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Coaching a 1-3-3-1 ‘Shape’ To Kids? "The Season" (Part 3)

A noticeable trend among 15-a-side rugby coaches is an obsession with coaching a 1-3-3-1 formation / shape. It feels like ‘shape’ has simply been handed down to coaches entering ‘real rugby: 

“Welcome to U12 15 aside rugby; here is your 1-3-3-1 shape. Have a great season.” 

The focus and success for players then becomes about mastering this specific shape and standing in the right part of the pitch, rather than the core skills to play. 


Trends in rugby will inevitably change, and the 1-3-3-1 shape will likely be replaced by a new craze, however the core skills of pass / catch, ruck, tackle etc… will remain. Could the over-structuring of kids' rugby create a generation of robotic players, robbing them of freedom, essential skill development, and decision-making abilities? I’ve been racking my brain for an alternative approach to set the kids up for long-term success…


Often, coaches and players don’t fully understand why they use the 1-3-3-1 shape or what skills are necessary to execute it. So let’s have a quick look…


In a 1-3-3-1 formation the 8 ‘Forwards’ organise themselves across the width of the pitch. 2 ‘pods’ of three Whales, oops Forwards form groups off the ruck, ready to receive a pass. Typically, the ball is passed to the middle player, who carries it forward, supported by the other two who clean out the ruck. 

Key skills for the ball-carrier may include catching the ball, running straight, using footwork into contact, and potentially passing to the inside or outside player. The supporting players on either side have specific roles too such as receiving a pass / offload or providing support by cleaning out the ruck to maintain possession.

(There is more detail, but I don’t want this blog to turn into a thesis!)


These skills, however, are surely not confined only to ‘pods,’ but are applicable in various game situations. If the attacking team uses the width of the pitch, each player (regardless of 'position') should be able to work with their teammates on either side, making dynamic decisions in real-time.


What are your thoughts on this for an alternative solution? With the All Stripes U11 team, we’ve focused on the core skills required for attack, hidden within the details of a 1-3-3-1 shape. We are aiming to help all players understand their roles on attack and the number on your back is irrelevant. 

The team ‘spreads’ (or at least that is the plan) on attack to ‘fill the field’ and then works with the two players next to them, which we call ‘bros’ (the use of analogies is powerful). Every player has two ‘bros’ to coordinate with (players on the wing have 1 - note - I haven’t said ‘wingers’). When one player gets the ball, their ‘bros’ look for passes, offloads, or opportunities to clean out the ruck, maintaining continuity and flow in the game.


This approach is a work in progress, so we have to reiterate it every week through activities and games. On Saturday, I heard players calling “I’m your bro” for the first time in a match situation (we are 4 games in). The concept is starting to sink in, though it takes time. One player, in particular, is so effective at ruck time that he’s become everyone’s ‘bro,’ running past players cleaning far too many rucks. We’ll aim to reign him in a bit so he can develop his other attacking skills.


Match Report

The All Stripes had their first win in two years. We’re not focused on winning, but the boys were thrilled, as getting flogged every week is never fun. We started the match strong, so the adjustments to the pre-match routine may have helped. Let’s see. 

This Blog is inspired by real team experiences and events. Identities are kept anonymous and some artistic liberties are taken for storytelling purposes.


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