Hogan's contact skills pushing Leinster players forward while avoiding injury

After winning the Champions Cup, Leinster decided to create a new position in their backroom team.

“IN THEORY, IT’S probably what you teach kids: trying to get your shoulder in close, hit them and drive them back.

“Sometimes you can get complacent and just be happy to tackle and let them fall over…”

Josh van der Flier is just one of the Leinster players who have spoken with glowing enthusiasm about the work their contact skills coach has done with the squad this past year.

Yoann Huget is tackled by Josh van der Flier Van der Flier making a tackle against Toulouse. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Hugh Hogan preaches the value of a good plan. His work is built around putting that plan into practice to chase consistently excellent technique in a sport where deviations in quality can be damaging to bones and health, let alone results.

Of course, coaching players through the tackle, carry or breakdown situation is nothing new. But until very recently such sessions tended to come under a wider coaching remit. A forwards coach might be commended for his specialty at the breakdown, a defence coach left with one eye on tackle tech and one on the wider shape. Dedicated coaches for the specific role have been a rarity.

In coaching, specialisation tends to act as a sign of progress and evolution in a sport.

Rugby is not all that far removed from a system of selectors with little thought paid to gameplans. Leinster’s addition of a contact skills coach to Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster’s backroom team is development which could well become the norm in years ahead.

Scotland’s Richie Gray has led the way in many regards, styling himself as ‘collision coach’ and working in that role with Scotland, Montpellier and the Springboks after developing and branding a piece of training equipment. That movement gives him the appearance of an outside consultant-style figure. Leinster looked in-house for their solution.

“Leo deserves a lot of the credit for having the foresight to see how that might work,” Hogan tells The42 as he gives a run-through of how his role fits within a weekly schedule that always feels tight for coaches as demand for detail increases.

“By and large, the focus of the session is on the team game, whether that’s through set-piece or the unstructured game, that’s what we spend the majority of time doing.

So, I get a lot of my windows pre and post-session. On a down day there might be an opportunity to work with a small group. We’ve worked on grouping guys together over the course of the season, guys with similar work-ons or similar focus for improvement.

“For example, the little block we have pre-pitch on Monday will focus on footwork into ball carry. Post-pitch will be tackle approach.”

Though the position he now holds was only officially created in the summer, Hogan has effectively been performing the role since last season. The results are plain to see; from the clinical annexing of Tadhg Beirne’s breakdown threat in the Champions Cup semi-final, to the constant buffeting of Connacht to keep them try-less at the Sportsground this season.

The aim behind his appointment is long-term too, as Hogan’s specialist expertise is a resource for academy and age grade teams – sides he has previously coached – as well as the marquee senior internationals.

Hugh Hogan lifts the trophy Hogan lifts the AIL trophy in 2012. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Before he was an eight-cap club international or the back row leading St Mary’s to All-Ireland title glory, Hogan complemented rugby with karate throughout his teens.  He enjoyed it then, but hindsight brings forth some added value from his experience in a Rathfarnham dojo.

“It’s a discipline that will always bring you back to the basics. Every session you’ll spend time focusing on technique,” he says of his eight years in martial arts.

“Without me realising it, as a kid, I learned to break down movements and I learned to coordinate my body.I became quite technically minded in terms of movement.”

There in-lies a difference between Gray and Hogan that feels more than semantic. Collisions happen. Movement and contact can be controlled.

As the Dubliner speaks on with passion and precision about coaching contact skills, it’s not hard to pinpoint how Cullen and Leinster came to move Hogan on from elite player development officer after six years and add him to the senior team’s staff.

“Even though rugby is a dynamic, open game where you don’t know what’s going to happen, I do thing there are aspects of the game we can control; your goal-kicker and hooker have a routine for a reason. They control their approach to the ball, or the setup for their throw.

“There’s a number of facets, I believe, we can control. Whether it’s entering a tackle, your action at the breakdown, your body position should be repeatable.

What does ‘good’ feel like? How did you get into that good position? How do you repeat that under presser? Is it safe?

“Often breaking down into technical components can allow that learning to take place. Then we build up: shorten time, add resistance and make things a bit more dynamic. Build into that open scenario where you’re growing the habit and internalising those positions.”

The ultimate goal is to have perfect tackle, clean-out or carry technique as a habit. Or, better yet, a reflex and muscle memory built up through consistent sharp and clear sessions with small groups of players categorised by the improvement they require or just by position.

Hogan often uses the word ‘value’ when speaking about his work with players, because his aim is more than winning gainlines on the field. It’s everything that leads up to that.

