The way the game is played

By | April 19, 2017

The early games of the Super Rugby would seem to indicate that we are going to see the continuation of last year’s wars of attrition which were very much the same as the November test window especially the way the All Blacks played. It is a game in which there are extremes in sharing possession with the result bearing no indication of the margin between the teams let alone which team won.


This is made possible by the degree to which the attacking team can retain possession as they commit greater numbers to the post tackle while the defence assists by committing fewer numbers. Most of their players most of the time do not contest the ball but pull back and join the defence line. Just to keep the attack over-committing they throw in a few more every now and then.

Consequently the attack can keep the ball but is unlikely to go forward as there is no space.

Out of anxiety the attack stands flat seeing this as the best opportunity to barge their way over the gain line. What they should realize is that, not having momentum, the do not threaten the defence.

An attacking line coming from depth: with penetrators coming from further depth and off the playmaker’s shoulder with the ball carrier seeking to offload, would do this.

The ball carriers do get some momentum if the defence has not reloaded, especially if they risk offside coming from a standing start.

The greater number of defenders available to complete the tackle compensates for this lack of defensive momentum.

If they are able to make a dominant tackle there is an incentive to counter ruck but as always, the tackle and the jackal both are subject to infringement and the risk of penalty more on the part of the defensive team than the attacking team.

So why does the attack accept this?

Where are the strategies that draw the defence into the tackle and post tackle?

Where are the strategies from the set piece, where there are fewer defenders, for the attack line to put the “extra man” or the overlap into space?

Remember these?

And then to support the evading ball carrier to receive an offload in the space the ball carrier has moved the defence away from.

Equally at the breakdown are there not strategies in rugby to create greater pressure before the tackle, in the tackle and post tackle to force the defence to commit to the channel? Thus creating space elsewhere.

I have often said that players are the most conservative people in the game committed to what they know best and the justified democracy with which teams are managed ensures this to be the case.

But when this is repetition based on pure physicality, with games becoming both a war of attrition and a source of frustration and risk taking the game is losing an element of its essential character.

We must surely think there is a better way. We are seeing games being lost by a frustrated attack who take a risk, which leads to a turnover, and counter attack.

What draws the defence in to create space?

A good starting point is to:

  • Spread the attack line;
  • Have it run onto the attacking ball from depth;
  • Show evasive skills as they receive the ball to force a reaction on the defender and as they attempt to penetrate close to the tackler reducing his reaction time.
  • Delay entry off the play maker’s shoulder;
  • Run a line, even an outside-in line, that holds the defence and;
  • Use the evasion to free the hands to offload to close support down the channel.

I did think that the tackle laws were going to help this but the referees, even now, have allowed them to be eroded and the commentators are using their influence by saying “ that head high wasn’t too bad after all the ball carrier ducked into it.”

I believe low tackles will enhance the game and, as a victim of concussion myself, that has stayed with me for 50 years I wonder what it is going to take for the game to clean itself up.

I was at a team practice yesterday and the tackle practice was repetition of the key factors for tackles above the waste and even higher. At one stage the tackler was lifting the ball carrier into the air as the ball carrier jumped into the tackle.

What was obvious was the lack of flexibility and agility these players showed should they go to the ground. They didn’t seem flexible enough to put “shoulder on butt”, go to ground and then use a great player’s adage:

“The tackle is not over until I am on my feet with my hands on the ball.”

Getting back to the style of play why is the risk of the ball not being delivered from a maul such a deterrent?

After all the maul, like the ruck used to be, is a “loose” scrum but with the ball in possession not on the ground.

Let’s look at the structure…

The basic formation is a scrum, then give the hooker the ball in his hands and turn him around. The props can bind as a scrum and even bore in as a wedge. Something that is illegal in the scrum. The ball can be ferried to the #8.The positioning of the rest of the scrum remains the same.

All the players have to get used to is that the position that may not be exactly theirs and it can change from maul to maul depending on when they arrive. In fact the ball carrier may be a back.

The body positions are the same and the number of bodies may vary. What I do know is that the ball is protected and can be moved down the field until the defence commits enough to stop it. When it is released the attack may outnumber the defence. And the ball carrier in the maul may run as the first receiver with the others coming from behind him. The new Laws will enhance this.

Depth, Reloading and Off-loading

By | February 9, 2017

The space between two players gives time for each to react to the other. The amount of space a player may need to react to the situation varies according to the ability of the player.


