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.

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