A Tactical Games Approach session in Rugby

One of the main focuses I have for my own teaching and coaching sport development this year is to move away from a more traditional approach that makes skill execution the central aspect of the learning environment, to where the game is the major experience for learning. My experiences of any Games Based Approach is that they all tend to focus on the development of the whole of the child, including the cognitive, social and affective domains, not just the physical. They also provide, in my opinion, a better positive learning experience for most of those involved. However I am not forsaking explicit direct instruction and drill when required to support a pupils or players learning and development, just that now this isn’t my natural default which for many years it has been.

Noughts and Crosses – Tactical Games Approach

This was a session that was run with U15 rugby players, but has been repeated with both U16s and U18s. We had 32 players and around 1.5 hours to run the session. It requires a certain amount of both player knowledge and understanding to implement successfully, especially as we wanted to give more autonomy and choice to them. We also had two coaches to run the session which helped massively with the approach.

The squad was split into two full teams. A captain of each side was appointed. They where then asked to select, in their teams, 4 targets to achieve in a full 15 a side game. These targets had to be based on areas we have looked at in previous coaching sessions or areas from fixtures that required improvement. As coaches we chose one target for them; something we had been recently working on as a team.

Rugby GBP

Coach Target:

  • Score off an S or a P Ball. This is something the Head of Rugby has brought in this year. S and P Ball are the only two set moves we will teach all our players (from U12 to U18). Anyone should be able to call it and others respond to it, be it off line out, scrum or in open play.

Blue Team (Cross) Targets:

  • Score from a kick chase. Kick must be over 10 m, recovered and then the try must come from open play after that.
  • Score from a set piece move – from scrum or line out.
  • 3 to a ruck and clearing out when attacking, over a period of 5 minutes.
  • Wingers to score a try.

Pink Team (Nought) Targets:

  • Retain possession for 5 minutes of game time.
  • No penalties conceded for 5 minutes.
  • Allow no breaks through the fringes of rucks for 5 minutes of game time.
  • Do not let the ball go into a ruck or a maul for 5 minutes of game time.

The object of the session was for each team to achieve three of the targets on the board before the other. If a team managed to meet the target, then they could either mark the board with a cross or nought. The catch was the targets had to be in a line of three, like the rules of noughts and crosses.

The teams then had to choose a primary and secondary target to achieve in the first 10 minutes of play. This meant if either team achieved one of their targets in the first playing session, then they had a second one to work on without stopping the game. Each captain informed the coach that was off the field of their targets. This coach then watched, timed and made notes to see if either team achieved their targets. I then refereed the game.

Format of session

  • Target Setting and Warm-up
  • 10 minutes game play
  • Reflection session with coach guiding through developmental questions
  • 10 minutes game play
  • 10 minutes Drill/practice/modified games
  • 10 minutes game play
  • Reflection session with coach guiding through developmental questions – primary and secondary targets changed if not achieved by now
  • 10 minutes game play
  • 10 minutes Drill/practice/modified games
  • 10 minutes game play
  • Reflection, conclusion and cool down

Reflection sessions

With players choosing the targets to achieve within the game, it naturally gives the the reflection sessions a clear focus. The role of the coach is, through developmental questioning, to guide the team discussion and get them to solve the problems being faced and implement their own solutions. Each of the coaches led a session with each team.

In the first break I was with the pink team. Their primary target was to not to allow any breaks through the fringes of the rucks for 5 minutes and not to concede any penalties for 5 minutes. They hadn’t achieved either target. We allowed the captains of the team and others to have their say, trying to focus their conversation on accurately describing what had been been happening in the game with regards to these two targets. We then, through questioning tried, to get them to solve the problems that were occurring.

Examples of the questions I asked in that first session were:

  • What should you do if a team-mate has made a tackle?
  • What happens if you stay where you are and a team mate moves forward in defence?
  • What happens if you move forward in defence and a team mate stays where they are?
  • How can you individually and collectively ensure the fringes are defended?
  • How can you indicate to others what responsibility you are taking when defending?
  • What will you do to rectify the mistakes made around the fringes of the ruck?