This may happen in attack when the ball carrier reacts to the defence and when a support player reacts to the ball carrier.

In defence it occurs as the defender competes with the ball carrier. This competition occurs on the straight line between the two with the ball carrier wanting to run on a straight line towards the defender holding the defender and at best causing them to get flat-footed and stationary.
The defender on the other hand, coming from an inside out line towards the ball carrier, aims to force the ball carrier to run across the field. This takes away the space of the remaining players in the attack line, forces them to run an inside out line and allows the defence to cause the attack line to drift towards the touchline and run out of lateral space.

In order to make good decisions the attack needs time and space.

Currently the commitment by the defence to the post tackle is less than the attack resulting in the defence line being more numerous. They are able to align on the offside line and, as soon as the ball is “out”, move forward closing down the time and space of the attack.

The defence has momentum.

In sevens the defence line needs to reload so they can move forward. With the offside lines at the post tackle in sevens being as little as 2metres apart the defence can be caught flat footed allowing the attack to play over the gain line.

This is enhanced by the attack reloading to give them even more time and space. What could happen is that the defence will beat the attack to the gain line but experience shows that this is not the case.

An attacking player who is part of an attack line or a potential penetrator hovering behind the attack line and is some metres back so they can run onto the ball threatens the defence.

You would think that space is conceded and while it is to a degree, the uncertainty of the defence means the initiative is not lost.

As I said above skillful players will not require as much space.

The current option that is being used in sevens and especially in fifteens, the attack is standing flat and, often, receiving the ball and the tackler at the same time.

Each post tackle creates an opportunity for the ref to intervene and an opportunity for the defence to regain the ball.

The use of time and space also occurs when supporting the ball carrier. Once again depth is necessary so that the actions of the ball carrier can be reacted to.

If the support players are too flat they will overshoot the ball carrier who changes direction or is tackled and will be out of the play.

The ball carrier can help by being able to pass into the space he/she has moved away from and, as a result created. If the ball carrier moves left this means the pass must be to the right and, when the evasion is to the right the space will be on the left.

Many “theories” have been promoted re. patterns of support. Some go for a diamond shape, others an unders line or an overs line.

Think about it, if the ball carrier changes direction the player who is directly behind him/her is in the space that has been created. There is no need to change direction. But the ball carrier must be able to square up his hips to make an accurate pass.

Now the offload. How can the ball be transferred to a support player in a contact situation?

Stepping, straightening up, going into the tackle and making an “arms through pass merely lifts the passers centre of gravity and allows one or more tackles to tackle and dislodge the ball – so that’s not much good.

Keeping low, accepting the tackle and turning with the tackle enables a pass that goes from the hands to the mid-drift of the support player, a pass that doesn’t see the light of day, works well. This is the “gut” pass.

Should the pass be attempted in the tackle, before it is completed the risk of this offload is higher.

Colin Cooper’s guide to Ma’a Nonu was to regard the ball as a camera and only pass if you can take a complete picture of the support player.

A safer option is a chest pass once the ball carrier is lying on his/her back on the ground. The value of this offload is that the passer can guide the flight of the ball to suit the positioning and depth of the support.

Coaching – A Seven-a-Side Rugby Defence

By | January 18, 2017

My recent experience coaching and observing Sevens leads me to recognize that much has changed since I wrote the first manual and workbook in 1997.

This is not unexpected as the game has developed with the selection of bigger, stronger, faster, more skillful and more powerful players.

This has brought into question the relevance of the principles of attack and defence because the mode of attack and defence has changed significantly. As a result the principles of Sevens are applicable at the development levels but not at the mature levels. Because of the way the game is now being played the principles are now those for the fifteen-a-side game.

Principles of Defence

The principles of defence are the same for fifteens and sevens also.

Principle One – Contest Possession

Outcome: Contest possession to regain possession of the ball and to apply pressure by going forward.

Receiving Kick Offs: Although this team is in defence initially possession can change hands very quickly.

Winning the contest
Key Factors

  1. The team should cover all options by being in a position to move into the ball. This will give the jumper momentum that cannot be achieved by standing directly under the ball.
  2. There is of course the option of using a lifter for the “jumper/ lifter” mini-unit as in the lineout. This takes some practice. It applies generally to shallow kick-offs or the one most commonly used by the kicking team, as it will be difficult to cover all options in this way.
  3.  If the kick is contestable and the lifter-jumper unit is being challenged they can be used as a decoy and the catcher can be a player standing behind.
  4. If the kick is contestable and the lifter-jumper unit is being challenged they can be used as a decoy and the catcher can be a player standing behind.

