We won’t defend to stop the opposition scoring: we’ll defend to force mistakes

Have you ever watched the coach during a game at Priory Park? Have you ever wondered what made them pick the team, what was going through their mind during the game, or been critical of some of the changes they might have made? We’ve all done it at one time of other. Being an armchair coach is easy after all. Being an actual coach is another ball game entirely. The bucks stops with you.

So why would you ever choose to become a rugby coach? Why would you consciously choose to put yourself in the firing line? Well, it’s simple really. It’s all down to having a passion for rugby, and a desire to share your knowledge, experience and enthusiasm with the players. Head Coach, Giles Heagerty, certainly has that passion and desire. But what makes Giles tick? Is his rugby philosophy attack-orientated or defensively-minded? Is he a hands-on, controlling coach, or does he believe in player-autonomy? These were the questions Macclesfield Rugby put to Giles when we met up earlier this week. Here’s what he had to say.

How would you define your rugby philosophy? Is it attack or defensively-orientated?

“I think there are two parts to the way I view the game. The object of the game is to go out and score tries, so you need a solid attack, but without a solid defence you can never guarantee the sort of quality possession that will allow you to go out and score those tries. I suppose my essential philosophy is to play the game in such a way that you force the other team into making mistakes. Once you can achieve that you can them capitalise on those errors and look for scoring opportunities. I spend a lot of time coaching defence, and it’s something I enjoy doing; but I think it’s important not to lose sight of what you’re trying to achieve ultimately – and that’s to score tries.”
“We spent a lot of time last year concentrating on drilling home that message to the players, that is, you’re not defending to stop the opposition scoring, but defending to get the ball back so that you can then start counter-attacking. It’s that philosophy that we’ll be concentrating on again this year. It’s simple logic really when you think that 80 per cent of tries are scored from turnovers in rugby. It’s been that way for at least the last 5 years, and will probably always be the case.”

So if you’re looking to force mistakes do you spend a lot of time concentrating on the break down?

“Well yes we do spend a lot of time focusing on that aspect of the game, and for good reason. The contact area is massive in rugby: it defines how you’re able to play the game. It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing at schoolboy level or international level, the same rules apply – it the contact area isn’t right, then you’ll struggle. We’ve always spent a lot of time concentrating on turnover ball, but I think it’s become increasingly important to concentrate on what you’re trying to achieve at the break down. Because so much goes on in this area now, I think it’s important to encourage the players to approach the breakdown positively, whether they’re defending or attacking. Our philosophy is that we’re not just trying to capitalise on the opposition’s mistakes at the breakdown; we’re trying to force that mistake.”

Does your coaching responsibility end once the payers have crossed the whitewash?

“Well, there’s no easy answer to that. Although I’m a great believer in trying to give the players as much power and responsibility as possible, and although I realise once the payers have taken to the field there’s little you can do to influence the course of the game, I have to admit to being a bit of a control freak. I hate the time between arriving at a game and the kick off, because really it’s wasted time and there’s not a lot more you can do. A lot of coaches will stand up and give a final team talk, but really we all know no-one is listening to it. The only reason we do this really is to make ourselves feel better.”

“My role during the game is to provide effective and relevant information to the players. It’s not always easy to get the balance right, and I have been guilty in the past of trying to provide too much information at times. You have to give the players responsibility, and let them dictate what happens on the field. What I’m trying to say is that your role is to help the players and offer advice, but at the end of the day you have to let them go out there and do their jobs. During the game I don’t like standing in the technical area. I prefer to stand either behind the posts or up high. The reasons for that are twofold: firstly it allows me to get a better view of everything that’s going on, and secondly it allows me to approach my role more objectively. It’s very easy to get carried away by emotion when you’re in the technical area, and that’s does no-one any good. That doesn’t mean I’m not passionate about the game though: there have been times when I’ve got a little carried away and been too critical. But I’ve learnt over the years that my role as a coach is not to motivate the players – they’re more than capable of doing that themselves. My role is to be objective and make positive decisions, and I feel I can achieve this better by taking myself out of the direct firing line. That approach also gives players more autonomy.”

Is analysis of the opposition an important part of your rugby philosophy, or do you prefer to concentrate on your own game?

“It all depends on context. When I’m coaching with England we spend a lot of time concentrating on analysis. We have the time to do that there, and we have the necessary resources and personnel in place to achieve that. I’d love to devote more time to analysis at Macclesfield, but the reality is in semi-professional rugby it makes less sense. We only meet up three times a week, and it’s vital that we use the time we have together as effectively as possible. So we don’t spend too much time concentrating on analysing the opposition: what we do is use video of our own performances to help improve our game, and focus on the areas that need work.”

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