Bad technique bring injuries. Injuries impact team performance. So the logic goes that increasing quality of tackle and breakdown entry will reduce injuries.

It’s a theory already being borne out by a study in Irish rugby which showed that players with poor balance and body control were three times more likely to sustain a concussion.

An earlier World Rugby study has shown that 70% of concussions happen to the tackler. So improving even a fraction of the 300-plus tackles which occur in a match must be good for players and the game as a whole.

“If we can provide a safe plan for a player and make it repeatable,” outlines Hogan after reciting questions of position, approach, targeting and footwork which players must ask when moving towards impact.

“You can’t eradicate the risk of injury or a head knock, but it provides a guy with confidence to enact his plan and hopefully the incidence of injury is going to drop.

“You’ll always have incidents when two guys collide, we can’t control those, it is dynamic. But if we enact the plan hopefully we can reduce the risk of injury.”

Isa Nacewa and Hugh Hogan Hogan watches Leinster train at the Aviva with Isa Nacewa late last season. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

When the inevitable happens and injury does strike a player, sidelining him for a matter of weeks or months, the contact skills coach again comes into play, signalling they are on the road back to full fitness.

Over the years, many players have spoken after return from injury about how they returned to competitive matchplay relatively tentatively, settling back into the rhythm of a game only after they successfully came through an impact. Hogan aims to build that assurance in contact over time, bringing players to the peak of their powers before they cross the white line.

“Confidence is the key word. When a guy is back on the training field, he knows he’s put in the work in terms of the contact he has built up through stages to doing some light contact work, his confidence is going to be in a good place,” says Hogan.

“(It’s designed) so that it’s not just working with a physio, strength and conditioning coach. We’re layering in their return to contact through looking at their profiles in contact at the early stage and building a resistance, building in controlled contact.

“As they’re nearing their return to the pitch, they’re at a place where they’re feeling relatively sharp on those facets of the game. So when they get the medical all-clear, they should be able to perform because they’re sharp and not needing a couple of weeks training to find their feet.

It’s minimising missed weeks when players aren’t available for selection.”

“Barry Daly is probably a good example of a guy who came back recently. Prior to being available for selection he went through a return to contact pathway, he built up from static profiling to moving into tackle positioning, then doing it against resistance and then finally, making live tackles.

“He got the rustiness out of his system and he could say, ‘I’m confident, ready to go’, come the game. That’s the goal: a guy who returns is in a position where he’s confident to perform rather than feel his way back to 100% during a game.”

Jack McGrath and Hugh Hogan 15/10/2018 Jack McGrath carrying into Hogan in training this season. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

The absence of matchdays during the early Six Nations rounds is a prime opportunity for coaches to hone and refine aspects in their team’s game, even if many front-liners are away on international duty. So Hogan will hope that the extra specialist input will be evident when Leinster return to action away to Zebre (kick-off 14.30) after the Pro14′s three-week hiatus.

We ask him to single out a star pupil in either tackle tech or another discipline and Hogan steers away from shining the limelight on any of the men we’ve seen wearing green in recent weeks. Instead he highlights the effort and progress made by the likes of Conor O’Brien, Ross Molony, Rory O’Loughlin, Noel Reid, Ed Byrne and Scott Penny – most of whom are involved for the eastern province in Italy today.

While the driving ethos behind Hogan’s work is top-down feedback to bring about improvement in players, the squad have tended to call areas for improvement on themselves and approached their contact skills coach for the extra work they feel they require to move or remain in position on a slippery ladder in an extremely competitive squad.

“The players feel the benefit in matches of doing the technical work and in a competitive squad where pushing for selection is each guy’s goal, they want to be as good as they can.”

“Guys are geared towards those groups based on training and matches, based on conversations or them actually saying it’s a work-on or perhaps a coach would feed back saying Player X needs to improve on a certain facet.

Hugh Hogan Hogan during a training session at The High School this week. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s working with the small groups, it’s being available as a resource if there’s something they want to work on, it’s being able to give guys feedback or pointers post-game.

“A number of players would have a weekly routine of what they would like to do in preparation before a game. There’s very little contact in a training week.

“Some guys like to prep by completing a few reps of tackles on a Thursday, or breakdown reps – they build it into their week. Garry Ringrose would be a guy who is meticulous about ‘his four and four’; four tackles and four clean-outs. I’ll help him with that, but it’s very much driven by the player.

“Josh van der Flier is similar, he’d like to do poaching work on a Thursday post-training. So it’s being able to facilitate a guy like that.”

Hogan is honoured and privileged to be working in the role he is in. And his passion for contact shines through when a Leinster player powers, with confidence and control, into an opponent.

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