Martial arts have quite a number of fascinating or secret fighting strategies which are made known to the experienced or deserved practitioner.
I’ve highlighted and underlined the word experienced for a reason. The reason being, that these strategies are too advance/complex and neurologically challenging for the novice who have not yet developed sound fundamentals or basic skills. (This is why I have a problem with throwing experienced campaigners out the backdoor and replacing them with early season bolters. Experienced players can be re-conditioned and speed, explosiveness and mobility can be restored with good management and an appropriate training program. My feeling is, assesses the experienced players in terms of injuries and niggles, workload and hunger to play and put him on a recovery program before dumping him on the has-been-heap.)
Back to the story line. From the stage of the novice, the practitioner gradually accumulates experience and eventually develops sound basic fundamental skills. He then returns to the level of the novice namely learning to apply those basic skills in a different context. At the start of training the novice knows not how to strike, block or move. When he’s attacked he responds instinctively but has no strategy and no technique. As he learns to block, punch, kick and move his mind gets captivated by it and though he now has technique he has poor reaction, poor strategy and poor timing; he becomes rigid almost always in two minds what to do. As months and years of training pile up, technique, strategy and posture begins to flow and he develops timing. The mind starts to detach form the training postures as it is now so integrated that he doesn’t have to think about it anymore. It is at this stage that he becomes ready for advanced training –back to the stage of the novice but a novice now with sound fundamentals – which moves him into flow and superior rhythm and timing on attack and defence.
In sport there are three types of openings and it requires a certain relaxed awareness and adaptability to seize upon these opening/opportunities as they arise during the sporting contest.
There are mental openings; set-up openings or opening that result from how the opponent set himself up (set piece, positioning in the backline, line-out); lastly there are openings that manifest during movement (attack or defence).
Regarding openings during movement; there is an opening at the start of any movement (just before the opponent throws a punch or kick); there is an opening during the attack itself and there is an opening at the moment the attack stops.
Experienced fighters can seize on these openings. For instance, just before the attacker launch himself his mind is occupied with what he is going to do; he is pre-occupied, he normally drops his guard and very vulnerable at that precise moment (remember the Owen Franks T-bone tackle on Flip van der Merwe – there is a good example of exactly this vulnerability at the start of an attack). During the attack there are transition moments (from one technique to the next) and skilful deflection of the first strike will always see the attacker of balance and vulnerable for a counter strike just before he throws his next punch or when he tries to re-group and/pulls out of the attack (the second try by the All Blacks in the second tri-nations test played in Wellington in 2010 is good example of this in rugby. The Springboks started a movement; the ball carrier got tackled before he could set-up play; the balls spilled lose; Weepu picked up, he runs through a Springbok defensive line in tatters; he passes to Mills who scores – see here).
Skilful fighters can also ride a series of punches and then launch a counter at the moment the attack stops. The attacker is vulnerable at the moment his attacks break down because he over extended himself, is off balance, or is mentally busy analysing what just happened (the cheetahs are particularly good at this. They often score by launching quick counter attacks the moment the opponents attack breaks down. Wales also use this method; they have a drifting defence and will drift/ride the attack until it breaks down and then in a blink of an eye the ball goes wide at speed. The French won a two test series against the All Blacks in 1996 in New Zealand with this method).
Rigid attachment to a pre-conceived strategy/game plan almost always sees these opening/opportunities go by the way side. No matter how one may master techniques in training, if the mind becomes attached you cannot see the opportunities that emerge during the contest. It is therefore important to move in training beyond practicing set moves and structured technique training. What is required is training sessions that enforce flow, improve timing and rhythm on attack and on defence. It is not something that can be explained; it is almost sensory in nature; it’s a feeling for timing, space, depth and rhythm that the player develops through prolonged exposure to the competitive environment. You cannot master it if you don’t have sound fundamental skills. This is hard to accomplish in individual sports and even harder in team sports and this is why developing combinations is so important in a team sport like rugby. It is the next level and is the reason why it takes most athletes 10 years of competing at the highest level to reach super star status.
Now let’s look at some other strategies and how it relates to mental openings, set-up openings and openings in movement with specific referring to to some of the S15 teams.
Dominating the floor
You can totally dominate a fight using body movement without throwing a punch or kick at all. It’s all about how you use your upper body for instance leaning forward presenting a target and then leaning backward the moment the opponent attacks. You can dominate by constantly breaking the square-off (more about this later) or by fighting close when the opponent is fight wide or visa versa.
Rugby teams try and dominate the floor by arriving first at the line-out/scrums and by taking up position on the mark. They try and dominate the floor with early hits in the scrum and in the line-out with opposing hooker, prop or No4 lock holding his hands in the air.
Winning the contest at the breakdown is another way to dominate the floor. This year the Highlanders are doing well because they dominate at scrum and line-outs and with numbers and explosive hits at the tackle area. The Crusaders –like the All Blacks- dominate with numbers, speed and explosiveness at the tackle area. They blow you off the ball when you attack. When they attack they blow over and then move the ball wide with speed and long passes away from the contact to the edges to prevent to opposition from taking the initiative. This way they dominate tempo and possession.
