Insights into the basketball star's methods covered in Netflix's The Last Dance generate some interesting views on micro-skills and analysis in rugby
Where rugby defences and Dennis Rodman converge
IT CUTS so quick in the edit that it feels like Dennis Rodman is picking up pace as he describes his bewitching ability to collect rebounds on the basketball court.
“I’d just sit there and react, react,” Rodman says in one episode of The Last Dance, a Netflix documentary series chronicling the exploits of the powerhouse Chicago Bulls side of the Nineties, a team led by the irrepressible Michael Jordan. In the latter stretch of the team’s run they had Rodman – a colourful character whose antics belied an athlete who made a science of reading the flight of the ball and traumatising attackers.
Explaining how he honed his instincts, Rodman explains that he would get friends to throw ball after ball at the backboard, from different positions. He adds: “I just practised a lot about the angle of the ball and the trajectory of it. You got a Larry Bird, it’s gonna spin. You got a Magic (Johnson), it’ll maybe spin. When Michael (Jordan) shoot over here, I position myself right there.
“Now it hit the rim, it’s boom. Click, go back this way” – as jerking hand movements come in – “Boom, here, here. Click, go that way. Boom, that way. Click here, this way. So basically I just start learning how to put myself in a position to get the ball.”
There is an art to being in the right place at the right time. Do it in attack in any sport and you are painted the hero. But do so in defence – especially in rugby – and nuance can be lost; the artistry missed.
See a walloping hit, a timely rip, a much-needed turnover and often we ignore the steps preceding the incident. Defence can be a savage dance, but we often only laud the last brutal movement.
On the court, Bulls coach Phil Jackson found the maniac he could trust, writing of Rodman in his book Eleven Rings that: “Dennis played the game with such wild enthusiasm that he soon became a fan favourite. People loved to watch him hustle for loose balls and pull down rebounds to ignite fast breaks.”
In rugby, there are plenty of untamed characters prowling along defensive lines.
“Jacques Burger was obviously known for the big hits and the venom in his tackles,” ex-Scotland and Saracens flanker Kelly Brown says of his former team-mate. “And that was a big part of it because he was very aggressive in the contact. But a lot of it was down to his anticipation. He knew where to get to in the defensive line so it would give him a chance to make these hits.
“His timing in the collision was very, very good. You get someone like Jonny Wilkinson, for example – he is not a big man, but he could smash people and a lot of it is down to timing.
“The power in the collision comes from your feet, through your legs, up the body and that essentially explodes out of your shoulder. Now, to get as much force into a collision as possible, that’s all got to be synced up. That’s where Jacques was very good.
“I guess it’s just practice.”
Related: How Jacques Burger stopped Clermont
The Saracens academy coach mentions that Burger also rarely missed tackles, but according to the man himself, speaking from his farm in Windhoek, he missed plenty when he was working his way up the game.
“I made a lot of mistakes defensively because I was a big man-watcher,” Burger explains. “I had my target fixed and so I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning. You make a lot of big hits too, but you make a lot of mistakes when you man-watch constantly.
“If you are man-watching and you see what’s in front of you and it’s that one guy who looks like he is going to get the ball and you decide ‘that’s the guy, I’m going to hit him,’ you get off the line. But when you see that ball goes behind him or the play doesn’t go as expected, you often find yourself in a bad position.
“So when you go round the corner, scan, look up and see what’s in front of you. But look at the whole picture, you know. Look where the ball is, the spacing between the next guy and see how many attackers are in front of you, where the touchline is, if you should hold or press hard if you have numbers.
“My blessing at Saracens though was that I had freedom. I knew that if I did make a mistake and I made it big, that was fine. Obviously I didn’t want to make a mistake but someone was always on the inside or outside, covering. The coaches gave me that freedom – I wasn’t s*** upon. Paul Gustard especially said, ‘Go out there and if you can make a big hit, great, that means a lot for us. Don’t sit in your box, don’t be tidy and try to stay within the system, go and try hit somebody.’”
Burger remembers a time of feeling relatively small. So initially he began throwing himself in low, to chop – though interestingly, he says his generation were not taught well to hit legs, so there was a lot of figuring out the skills further down the line.
