By Kimber Rozier, CSCS, Pn1 – The beginning of fall brings not only cooler weather but also the excitement of a new college rugby season.  There is something special about seeing old friends and meeting new ones while pulling on your rugby cleats and taking the pitch again after a long summer break.

It’s hard to find a place where this sentiment rings truer than your local college club team.  But there are challenges ahead.  Recruitment festivals amongst thousands of your peers often find teams pandering to anyone who has played any sport ever to come try this new, crazy, sport. The best one on the planet.

But how do you start that new season? How do you convince a guy who’s never heard the word ‘scrum’ to squish his face next to his teammates sweaty legs? How do teach a girl who has never played a contact sport to tackle safely? And how do you do all of this with limited resources AND still keep your collegiate all-americans challenged at training?

It’s the catch-22 of non-varsity club rugby. Often teams have volunteer coaches or even player coaches. Field times and spaces are limited. Equipment is sparse and numbers vary throughout the season. Some practices you may have a full pitch with 40 players. Others you’re sharing the field with intramural soccer and have 5 all-stars show up along with your 10 new players.

I caught up a few collegiate head coaches as well as drew on my own coaching/playing experience to come up with some ‘expert advice’ for how to successfully organize your training sessions.

At the Start of the Season…

Everyone, regardless of their skill level or experience, is likely coming off a period of no games or non-contact. Even if they’ve played 7s over the summer, the demands of the 15s game differ, so it’s a great time to introduce (or re-introduce) the basic skills of contact. You can manage this by following a ‘return to contact’ plan.

Beginning with basic walking tackling from the knees, you can emphasize safe tackling technique as well as absorbing the contact. Make sure to identify key safety areas – cheek to cheek, same leg, same shoulder, and falling properly as you’re getting tackled.

This is especially pertinent for players who are new to tackling (even football guys, who are learning rugby tackling for the first time), but it can also serve as a great reminder for your more experienced players. Pair high level players to with less experienced athletes, as to facilitate team bonding early on and allow for peer-to-peer feedback.

Another basic skill that everyone can always work on (even the All Blacks do it) is basic handling. Getting back to the basics of any skill can accentuate ability to execute under pressure as well as provide a teaching moment for newbies.

Emphasis on hand position, following through to the target and basic communication under controlled passing drills can work wonders in the first few sessions.

Take the time to go over the basics of the pass with all players – again having more experienced athletes pair with the newer ones. As there’s no better way to learn something than to teach it, we use a lot of player coaching with our athletes. Having a skilled model for execution helps the learning process for brand new skills. Make sure that a head coach or two is traveling around to make sure feedback is both positive and high quality.

Finally, make sure to run very basic, small sided games to practice these new skills under pressure.

Utilize the presumed prior athletic experience of your new players – soccer players might have great foot skills, a football player a side step or fend, and you may find your new speedster in a track star.

Playing basic games like ultimate rugby or modified 5v3 touch can help bring the fun of playing back in a primarily skills-focused session. Changing the “rules” of these games to focus on a certain area often helps – try limiting the number of passes per phase or awarding points to the defense for a turnover.

Assuming you have a few weeks of practice before the first match, there’s no need to go through complicated game plans, full on set pieces, or starter moves quite yet.

Moving Forward Through the Season

As the season progresses, skills are going to continue to be paramount. You can’t play rugby without being able to catch, pass, or tackle. But now is when you can move into a more ‘rugby style’ structure and really let your athletes shine. Of course, the point of a competitive season is to win the games on the weekends. So this is where you work within your game day combinations in practices.

Have the starters run against the reserves, for example. Or if you’re lucky enough to have multiple coaches, split training into groups. One coach can take a group and work on the skills of the contact area, while another coach works on executing the first three phases off of a set piece.

Grouping athletes based on skill level rather than position here allows for detailed focus in newer players, as well as time for questions at each station. And then your starting side can just polish things up. As everyone learns at a different rate, players can move around between groups and eventually you may be able to transition into backs/forwards, kickers, back three, tight five, or whatever other group identifiers are available.

Assuming it’s just the one coach with ~40 players, you may need to spend extra time identifying those that need a bit of catching up. Or maybe you have brand new players join mid-season.

In this instance, you can take one practice per week and have your really skilled athletes work with these players on the side, while you as a coach run practice. I only recommend doing this once per week (or even outside of training) as you will need your high level players to run together before matches. The hope is, however, that you’ve taken the needed time with the basic progressions to avoid this issue.

Plan Practice Ahead of Time

It’s been said that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. The worst mistake I see newer coaches making is ‘just winging it’ at training. Try and gauge numbers ahead of time. Talk to your captains and send out a practice preview, if possible. Let the athletes know what to expect so that they can come to you ahead of time with issues. There’s nothing worse than planning a contact-focused training session to show up and no one is cleared for contact.

To simplify, you may want to plan small-sided games with the ability to expand or subtract grids. This way you can easily add another group if needed. If you want to run with full-team patterns, you could break the game down into parts.

For example is you’re working on attacking off of a lineout, you could start with just the lineout. Then work into adding a strike point off of that where the backs are involved, and then progress into a 15-a-side attack where the backs continue a phase, etc.

In this format, you allow for questions at each section of play (do I go into this breakdown? Where do I realign? Are we throwing to the back or the front?) as well as become more flexible. With lower numbers, you can just focus on one or two pieces, and with really high numbers and one coach, it allows for a scrimmage-type setting.

Regardless of how you run training, make sure to set a clear outcome for training and go from there.

For example, your outcome could be ‘ball retention in the breakdown.’ Each drill/skill should align with that goal throughout the session, and you should be able to identify process parameters along the way.

In this case, it could be getting beyond the ball as a rucker, ball placement in the tackle, or resourcing numbers to a breakdown. That way, you can design drills with a specific focus in mind rather than just hope for the best. It’s important to clarify how you want the team to play, what types of athletes you have, and what your strengths/areas of improvement will be as soon as possible, adjusting as the season progresses.

Overall Recommendations

Running a new team requires one to be a bit comfortable with chaos, but the more planning you can do ahead of time, the better. It can help to break teams into practice squads or pairs so people have an accountabili-buddy. Pair the tight five with your starting prop and the midfield with your senior flyhalf. They’ll reach out to each other for questions, provide feedback, and just make sure everyone is attending training.

Need help identifying positions? Do a little chalk talk about what position does what and allow them to self-select. Sure, they may end up moving around, but this allows for autonomy in a sport that they know nothing about. It also helps you identify where players think their strengths are, their temperament, and it allows you to focus on just coaching. Streamlining communication through captains or a leadership team can not only help you manage the mess, but it also fosters community and trust within the players.

Most importantly – remember that this is college rugby and school/life comes first. Rugby should be a place of community where stress is relieved, not a place where athletes are scared to make a mistake. Of course, winning is fun, but being able to take away the love of the game should add to that pretty little diploma. Be a role model for your athletes on and off of the field, and you should do just fine.

Are you a rugby coach?  Leave what works well for you in the comments below.

Kimber Rozier is a NSCA certified strength and conditioning specialist and Precision Nutrition nutritionist who holds dual Bachelor’s degrees in Exercise and Sport Science and Spanish from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She spends her time traveling the world as an international rugby player for the USA and her career in 7s and 15s has taken her to places such as Hong Kong, Paris, London, and Dubai. She earned a bronze medal in the 7s World Cup in Moscow and played fly half for the squad throughout 15s 2014 Rugby World Cup in Paris. Kimber has recently played overseas in Ireland, furthering her career with Railway Union and as an athlete with Scion Rugby Academy out of Washington, D.C.  She is currently training with Harlequins in England.