Redesigning Rugby Union Attack Canterbury Crusaders

In 1969, Neil Armstrong captivated the world with his first steps onto the moon. For years we were enthralled by Apollo missions, successful or not. We developed a method of guaranteeing success and the innovations and explorative ideas became less and less. The Space programme was simply about perfecting what worked before not exploring new worlds. The same has happened in rugby and with our vision.

I want you to imagine you are right in the middle of the field. In front of you is a team in a typical defensive shape, are there posts, pillars and outside defenders lined up across the field? Where is the 9 in this? How far back is the 15? Id venture to say our defensive shape is quite similar these days. A flat line cross the field with the 9 and fullback in behind.

Now the space we want to attack will be either side of this formation, yes? These wide channels are what we look to exploit.

If we imagine we are closer to the sideline now, and have our attacking shape set up, what will it look like? Will there be forwards off the ruck, first receiver in behind them perhaps, backs lined out across the field? Our goal is for the forwards pod to attack the gainline, generate clean ball and go wide so we can go forward. Perhaps the space opens up on the blindside when we attack the middle and then we try to move the ball back across and up.

How many teams play a system similar to this?

Where is there a lot more space? Where is there space that if we can attack we will generate a far higher amount of try scoring opportunities? To me it is in behind in the middle of the field. We are so focussed on attacking small slivers out wide that we forget that there are many more areas on the field worth exploring.

How do we get there though?

Previously I compared rugby to chess with the number of pieces and players, similarities of positions, 15 being King, 10 being the Queen, Wings being Rooks and forwards being the Pawns. The biggest comparison these days is the emergence of scripted opening sequences or rigid structures in rugby terms. Anyone can go online these days and learn the best 50 opening sequences. By knowing these you give yourself a great chance to win a game.

Norwegian Magnus Carlsen became a chess grandmaster at age 13 and in 2014 became the highest rated chess player of all time. He understands all aspects of the game and positions. His greatest strength, however, is his ability to use creative moves which pressure his opponents into making mistakes. Before Carlsen players focussed on playing low risk, high percentage moves which are easier to defend and induce less mistakes.

Low Risk high percentage plays are what define modern rugby. France is the perfect example of this, recently it has been derided for not playing with french flair as they transitioned towards bigger athletes. South Africa favour the collision over any other aspect. Scotland are the most successful team in the world at maintaining possession at the ruck; however they are slow, turgid and uninspiring with that possession. How do any of these force teams to make mistakes?

The reason I bring up chess again is because of the Knight. The Knight in current rugby terms move to the sides and then up on the wing, much like our forwards pod hoping to generate quick ball so the wings can advance into space out wide.

The Knight is unique though as he can also move forward and then across into space. How many try scoring opportunities would wings get if they were receiving a pass behind the defensive line with clear space to the try line? What if we flooded the middle of the field in order to maximise our try scoring opportunities? I believe attacking the gain line as shown below to release players into the space behind the defensive line will result in a massive increase in our success.

So how do we get to the space?

Firstly, we will look at the modern forward in a variety of ways. Technically the modern forward can catch, pass, and use footwork similar to the backs. Long gone are the days of the scrummaging forward who only had one job. Tactically, their understanding of the game, vision and decision making abilities are infinitely better. Physically, we are at a point in time where everyone is stronger, fitter and faster than ever before and psychologically the modern day forward is a professional in all aspects who wants to attack with the ball in hand. Why, in that case do we sacrifice our forwards to attack a small amount of space out wide?

Consider that two of the biggest developments in recent defensive history have come from Rugby League. In the early 2000s, Shaun Edwards introduced the blitz defense with Wasps and later Wales. Les Kiss, the choke tackle with Ireland. You constantly hear that defenses are too effective, but I believe it is because of our ineptitude in attack much like in chess that make it easy to predict and nullify. If we can adopt Rugby League attacking principles then teams can push the boundaries of modern day attack. To put it simply we need League attack to unlock League defenses.

What do I mean by League attack? Well for example, lets look at some things they do to unlock space. They draw defenders, use kicks in behind and precise offloads, exploit mismatches and attack the short side. These skills would all be helpful, but I believe the three main things we need to incorporate into our attack are:

Lightning Quick Ball at the Ruck: Obviously, since they do not have a contest at the breakdown the ball can be played a lot quicker. We should relish the breakdown as an opportunity to gain massive advantages over our competition. The longer the ball spends on the ground the slower it is. If we can become masters of the breakdown or even negate it completely by keeping the ball off the ground, then we will be able to continually force the defense backwards and create confusion in their shape.
Develop the ability to carry to the line: Too often we are focused on catching and passing without attacking the gainline. We just shift the ball along towards the space out wide. A simple drift defense just slides across and uses the touchline as the key defender. We need to attack the line with determination. How often do we see modern defenders plant their feet and wait for the impact when run at? If we can force them to do this then we will stop the drift defense, we will coerce them into making mistakes and we will be able to release runners in behind the defensive line.
Hidden Support Angles: In Rugby League the ball carrier not the receiver is supported. By using runners supporting the ball carrier with vertical lines of attack from deep instead of pods around the first receiver they are able to strike much more effectively. If we can run straight and force the opposition to commit to our hard lines then space will be available.
These are just three individual aspects of play; that I believe we can incorporate into our game in order to attack space in behind the defensive line. If we can utilise these, the shape and structure by which we attack may look drastically different than it currently does. To execute a style like this requires different shapes, player profile and attitudes than what currently exists and I will explore these next time.


International High Performance Unitat Crusaders and Canterbury Rugby
Gordon Hanlon, International High Performance Unit at Crusaders and Canterbury Rugby

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