Tom May had a 17 year professional career and has played for Richmond, Newcastle Falcons, Toulon, Northampton and London Welsh. During that time he has played a lot of rugby in the back three and here he offers his unique view on the most important skills that 11, 14 and 15 have to work on.
Clearly, players within the back three positions need to develop their speed and footwork. Some of the most exciting players to watch in the game today play in the back three. Focus on developing your skills in beating a man one on one. It's a hard thing to do but if you can do it, it will make your job easier and the team function better.
Ways to improve
If you have use of a ladder then you can work on your footwork patterns within it to improve your foot speed. A ladder isn't 100% necessary though as really all you need is some space and a partner.
Start working within the space between the touchline and the 15m line. You don't have to have a run up for this.
- Player 1 starts with the ball on the 15m line and passes it to Player 2, who is on the touchline.
- When Player 2 catches it, Player 1 is then a live defender (only touch at this stage!).
- Player 2 has to beat Player 1 with his footwork. The defender needs to place two hands on the attacker to win the contest!
Develop this further once you have become better at doing it by allowing P1 to vary the passes (high, low, along the ground etc) and being able to move towards P2 before he has caught the ball, thus cutting down his time and space.
I've seen many wingers that can't finish a 3 v 2 and don't have the ability to pass off both hands. This is largely down to the fact that they don't feel they need to be as good at those skills as some of the other backs and also because they never put themselves in those positions.
If you watch the best modern day back three players – Mike Brown or Stuart Hogg for example – they find themselves in so many different attacking situations all over the field, especially as a first receiver. This means you need to be able to make decisions and then execute the required skills.
Ways to improve:
I strongly advise players to swap positions during training, exposing themselves to different scenarios within the same drill.
E.g. the role of the first receiver in a 3 v 2 drill is far different to that of the player at the end of the attacking line.
Get used to the different roles.
Become good at completing the 3 v 2 and 4 v 3 handling drills in all positions and learn the lines that different players need to run to break down a defence which is numbered up.
Become good at your ruck completion in wide rucks
The easiest ruck from which to turn over and steal the ball is a wide ruck, so wingers and full backs have big roles in these areas.
Ways to improve
Attacker 1 is tackled in a one on one situation, leaving the attacker slightly exposed, as he would be in the wider channels.
If there is an opportunity where the defender feels that the supporting attackers are slower to the breakdown than they should be, then a second defender should come into the ruck from a low to high position and work his way through.
Making yourself as much of a nuisance as possible in these wide situations is the name of the game here. If you can get your feet through to the ball and kick it out of the ruck then do so.
Stand on the ball and make it hard for the attack to get it out of the ruck and into play again. The work on here is finding the right time to do this. If the attack have made a good job of getting numbers to the breakdown then get yourself back into defensive positions behind or at the end of the defensive line.
If they have left the ruck under-resourced then you should do your utmost to get through to the ball. Disrupting the quality of the ball for the opposition is the aim.
From an attacking perspective, we need to make sure that we get the right numbers to the breakdown or the opposition will try to do the same to us.
Aim to get at least three attackers into those wide breakdowns. The first man arriving after the player has been tackled removes the first threat to the ball, the second should make a decision: is there anyone else looking to try and make a mess of our ball? If so, make him the next focus.
Clear the ruck but don't go beyond the ball, which would leave a space in behind you for the opposition to take. One step over the ruck in a balanced position should be enough.
Add a third man to secure the situation if required but, if not, get the ball away from the ruck and on the move again.
Develop your ability to catch balls in the air
We've all seen Mike Brown and Rob Kearney taking high balls in both attack and defence. Kicking is now such a threat in both areas of the game that a lot of time needs to be devoted to effectively claiming catches.
Ways to improve
The first thing to say when going into catching the high ball is your focus has to be 100% on the ball, nothing else.
Time your run to meet the ball as it comes down so that when you make your jump it is at the correct time.
- Practise taking off from each foot.
- Spring up with your hands in front of your face, watching the ball all the time
-Lead with the non-jumping knee.
This is not using it in an illegal way but the knee will provide protection for you as you jump, stability in the air and also helps keep anyone else challenging for the ball farther away.
Keep your hands high for as long as possible so that you always have sight of where the ball is going to end up. Of course you will catch it! Once you have caught it and you have landed, look for space and support. If you are tackled straight away, fight to get a good body position that will allow you to place the ball nicely for supporting players to then play the ball.
Don't become trapped in the outside channels
Gone are the days where wingers stood on the end of the attacking line and finished off tries in the corner.
Your role has developed and any member of the back three needs to be able to add another line of attack to the front-line options. Be a threat out the back of the centres that the defenders need to be worried about.
Appear in unexpected positions as you will add numbers to an attacking unit that could make it a simple 3 v 2 drill to score a try.
Ways to improve
Your fitness levels need to be high to do all that running so make sure that you are capable of dealing with the requirements of playing this way.
Some of the drills that are included in other training articles on this site will help with this.
And finally, the Golden Rule…
…don't run into touch! The defensive team will be using the touchline as a defender and trying to get you into touch to turn the ball over. Fight to stay on the pitch whatever it takes. You need to recognise when the attack is heading across the field and cut angles inside to keep the attack going.
For more position-specific advice, visit our Coaching section