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Rugby's four principles of play

This is an excerpt from Rugby eBook-2nd Edition by Tony Biscombe & Peter Drewett.

Controlling the game can be achieved only if you understand and implement the four principles of play: going forward, supporting, maintaining continuity and exerting pressure.

Going Forward

The keys to success in going forward are as follows:

  • The attack goes forward towards the goal line and parallel to the touch lines rather than across the field.
  • The ball carrier gets in front of the rest of the team as soon as possible after winning the ball.
  • The ball carrier crosses the gain line or goes beyond the tackle line at the earliest opportunity to break the first line of defence to enable teammates to run at a retreating defence.
  • The attacking team attempts to misshape the defence to create attacking space in which play makers can create situations that allow penetrators and support runners to go forward at speed.
  • Score.

These keys to success can be achieved in various ways. For example, the forwards could retain possession and keep driving forward, sucking in the opposition, and then deliver the ball to the backs to run at retreating defenders. A quickly executed number 8 pick-up at the base of the scrum is one way of getting a ball carrier over the gain line quickly, as is a line-out peel and drive.

Backs will attempt to go forward with purpose by accurate passing and skilful running and evasion or by kicking over the defence and chasing. Many follow-up attacks or counterattacks are a mixture of forwards and backs interchanging positions and roles. Everyone needs to be able to carry the ball forward and, when necessary, pass to a support runner who is better placed to carry on the attack.


In any rugby game you may handle the ball fewer than five times. So what are you expected to do for the rest of the game? When you are not handling the ball, you play a supporting role in either defence or attack to maximise the use of possession for your team. You need to be fit enough to run for most of the game. Good support is not accidental; it follows a deliberate pattern. By developing a good communication system in the team, you will know where and when to run in support of whatever team ploy is being executed in a particular area of the field.

If you are within 10 metres of the ball carrier, you should know what is happening and be ready to act and react. If you are within 5 metres of the ball, you are involved in the action and can influence the outcome by being available for support and giving the ball carrier more options. If you are within 1 metre of the ball carrier, you must already have made your decision and be directly involved in the action. The ball carrier and support runners have their own keys to success in support, as noted in the following lists.

Ball Carrier

  • You are unlikely to beat all the defenders, so you must assess how far to go, where the support is and how and when to use it.
  • You need support on both sides to maximise your choices and make defence difficult. Make sure that at least one of your support runners runs parallel to the touch lines to keep the ball going forward if you pass it. Demand that other support runners run at different angles or alter the distances between you to act as decoys.

Support Runners

  • Keep your depth directly behind the ball carrier so you can decide at the last moment which space is best to attack: left, right or straight ahead. Perfect timing of your run is vital to add momentum to the attack.
  • Be prepared to run positively in support all game. You won't always receive the ball, but you can be an important decoy. If at first you don't receive the ball, try again. Ultimately, you will.

Good support play is vital when your team is contesting possession and is in close physical contact. For example, line-out jumpers need to be supported in the air for safety reasons. Supporters need to hold up teammates in rucks and mauls so that they stay on their feet and keep driving forward.

Maintaining Continuity

Your aim is to maintain controlled continuity and control of the ball until your team scores. Attempt to sustain your attack despite the efforts of the defenders to halt it. The ball carrier will try to time the pass to a support runner so that both avoid contact and the receiver can carry the ball forward into space. You may need to use contact techniques to protect and recycle possession (use the ball again) during temporary stoppages to your forward movement (rucks or mauls).

A typical passage of continuous play might follow this pattern: Attack first against an organised, formal defence from a line-out or scrum ball. If stopped or slowed, recycle the ball quickly from the contact area. Launch a second attack into space and at a more disorganised defence. If halted again, recycle the ball under control quickly and attack again through the gaps of a now scattered defence. The key to success is an early, usable ball, allied to quick thinking, adaptable ball carriers and good organisation.

Attempt to keep the ball alive and move it around quickly, constantly changing the focus of attack and weakening the defence so someone is out of position or you create a mismatch. For example, one of your speedy, agile backs works against one of the opposition's big, cumbersome forwards. You might be able to create a situation in which your attackers outnumber defenders and you have adequate space in which to move forward and attack around the outside of the struggling defence. Your success will be based on how quickly you recognise the shape of the defence and on the quality of your decisions.

Good continuity requires ball-handling, contact and retention skills to keep the ball under control in tackle situations, quick decision making, well-timed support skills by close- and wide-running players and head-up vision and awareness.

Exerting Pressure

If you can exert sustained pressure on your opponents in attack and defence, you will force them to make mistakes from which you can score points. Attempt to deny your opponents space in which to play and time to think and act. If your team can get a ball carrier over the gain line and in behind the opposition's defence, can support quickly in numbers and can establish controlled continuity, your opponents will have difficulty dealing with the pressure this causes.

These are the keys to successful pressure in attack:

  • Test the defence and then attack any weaknesses.
  • Keep possession.
  • Produce and use the ball quickly.
  • Eliminate mistakes in your own performance as an individual and as a team.
  • Keep the ball alive and constantly change your focus and point of attack.
  • Use decoy runners to keep the defence guessing. Who might the next ball carrier be?
  • Play at a pace that puts everyone under pressure to keep up with the play. If your scrum half is fit but also shattered during the game, then your intensity is good.
  • Control the space between you and the opposition in both attack and defence.
  • Put the ball behind the opposition by getting over the gain line and chasing kicks well to maintain possession.
  • Misshape the defence and try to create mismatches or quickly attack the spaces being poorly covered by a disorganised or scattered defence.

These are the keys to successful pressure in defence:

  • Deny the opposition space to act and time to think by quickly closing down the space between you to force errors by the ball carrier.
  • Tackle your opponents as far behind their gain line as possible. Attempt to drive your opponents backwards in the tackle and dislodge the ball to reclaim possession.
  • Attack the ball carrier. Disrupt and halt the opposition's attempts to retain and recycle the ball in the contact area.
  • Organise your defence to cover all possible attacking tactics by resetting quickly.
  • Attack your opposition at scrums, line-outs, restarts, rucks and mauls to make it difficult for them to win a good, controlled ball.
  • Be hungry to reclaim the ball and hunt for it in numbers.
  • Reset your defence fast and keep as many players on their feet as possible.
  • Do not chase lost causes. If your opponents are winning the ball, let them have it. Trust your defensive system.

One of the best ways to exert pressure on your opponents is to score and be in the lead as game time passes by. When a team is only one score ahead or behind, the game is not won. You have to build a score in any way possible. The points need to keep mounting so that you go from one score ahead to two and then three. Once you are three scores ahead, you could almost say that the game is yours because the mentality of your opponents will change. They will start to really chase the game and may resort to extreme risk taking, which is to your team's advantage. Building a score can be easily incorporated into your strategy, but it must be part of the whole team training and practice. England won the 2003 Rugby World Cup because all of the team members knew how to work the ball into an area for the drop at goal by Jonny Wilkinson. They had practised this drop goal routine over and over again.

You can improve your mindset when chasing the game if you realise that it takes only 20 seconds to score. Even if you are 4 points down in the last minute of play, you still have time to work the ball from anywhere on the field into a try-scoring position, providing everyone buys into the strategy and works at his role in the team effort. This has to become part of your practice set. At some stage in training, you should work on going from various areas of the pitch, trying to score against a team in full match conditions.

This is an excerpt from Rugby: Steps to Success.

More Excerpts From Rugby eBook 2nd Edition