Playing against more skilled players

The Fijians doing what they do best. Dazzling spectators and confusing opponents.

When you are playing against more skilled players it is often difficult trying to find ways to contain them and to put points on the board. The small island nation of Fiji is renowned for its seemingly superhuman abilities in terms of creativity and skill on a rugby field.

This all comes from having a huge love for the game and making the most of the limited resources they have available. They learn from a young age to be very creative in their play as they regularly play and train in small areas and their only equipment is a ball.

This is however not a look at the amazing skills of the Fijians, but a look at how you beat teams that have an obvious advantage as they have.

The coach, players and especially captain needs to identify their opponent’s strengths

How to figure out what you are up against

If the opponents are known to you and you have access to video on them, that is a huge advantage. That is however not the case for the vast majority of coaches and teams.

The only place you can make an assessment is when you are watching an opposition team in action. The main responsibility around this lies with the coach. When it comes to game time it is not there just for his entertainment.

He needs to be concentrating the whole time. The search must be endless to find strengths and weaknesses in opponents.

These should also not be general, but as specific as possible. For example:

  • the back three of the opposition are never in place
  • their inside center is the main playmaker and he has the 13 and 15 running at speed off his shoulders

What should you do with this information?

When you have identified these strengths and weaknesses you need to make your team aware of it as soon as possible. The players need to be in the habit of getting information from you.

This must either be through an assistant running the lines and passing on the information or by the players regularly coming over to the bench for information.

This might not always be easy to do during a game, but can be managed during stoppages.

The key players and decision-makers in your team need to get into the habit of checking in with you regularly. Not only during half-time as that might then already be too late.

The most common approaches to dealing with more skilled players

The most common approach to counter the skills of another team is to do the opposite of what they are doing. If they are playing quickly, try and slow down play at every phase. If they have big runners, starve the big runners of possession. If they have a number of quick players, take away their space.

The second approach is to focus intently on all of the basics of what you have learned. If you ensure that you make your kicks into touch, secure your lineouts, run good defensive lines… you will often get yourself into a position where the game will stay close and you might just sneak the win with a moment of brilliance.

Relying on the second approach is however a big gamble. Taking the first approach ensures that you have a real say in the potential outcome of the game.