Not Contestable Ball and Attack Options

  1.  When a long kick is made watch to see how many there are in the chasing line and at their formation.
  2.  By reloading the receiving team should aim to get all players in support behind the line of the ball and across the field. This gives two run/pass options:
    a.    If the chase line is spread in an arrowhead formation attack at a miss-match down a channel.
    b.    If there are fewer in number and they are compressed exploit the overlap.
  3.  As mentioned above the goal-line can seem like a brick wall and the attack line can be very flat, so flat that the players are unable to run onto their passes. Some teams align into the in-goal, which is risky. The best option is to have a runner coming from depth to take the ball forward.
  4. The kick options are to kick to touch as far down the field as possible or to kick and chase. Observe where the sweeper(s) is and adjust the options accordingly.

Unlike fifteens kick-offs, kick-offs in sevens are the most numerous set pieces and should be given a lot of attention.


  1. Assess whether it is worth contesting the ball in the air by jumping. If the team has done their homework and/or it has a height advantage this may be worthwhile. Just bear in mind that there are few lineouts and this time may be better spent using options at the lineout.
  2. Out of personal preference you may be better to concede possession but, in doing so:
    a.    Prevent the opposing lineout going forward.
    b.    Have the 3 forwards and the scrum half shuffle to the 15m line and, as soon as the lineout is over, use your positioning on the gain line to trigger a rush defence which should include the 2 defensive backs. The hooker becomes a defensive sweeper. This can isolate the attacking backs, defenders are greater than attackers and a turnover is likely.


  1. A superior scrum should push the opposition off the ball but the ball control needed when a team wins its own ball is needed. So the defensive scrum must have their strategy and its consequences known so that they are not at a disadvantage.
  2. Should they win the ball they can then go into attack mode as described above.
  3. It may be best to hold your ground and be alert to breaking quickly and going forward as a group of 4 to put the attack under pressure.
  4. It is difficult for the ref to judge a number of illegal ploys such as wheeling and pulling back so the ball ends up in a poor position behind the attacking team’s scrum.


Principle Two – Go Forward

Outcome: Go forward to a pattern to reduce time and space to prevent the attack getting over the gain line.

Basic Defence Pattern

  1. The basic defence pattern is to have a defender in each of 6 lanes and a sweeper behind. A medication is to have a defence line of 5 and 2 sweepers.
  2.  Don’t ball chase.(See sweeper strategy below). Shuffle in the lanes defending inside out and immediately reposition if the ball is passed to cover the next defenders backside. This enables the defender to tackle a player who cuts back inside. See below for reverse drift.
  3. Alignment:
  4. The tendency is to spread wide and not start closer to the source of possession and move with the ball. Spreading wide leads to the ball carrier being able to isolate the defender but you cannot start close and drift if you lack pace.
  5. Rush Defence:
    a.    A rush defence works so long as all defenders are involved and they can sustain it. You need at least 6 in the line otherwise the attack will have an overlap.
    b.    If the attack is backing up towards their own goal-line to create space move forward as a unit retaining your formation in lanes so that you can cover the inside space of the next player in the line. Keep taking away their space.
  6. Touchline Play:
  7. If you squeeze the ball carrier towards the touch be alert for a loose pass back infield. Remember the touchline is your most reliable defender, it is always there.
  8. Adjusting to Penetration:
  9. If the attack makes progress the defence line has to retain its form with players defending their individual lane. This requires reloading quickly and then setting the line so they can then move forward into the attack. You may concede space but you don’t let the attack penetrate the defence line.

The Sweeper

Work out a pattern for a sweeper to cover the attack’s kick and chase option.
a.    Option One – using the wing:

i.     This could be for the wing on the side the ball is moving away from to track the ball always keeping inside it so the kicked ball can be moved into.
ii.     If the ball is not kicked and gets close to the far touch the player can join the defence line and the sweeper role can then be taken by the wing on the other side of the field and so on.

b.    Option Two – permanent sweepers:

i.     In the same way as the attack pattern can be 6 attackers and 1 sweeper or 5 and 2 defence can use the same pattern. This allows the same players to be used in both attack and defence.
ii.     In selecting the teams fastest players for the sweeper role the defence line will move into their tackles in the knowledge that, should they miss the tackle, there was good support behind to defend.
iii.     Using this pattern the defence line should attempt to drive the attack across the field and if the overlap has been successful the sweeper can move across to make the tackle.