He says he was also not confident in his younger years. As he got bigger and stronger, he backed himself more. He adds that timing is not something everyone has, it’s like a good punch, and his feel for it came from repetition and sometimes just simple, ever-so-slightly-slower one-on-one work with a team-mate in a tackle suit. It took reps.
Over in Ulster, forwards coach Roddy Grant has devoured the Chicago Bulls documentaries. And as he considers the value of chopping your feet to get in the right place, both in the tackle and at the breakdown, he considers examples from other sports too.
He explains: “I’m a firm believer that you’ve got to be able to move a certain way to do something technically well. So there’s a big emphasis on movement stuff and flexibility.
“That obviously links in with S&C stuff, but as as an example, look at Conor McGregor. He’s believes in being able to move a certain way to throw certain kicks or punches. And there’s Vasyl Lomachenko in boxing. His footwork is incredible. Everyone says, ‘Yeah, he’s incredible, he cuts these angles and he’s the best pound-for-pound boxer.’ It’s because he’s able to do it with his footwork. So I think that’s an area that’s overlooked a lot.”
But if we rewind to Burger’s point about one rogue force within a rigid structure, you can see why that can cause carnage. Oftentimes brilliant structure can create opportunities for anyone to make a devastating play.
He does not delve into any of the Springboks tactics that saw South Africa defeat England in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final, but speaking in broader terms, Boks assistant coach Felix Jones highlights ways to give any side an edge in defence.
“There’s a huge bit on awareness of spacing,” he tells Rugby World over a video call. “That’s a massive thing, or actually getting numbers on feet. So, somebody might applaud a big read Cheslin Kolbe makes on the outside or a Makazole Mapimpi or Lukhanyo Am, where they make this big read from 30 or 40m away – one of those ones where he’s got huge line speed and the pass is in the air and he takes the guy ball-and-all. Everyone goes ‘Ooh, massive hit!’
“The thing is, nobody would have seen the effort, let’s say 20 to 30m away at the breakdown, where Pieter-Steph du Toit or Siya Kolisi or Francois Louw made the tackle, got themselves out of the tackle, recycled back into the defensive line and got two extra feet in their width. So if you think of a Steven Kitshoff or a Frans Malherbe, they’ll never be able to make that giant read on the outside because they don’t have that speed. They don’t have that agility. They don’t have that ability.
“What they do have is the ability to win the collision previous. They have the ability to roll out of that, run back into the line and give themselves two feet. It might only be that much (holding his hands shoulder-width apart). But by them giving that much the next person could take that much the next person could take that much (hands grow wider and wider apart). And although they think they’ve only gone two feet, the knock on effect, the domino effect, is that Cheslin gets an extra 15m of width.
“Now instead of pressure he can actually see everything because he has all the width.”
As Jones explains, if anyone just lies there the line tightens up and the outside men no longer have full-field vision – and what’s worse, if they miss their tackle, they leave strides of space for a speedster to exploit.
Asked about studying, Burger says he was not as good at individual analysis as many others, but that team analysts fed him invaluable snippets that informed his approach. As for scanning, Burger feels his ability to read unfolding play strengthened over time as he got more minutes against the best sides.
Jones tells of one-on-ones during his playing days with Munster under coach Rob Penney, who used to start showing a clip of a game, and as play unfurled he would pause the clip and ask: what happens in the next 20 seconds?
The idea was to work on recognising patterns, reading the field, picking up on cues.
You get a flash of Rodman in The Last Dance, sitting on a folding steel chair, eyes fixed on a tiny television, doing his own rudimentary analysis, Nineties style. Jones sees a correlation for full-backs searching for where to run next.
“This will probably fit in nicely with your piece on Rodman,” Jones assures us. “The level of analysis in rugby in the last five to ten years has gone through the roof. So those guys are now looking for cues from opposition players.
“Leigh Halfpenny could be looking at what exactly Johnny Sexton is doing you know, what are his tendencies in attack? Where are his eyes going? What’s his tendency after they get on the front foot? What’s his tendency after they lose momentum?
“There are certain cues that some players give away, even unconsciously. Sometimes they know they’re giving it away, but they back their skills to beat you there, with speed or whatever.
