For the past decade, Ben Smith has been one of the most dominant fullbacks the game has seen. Known for taking the high ball anywhere, at any height, hands you could bet your house on and a counter-attack that can be sparked anywhere on the pitch there are very few that can match him in the modern era.
I recently spent an hour in Bender’s home town of Dunedin discussing the things that a world-class fullback needs to do and what he has implemented in his own game to become one of the best in the game.
Working With Your Wingers
The back three are often the quickest on the pitch and have a wide view of what’s happening in front of them because they’re sitting at the back. When these three players are synced and openly talking you’ll see the magic happen.
“A fullback’s job is made easier by developing a strong relationship with his wingers” - Ben Smith
So what does this look like?
Create clear communication words to indicate how you’re receiving a high ball as a full back. This means telling your winger to use short words like “Time” to let you know that you can take a highball without a chaser and stay on the ground. The opposite of this would be “Get Up” to let you know there is going to be an aerial contest and that you don’t have the luxury of time on your side
Knowing where your wingers are by having giving cues that match where you are on the pitch. If you’re both in the 22 and you’re looking to counter-attack as a fullback it’s being clear on where you need them. This can be the call “sit on the touchline” or “come in short” a good back three will have a feel for this but as you’re developing a relationship make sure to establish clear communication so that you’re not encroaching each others space and that you’re there to support each other
- A good fullback also gives their wingers clear guidelines on where they need to be to support you. This is letting your winger know in advance that you’re not going to be able to field a catch which would be in the grey area for either of you to take the high ball. Talk early and support them as they come back down with how they’re going to land and whether they’re headed into contact
“You want to know if you have time to just catch it and that there is no defence on you straight away and its the same for your wingers. ” - Ben Smith
Clear communication guidelines that are established in practice can be the difference between a counter-attack that splits the defence or spilling the ball when under pressure. Make sure that everyone in the team is using the same calls. Here are some of the vocabulary and scenarios you can implement with your back three:
Time: This indicates that you’ve got time to take the highball without the opposition being able to contest it
Get Up: An indicator that someone is heading into an aerial contest and they’re going to either compete when taking the ball or they’re going to land in traffic
Direction Calls: Your team will have direction calls so when your teammate is waiting to take the catch, let them know what direction they should move to after the catch with a simple “left” or “right”
- Breaks In Play: When there is stoppage times speak with your wingers about the oppositions kicker's foot they favour, what type of kicks they are looking for and opportunities you are seeing to counter-attack. This quick conversation typically takes place after the game has started as you’re feeling out what the competing backline and first five’s kicking game are aiming to do. Ensure that this conversation has had within the first 10 minutes of gameplay stoppage
Most great relationships are equal parts listening and talking. Ensure that as a back three you’re doing both in equal measures during practice, on the pitch, and off the pitch.
Chasing and Contesting Boxies & The High Ball
(Izzy Dagg taking a high ball in practice)
Another All Black I’ve had the pleasure of both training and coaching is Aaron Smith (to see our onfield passing program that we've used with Aaron check it out here), who is known for his pinpoint accuracy with box kicks. Under pressure, Smith can put up a box kick and put them on a dime for Bender to chase and compete for. In the Super Rugby season when these two are playing for the Highlanders they’re known for their ability to create the perfect kick and chase combo.
In our interview, Bender broke down the steps he uses to take the high ball and we’re going to discuss how to contest the highball to win space, landing in traffic and cues to give you the best chance against the opposing side when going aerial.
-Eyes On The Prize: The simplest thing said but one of the hardest things to judge when heading into traffic is how to keep your eye on the ball. The first two steps needed for this, first when the ball is put up in the air you need to judge your distance from the kick if you’re 10-15 meters away you’re going to need to time your run appropriately so that you’re not overrunning the kick. In the last 5 metres, you will need to increase your pace to get the appropriate height needed for your jump. This all needs to be done in accordance with where the ball is in the air and you judge this by never taking your eyes off of the ball.
- Basketball Lay Up: Like a layup in basketball, it's more natural to take and angle into the ball from the side. The same applies to taking the high ball in rugby, give yourself some angle to attack the ball and get a better sighting of it. This means as you approach take off for the ball turn your leading shoulder in by 35 degrees to get your body side on and ready to capture the ball. This will allow you to also create a slightly diagonal upward jump as you’re looking to have your acceleration from the last 5 metres. This means the last thing to leave the ground is your trailing foot that you’ve used to accelerate towards the ball which will not only propel you upward but forward allowing you win space.
- Hands Above The Eyes: Having your hands in your eyeliner isn't only beneficial to helping your catch it also means they don't get caught up on defenders on the way up. Having your hands above your eyes will also guide your vision to where the ball is headed and allow you to take the ball earlier and draw it into your chest.
- The Jump: As you’re headed towards the ball you want to catch this at about 80% of the maximum height you will reach in the air. This means you are taking momentum up and giving yourself slightly longer in the air to secure the ball but also give you another half-second to survey the type of traffic you’re landing in when you’re coming back down.
- Landing Strong: Once a successful catch has been made you’re looking to land in a position with a strong shoulder forward so that you’re able to make contact or look for the counter-attack. This means you’re body needs to be leaning forward as you come down because if you do take contact and you’re leaning back when you land you’re going to move backward as well. If you land with forward momentum you’re less likely to take a hit that is going to drive you backward.
Lastly, if you have overshot a kick one thing you can do is jump directly upward with hands directly extended over your head. This is a compromised position but you may be able to recover the ball from an overrun when chasing the highball or the box kick.
Quick Taps and Aaron Smith
If you’ve ever seen the Highlanders or the All Blacks play you’ll often see Bender or Aaron linking up on turnovers and counter-attacks off of a quick tap when the other team is penalised. This process doesn’t look methodical but there are two things that these two are looking for:
As being a part of the back three you often have a wider view of the pitch and you can immediately see when a player is slowly retreating, ideally a front-rower. This means:
A) You’ll be able to speed the game up by looking to hit that space and putting the other player offside and if they do try to make contact you could earn another penalty for the opposing side
B) You’ll be in space and this will spark creative play from those around you and put the defence under further pressure which may set up an opportunity to score
- The other thing is to be lurking around the rucks where the first five-eight is standing whe you’re in the opposing 22. Often there are holes in the defence when you’re dominating in attack and as a full-back it makes sense to occasionally inject yourself into these spaces which can be practiced. If these zones are marked up it means communicating with the halfback in those situations to spot the holes out wide that have space.
As Ben has said of his role as a full-back:
“I just want to try and be involved and bring something to the team. There's different ways you can do that from the counter and quick taps. Quick taps or penalty advantages are free play and a real chance for us to speed up the game.”
“When we get down into the 22 a lot of the team structure is around all being threats. For me, it's sniffing around the rucks and inside or outside ten. If those zones are marked up then it's getting wider and identifying space for the playmakers”
As a full-back or winger, you often have a wider view of what’s happening on the pitch and you’re there to help inform your 10 and 9 on where they should steer the ship and inject your pace and skill into the game.
As with any position in rugby, there are two things you can do to help your team and that is to learn how to communicate with those who need you the most and the second is to put in the work on and off the pitch to be the best you can be when game day comes.
To see more of Bender and our interviews with him check out these clips on Instagram:
Making Space With Your Front Knee:
Wide Ball Drop:
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