Reverse Drift Defence:

  1. When the ball goes from one side of the field to the other and no ruck/maul is formed there is no offside line so the defence line can get ahead of the position of the ball.
  2. When this occurs align alongside the attacker so that you can see the attacker and the ball. This enables the defender to defend the attacker outside in if the ball is passed. The line of running is outside in, so you come from the attackers outside to make the tackle – from the player’s blindside.

Maintain alignment.
The big hit creates a gap. Use the big hit “outside in” to try and stop the overlap.

Principle Three – Apply Pressure By Tackling and
Principle Four – To Preventing the Attack Going Forward

Outcome: Tackle to prevent the ball carrier from going forward and to create an opportunity to regain possession.

Key factors:

  1. Base tackle options on the relative sizes of the ball carrier and the tackler. If the tackler is bigger a tackle at the height of the ball can be used. The aim is to form a maul and prevent the attack releasing the ball. This will give the defence the throw in at the scrum that follows. If a turnover looks likely additional defenders may join in.
  2.  If the tackler is smaller a low tackle around the legs may be better. If the tackle is made to the upper body the ball carrier will be able to use leg drive to play through the tackle and link with support. To complete the tackle additional defenders may be needed reducing the numbers in the defence line.
  3. A low tackle enables the tackler to stand and contest the ball by jackalling without having to enter the post tackle from the defence’s side of the ball.
  4. In order to be effective the defence line should have reloaded after each tackle, ruck or maul, re-align and move forward together so that they are moving into their tackles and stop the attack getting over the gain line.
  5. To prevent over commitment at the tackle each tackler must assume responsibility to complete the tackle.
  6. A double tackle can be performed when the designated tackler goes low with the defender from the inside completing a double tackle at the line of the ball. To perform this tackle requires the first tackler to change the angle from inside out to in front, in the last few metres before the ball carrier. This creates space for the second tackler to make a direct side on tackle at the level of the ball.


Principle Five – Support:

Note: Please see the defensive teams options under the experimental laws in the attack explanation that was sent last month.

Outcome: Support to complete the tackle, to contest possession of the ball and to join the defence line to force the attack to play inferior options so that the ball may be regained.

Key Factors:

  1. In defence support assess each situation based on the options listed in the outcome.
  2. The options will change as the situation develops and the support player must “read” the cues in making a decision as to what to do.
  3. Some of the defensive cues are:
    a.    What is the type of tackle?
    b.    Does the tackler need help to complete the tackle?
    c.     Is the ball contestable or not?
    d.    If it is contestable what is going to be the purpose of my assistance?
    e.    Options:
    i.     Gather the ball.(Jackal)
    ii.     Drive away the attack support.
    iii.     Counter ruck.
    iv.     Join the defence line.
    v.     Where should I join the defence line and where should in be positioned?


Principle Six – Regaining Possession and Principle Seven – Counter Attack:

Regaining Possession Outcome: To regain possession of the ball from loose ball, recovering kicks and the post tackle situation.

Counter Attack Outcome: To use the transition period between defence and attack to go forward, penetrate and use support to continue play.

Key factors:

  1. See support player options above.
  2. The opportunity to regain possession occurs under the following situations:
  3. Kick receipts by the sweeper.
  4. Spilt ball.
  5. Jackalling.
  6. Perform a dominant tackle especiallyfollowing a tackle at the level of the ball.
  7. When possession is regained in close quarter play move the ball 2-3 passes to space before going forward as the opposition will be grouped around the initial position of the ball.
  8. Should the receiving team kick the ball the sweepers can counter attack taking the ball directly forward. The players ahead must reload quickly to get all six players in depth behind the ball carrier and in a position to offer a passing options.



We have to be careful to ensure sevens coaching is taught in a structured way and not through anecdote and “this is they way I did it”. This is because a structured approach leaves a legacy from which the coach and the team can progress while the other approach creates dependency on the deliverer and to often relies on the players being those the deliverer is specifically talking about.

We have to make sure the coaches apply the coaching method and don’t listen to “talking heads” enabling them to create their own path.

There are no miracle cures, the game must continue to evolve and coaches must recognize that to duplicate what you see others doing is conceding defeat and acceptance of second best.

More than fifteens sevens is based on outstanding physical requirements, standards that most conform to but to get the real advantage, for your team to optimize their performance, the coaching method that leads to this happening, will give you the edge.

Just follow the game planning method.