your scrumming position, change it up by going backwards, side to side and in a circle.
2. Lower Body Power - short prowler drives
Loaded prowlers and sleds make lower-body conditioning for rugby super-simple. In this exercise, you’ll use a very light prowler, to start with you may want keep the prowler un-weighted. The focus of this exercise is on lower body power. Do not overuse your arms to initiate the push. This should come from your lower legs and extend upwards through your quads and then finish with your hands. If you’re struggling to begin the push with your lower legs, try taking some weight off the prowler.
Rest: 2x working time
It’s hard to make this workout omni-directional. So instead, the best method for supersizing is to double-up your outputs. Instead of doing 6 sets of 6 reps, try just 4 sets of 4 double reps. For each double rep, perform your first prowler drive, reposition your feet quickly, drop your hips and drive again. Keep the time between reps as short as possible while still maintaining correct body position with low hips. Take a slightly longer rest between double rep sets.
3. Resistance to Impact - constant tension squats
Attacking players will often have the breakdown area to themselves. Getting there quickly by running a good line is the best way to achieve this. It means you can often secure the ball without a contest at all. But as a defender, it’s fairly safe to assume that you’re going to encounter some resistance to your poaching. Usually in the form of some big Lock smashing into you as you crouch down over the ball. While we can’t replicate that impact in the gym, we can train for the resistance to impact using a constant tension squat. CTS is a squat variation that doesn’t allow you to rest at either end of the repetition. Compare this to the box squat for example, demonstrated here by Ohio Aviators Winger (yes, Winger!) Spike Davis - notice that there is a considerable pause at both the top and bottom of each (fucking impressive) rep. A constant tension squat is exactly the opposite, you’re going to stop short of the top or the bottom of your standard range of motion and continue moving the bar at all times.
This kind of squat, at a lower weight, is an excellent way to replicate what happens in either a scrum or a breakdown, when you receive tension from the opposition and need to overcome it quickly using your lower body. The constant-tension squat, she’s a doozie.
Rest: 2x working time
Again, this exercise is pretty linear, so don’t start throwing in a 180 degree squat jump turn between reps just for the hell of it. Instead, make it harder by pausing at the bottom of each repetition for several seconds. This is a popular exercise used by forwards coaches in Northern Hemisphere for building scrummaging strength. If you can pause for 3 seconds between reps and still knock out 6 of 12, it’s time to up the weight.
BREAKDOWN POACHING EXERCISES (Video)