The Crusaders are also very aware of openings at the start of movements and will smother the pods the moment it starts to form. They are quick to start attacks when penalties are given and will target certain scrums and line-out at specific times. When they sense a mental relaxation or a pre-occupation with trying to initiate a set move of a line-out or scrum they will target that particular scrum by swinging it or by getting an early hit when the scrum forms or by a prop dropping a shoulder and taking the scrum down. They will also sometimes at critical moments rush-up in defence to smother a planned movement. This all contribute to winning the psychic energy battle and to frustrate and break the opponents rhythm. They like to call it “Make them work for everything; give them nothing for free”.
South African teams try and dominate with size and with the rush defence and at set piece but are less skilled in all the other finer arts of dominating the floor as mentioned above.
Counter punching is a learned skill. The block and counter attack becomes one movement. There is no delay between the block/deflection and the counter strike. It takes hours of practice, precise timing and a certain amount of courage in execution which for the outsider almost looks like reckless kamazi behaviour. Timing, anticipation and technique have to be precise but the key ingredient is the explosiveness of execution. There can be no hesitation and you have to do it at the precise moment the attacker starts his strike (punch or kick).
The Crusaders and in particular the Frank brothers specialise in this; they are extraordinary in timing, anticipation and explosive execution. They don’t tackle and then counter ruck. The tackle and blow-over counter-ruck is one movement; they deflect you down and ruck over you in one movement of total commitment. What makes it so effective with Crusaders is that the next player will clear the ball away so fast that the ball goes through three set of hands while the opponent are still trying to push the Franks brothers of the ball.
This method is used against counter punchers or people that rush at you. You draw them into countering and then you counter on their counter. You feint an attack; waiting for the opponent to come at you and then you deflect his strike or move offline and scores.
This is what Quade Cooper does; he’ll drift, hop, skip and step – upward, side wards even backwards- in attempt to draw the defenders out of the defensive line. If he can’t step past you after having drawn you into the tackle he’ll grubber the ball through the gap or off-load/flip the ball to a team mate which then runs through the gap.
In karate if you want to attack the head you’ll feint low to elicit downward block from the defender so that his head is unprotected or visa versa. Head movements, hip movement, hand and foot jerks can all be used as feints and Cooper utilizes all these techniques to draw the defenders in one direction.
The bulls last year have used a pod standing wide to feint a point of attack with Danie Rossouw then coming through on an angled run running into the space between the ruck/maul and the pod (wonder why they haven’t tried it this year). Wynand Olivier scored a few tries last year coming through on the inside of Morné Steyn drifting sideways.
Sonny Bill Williams scored a try against the Bulls this year with him and Berquist both drifting in unison in opposite directions before changing direction into the gap thus created (I wrote about this in my previous post with a link to the video). Dummy runners, flat and deep alignment of no12 and 13 are all ways to feint something while doing the opposite. The kiwi and Aussie team are good at this a result, I believe, of exposure to league rugby.
Anticipation is something the seriously good competitor develops. He can sense what you are going to do and strike at the instant before you move. Owen Franks’ T-bone tackle on Flip v/d Merwe is an example of anticipation. It was at the beginning of the move and the bulls were predictable because they were so pre-occupied with their own attack that you could see from a mile away what they are going to do.
Good defenders and attackers have outstanding anticipation skills. They are so tuned in that they beat you with ease because they move in on your attack before you even start to move.
Good off-loads require a certain level of anticipation. Anticipation is a learned skill and can only develop with the right type of training. If you don’t practice it you’ll never learn it. You have to do specific drills to develop this skill and you have to work with a training partner you cannot develop it training in isolation all on your own.
Constantly breaking the rhythm or square-up
This a technique you use when you face an opponent with great striking power of set piece like lineout and scrum. You would then constantly try and break their rhythm; swing the scrum or use short line outs and quick throw in. This is what the Aussie and NZ team use against us. The question for our teams is how do we break their rhythm? What is their rhythm is probably the first issue that needs to be addressed and then one can consider ways to offset their game by not allowing them to get flow.
In Karate is you are facing/combating a tall opponent with fast hands and feet who wants to square you up so he can strike at you the first thing you do is to never allow him to square you up. The moment he square you up you break the square-up by moving backwards or by circling away; this frustrates him. After a while he loses patience and starts rushing into attack at an inappropriate time; this open up defences because he is throwing punches and kicks when he is too far away or while you are moving.
He either starts telegraphing or throws infective punches and kicks resulting in him struggling to maintain proper form and balance in recovery making him vulnerable for a counter attack.
The kiwi teams seem to use this a lot while I can’t really recall the South African teams doing this sort of thing namely using strategies to frustrate the opponents and to prevent them from developing flow on attack. Our (the SA teams) approach still seems to be to try and slow the game down by dominating set piece and kick for the corners.
I think SA rugby has caught up to international rugby –after the isolation years- in many regards but we seems slow to adjust to rule changes and are still very naive in our approach. We are too predictable and not cunning enough; still not thinking outside the box. There are many ways to outfox opponents and it’s not always the strongest and fastest athlete who wins it is the athlete who is able to outsmart the opponent who is often victorious. My feeling is we are a bit old fashion in this regard we want to win with brute, strength and power and see being cunning as strategies for inferior athletes.