“So there’s definitely a huge amount of analysis and also in terms of opposition team’s trends. There’s also the coach’s philosophy that you could probably pick up – that they want to bang one up the middle and then move it straight to the edge or if they want to go from edge to edge. If you know that’s the philosophy of the team, it gives you a second or two. And for the guys at the elite level, two seconds… I mean Cheslin Kolbe, Halfpenny, or Anthony Watson or Jonny May, in two seconds they can cover nearly 30m.
“So one second is massive, if you can give away a cue, or you can use your analysis, it’s a big, big advantage.”
The very elite teams can have four angles of footage for their analysis, which helps with learning opposition cues. Of course then there is what Jones describes as a game of “bluffing” from attackers.
He sees Finn Russell as the current world No 1 for bluffing in attack – selling one play with his eyes and then opting for another. “It’s almost a game within a game,” Jones adds, “and a lot of the best full-backs in the world will be watching the ten. And that’s why a lot of tens are good full-backs and vice versa.”
As with Rodman’s analysis and the full-back’s studying, young goalkeepers are also said to assess attacker’s cues. It pays to be able to read your enemies.
Of course, it also helps to be in full control of your own physical faculties.
Burger says that the difference between the good and great is the ability to make snap decisions; settle on a technique. In the closing stages of his career he felt he was opting to use his left shoulder more as injury trouble meant he struggled to hit or wrap with his right. But before then he had built up “muscle memory” from being in certain positions often enough. In Ulster, Grant appreciates that you cannot drill everything on the paddock, but you need to work and work – this is why at the best organisations, coaches work closely with the S&C, medical and support staff when approaching skill acquisition.
Asked a few seasons back, while at Bristol, what his approach was to passing on breakdown expertise, Wallaby great George Smith said: “My theory is you need to know where the ball is, then your body will react to that. If the ball is on the left-hand side, your body will naturally flow to that area. Once you move to that area, it’s about getting your stability or your stance right.
“So if you get your stance right before you know where the ball is, you’ve wasted time doing that. The focus is always the ball, if you’re in a breakdown situation, but once you know where the ball is you can get your footing and your stance right.
“It is a process, but whenever I talk to players about the process, every player’s body make-up is different. I have short legs, long torso. I would have liked it the other way around! And I’m going to be a lot lower than taller guys just through body mechanics.”
As a coach, Brown is not overly fussed about missed tackle statistics, as long as the team are holding shape, working hard and committing to making hits. And with the sledgehammer hitters who come in from a blind spot, they may miss but it could force the attack to play somewhere they had not planned to or, perhaps, they could even get in a ten’s head.
Immediately after the 2014 demolition of Clermont, in which Burger ran riot, victorious fly-half Owen Farrell said: “I’m glad he’s not tackling me. I know if I was playing against him you’d be looking for where he is all the time. You wouldn’t want him hitting you from the blindside. You can tell people know he’s coming.”
At the very elite end, can an ogreish defender spook a playmaker? Maybe no one would ever admit that, but certainly you need an awareness of any potential stick in the spokes.
Looking at things from an attacking perspective, Wallabies fly-half Matt Toomua tells Rugby World: “For me the hardest defenders to beat do all their work before the collision.
“Whether that be with line speed, tracking or predetermining the move. Those players are very hard to break down, even if they don’t make the ‘biggest’ hit.
“Those highlight hits are definitely a combination of the above. A guy like Sam Underhill at the moment has amazing technique, is a good reader and has great intent. Plus, he is physically a great athlete, hence he does well! Trevor Leota or Jerry Collins had so much intent and could read where the collision was going to be, so would unload everything into that spot.
“Then a Conrad Smith or Brian O’Driscoll read the play amazingly and had great technique, but the nature of the space out in that (wider) channel doesn’t encourage as many big collisions as with the tighter lads.
“It’s never an exact science – sometimes it’s chance and other times it’s more.”
It may not be a science but it can be an art. One-off blasts or steals can happen for any player, but the very best, who line them up again and again, put in an awful lot of effort to make that happen. So do their team-mates. And there needs to be a hunger.
Back at the court, Phil Jackson summed up Dennis Rodman in his book by saying: “He was so uninhibited and joyful when he stepped on the floor, like a boy discovering how to fly.”
And in the end, for anyone to be defensively great in any sport, they need to love what they do.
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