At no time did we offer solutions, or tell the players what to do. After each of the reflection session we put the players back into the game to see if they could implement the solutions they had come up with in a team.

Drill/Practice/Modified Games

This was a coach run session, but the team could choose which target, either primary or secondary they wanted to focus on developing for this session. For the pinks they wanted to focus on no breaks through the fringes, which again they hadn’t achieved in the last play session. For this we played a modified game, 8 v 8, in a small space, with the attackers only allowed a maximum of two passes before taking contact. A point was awarded for a try, and a point was awarded to the defending team if contact was made before the gain line. At times I stopped the game and highlighted where they were successful and where they could improve, with a focus on technique and positioning. I reminded of them of the solutions they came up with in the last reflection session. After 10 minutes they then went back into the game.


At the beginning of the session the players were so focussed on achieving their own targets, they did this to the detriment of playing the game and seeing what the opposition was doing. However this mimicked what they actually do on game day. By the end of the session though they began to try and meet the targets they had set, when and where they were appropriate and exploit what the opposition were doing. An example of this was in the last session, the Blues were working on no breaks through the fringes, so had too many players lined up there. The Pinks recognised this and began to attack wide off rucks, which resulted in some excellent tries being scored. I hope that the more they are exposed to a Tactical Games Approach, the better they will become at picking these things up in a real game.

The main difficulties I feel for this approach were around questioning and subject knowledge. Questioning is a central tenet, not just for a Tactical Games Approach, but any Games Based Approach to teaching sport. The questioning has to be able to generate thinking and dialogue, not just telling the participants what to do. On top of this it has to guide the players to find solutions to the problems they are faced and evaluate how successful they are. Giving more autonomy to the pupils is going to help with their engagement, but giving that choice means that the coach needs to have a deep understanding of the game and be able to flexible with their practices. For myself this is becoming easier in rugby, as my subject knowledge is decent, but I would struggle with this approach say in football or lacrosse.

Whilst this approach is taking me out of my comfort zone, I can see the benefits to developing more active, reflective and inquisitive learners. It is something I will continue to pursue and refine throughout the year. Any feedback would be most welcome.


@SoccerIQ for sharing this idea on twitter for football

Ian Dipper for bringing it to my attention

Sean D’Arcy who blogged about this approach in detail for football






10 thoughts on “A Tactical Games Approach session in Rugby

  1. I love the way that you didn’t offer them solutions. I think that this is important as they had chosen their own targets. I have tried working with Game Sense cards that are specific to the Sport you are learning. So I have used them in Touch Rugby where there is a game sense/ Tactical challenge on each card. This means that you can give them the card and it phrases the Challenge (eg. there are two players on your team that never touch the ball) and the team then rallies to create a possible solution (or many) to plan for this challenge. I might give them 2-3 cards based on my observations of their play and then in their reflection time they sit and work on this together. This has really grown their awareness of what is going on, especially if the game is very new to many students. It also allows me to let them chat before asking them questions – they need knowledge and to let the challenge sink in before they can apply their learning and experience to some solutions. As the coach or referee I see a lot – but I have really learnt that they do not see these things and so I need to explicitly teach them what I am seeing to allow them to focus on the solutions to the problems. Then they will see more problems/challenges with more knowledge and experience.
    I have also found using question starters like the visible thinking routine ones and others online to be particularly useful (print them out have them on hand for students and for you too) to have new ways of phrasing!
    Love the learning, thanks for sharing.


    1. Hi Mel, thanks for sharing your practice with me. A question with regards to the challenge cards, who knows the challenge? Is it every one in one team or both teams? I’ve been using this approach recently, but as ‘Games within Games’ so I might give two players in a team a challenge (5 interceptions wins the game, drop goal wins the game etc.) without letting both the opposition or their team mates know. Obviously if it becomes too easy, then I start telling the opposition. So whilst they have the game challenge/problem to solve there are games for the individual within that. It is making for some interesting lessons….


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