Support involves more than just following ball carriers and getting stuck into rucks. Good support players anticipate and even read the play, assessing opportunities and communicating options / intentions to team mates. They have high workrates that see them get into position early, even if the next play isn’t likely to involve them. By carefully considering width and depth, they also maximise their potential to be useful to the playmaker on the next phase.
Anticipating and proactively moving into areas of opportunity allows a support player to make best use of space. Running unders and overs lines into gaps before or just as the playmaker receives the ball enhances a strike runner’s chances of making a linebreak. Having multiple players in motion causes hesitation and uncertainty even in high level defences. This is especially apparent in Rugby League, where a move can have upwards of three and even four strike runners in motion causing well-drilled defenders to bite on the wrong option and get caught flat-footed. A good playmaker will listen for a call from the player who’s open and read the defence to see where weaknesses lie. If all supporting players hang back and remain passive, defenders can move forward without worry and target tackles behind the gain line.
Supporting players wanting to make an effective strike run must also figure out cues or triggers that tell them when it’s best to start moving, and these can differ depending on the passer / situation. If a team mate has a slow release, then maybe the strike runner will want to start moving later than with someone who’s incredibly effective at catching and passing. The same is true of the person passing to the first receiver; sometimes it’s best to start moving while the ball to the first receiver is in flight, but if that pass is slow, wobbly, off-target, etc., it won’t be transferred as quickly as a crisp and accurate pass. These instances will occur and so other supporters must be aware of how mis-timed strike runs can act as excellent decoys, drawing defenders in and opening up new spaces elsewhere.
When an attacker makes a linebreak, supporting players must flood through the defensive line to maintain continuity. This is called ‘funneling’. It’s a great visual to think ‘get into the funnel’ to angle inwards from a wider position and give the ball carrier close support, either for an offload or in the tackle contest.
At times, it’s wise to chose a support line that angles away from the ball carrier. This might not sound logical, but cross-covering defenders are usually on pursuit line that allows them to move off the initial ball carrier to attackers who continue to run away from them when passes are made. If supporting players have the speed to outrun them, then fair enough, keep running! If cross-covering defenders are likely to chase them down, however, it might be better to split away from the ball carrier, cutting against their line of pursuit to wrong-foot them.
Great teams are in constant communication with each other. It is possibly more important than in any other team sport because of the continuous flow of play, the amount of players that have the potential to interact with one another, and that most will be out of the field of vision of the player holding the ball. It is important that communication be effective and efficient. Too often, players use repetitive chatter that becomes white noise after a while. Young players yelling ‘ballballball!’ is a common one which offers nothing unless the passer has an advanced level of sensory perception to determine exactly where that person is. Instead, players must keep their directions short and specific – single words if possible, monosyllabic ones at best. It might be worth creating a master list of words to use and include them in a ‘playbook’ for every player at the beginning of the season.
As players hone their tactical awareness and ability to work together as functioning units, communication is a vital element in developing cohesion. Reading defences and making decisions can fall upon a few key decision makers. At lower levels, those players will not have much experience and we don’t know where our players will end up in their future careers, so why not involve all players in this process? Supporting players are perfectly positioned to assist in this process because they will not be as focused on the basic alignment and catch / pass aspects as the first receiver, or as pressured by waiting defenders. Clearly-stated information about where they are positioned and what they see in front of them help paint a clearer picture of what’s going on, helping the first receiver make more-informed decisions. Even if the information relayed isn’t the best or if things suddenly change – as they tend to do in rugby – it still helps the decision maker recognise things quicker and it is a positive learning process for all that will only be improved over time. What we don’t want, however, are players dictating play for selfish purposes, so it is important to be aware of this as a coach.