Love Watching Rugby: Attacking Shapes

Rugby is a game filled with beautiful complexity. A blend of structure and fluidity, it is in constant motion. But there are key shapes and patterns that fans can watch out for to help understand what’s going on.

Rugby is a game filled with beautiful complexity. A blend of structure and fluidity, it is in constant motion. But there are key shapes and patterns that fans can watch out for to help understand what’s going on.

Defence and attack are highly organised, each with their own plan and each with 15 individuals making crucial decisions in real time. As we will explore in the next ‘Love Watching Rugby’, the power, size and skill of each player is crucial in determining how each sequence of play will pan out.

But it is these shapes that can tell you how teams are trying to break down the defensive structure opposite.

The most common ‘shapes’ involve groups of players playing ‘off’ 9, or playing ‘off’ 10.

Playing off nine means the play is close to the ruck, while off 10 means the width of the pitch is that bit more accessible, though the risk of being tackled behind the gainline – the imaginary halfway between the two teams at each ruck or set-piece – is greater. Risk and reward.

In this first clip England use a ‘diamond’ shape when playing off a touchline ruck against Ireland. Kyle Sinckler in the middle acts as the point and is the primary passing option for Ben Youngs (9) from the ruck, while Joe Marler (1) provides an inside support option.

Shapes are about how the various players interact with eachother.

The player in Marler’s position rarely receives the pass. Instead, his key role is to support the ball carrier in contact. On the outside, Jamie George (2) provides a short passing option while George Ford (10) is ‘out the back’ as a ‘screen pass’ option. The extra time and space he has would give him time to pass the ball wide and threaten the outside, but of course by passing it backwards a few metres, the defence would have the opportunity to make a tackle further back. Such is rugby!

This time, having carried close to the line of opposing defenders, Sinckler passes to George just as Ireland’s would-be tacklers get their hands on him.

The interaction between defence and attack is the key to how each ‘phase’ plays out. In this case, Ireland’s tactic of looking to make a two-man tackle opens a small gap. It is this small flaw in a defensive system that can be exposed by the right decision at the right time.

It is pieces of information like this that defensive analysts work hard to spot pre-match.

Although the screen pass doesn’t happen this time it’s important that Ford looks active, like he’s going to receive the ball, in order to create doubt in the minds of defenders.

It all takes place very quickly, but England have gained a small but important advantage.

From that starting shape, the next phase sees Ford able to follow a natural path into ‘first receiver’, where he takes the pass. He is now at the heart of a ’10’ shape.

Again, there are options around him. The inside pass to Courtney Lawes and two strong ball carrying ‘runners’ in George Kruis (5) and Sam Underhill (7).

Having worked hard to get off the floor from an earlier ruck, Owen Farrell (12) now acts as the deep ‘out the back’ option, this time making a late surge across the field.

The motion of the receivers yields another break in the line, enabling Ford to put Lawes into space. England had moved easily and menacingly to within reach of a try until frustratingly, the timing breaks down and the ball goes to ground.

On the day, England out-performed Ireland in attack and defence. It is repeated small advantages from phase to phase that give that impression of inexorable momentum that gets fans roaring, whether in the stands or in the sitting room.

But top-level team can’t afford to become one-dimensional.

In the next clip Scotland use the same 9 shape set-up from a touchline but this time Jamie Richie (6) pulls his pass back to Adam Hastings (10) in the ‘screen pass’ position.

Note how Hastings uses his feet to engage the defence before then passing to Fraser Brown (2). The positioning of the supporting players is the key to generating quick ball. If players are spread too wide, the defence will be able to compete for possession at the tackle much more easily. This time, Scotland are in perfect position to generate quick ruck ball and keep the defence on the back foot.

All successful attacks have similar characteristics.

The play is run with conviction and certainty, which leads to go-forward ball.

The best teams have multiple shapes and are unpredictable, and the players can improvise and react during the play.

Changing the set-up of a shape, and indeed the personnel within the shape is an effective way of catching a defence out.

Timing is everything. A pass made too early allows the defence to change focus and target the receiver. See how in this clip, Sinckler’s short line and Ford’s pass to Underhill are too early. That means James Ryan (5) can slide across and double up with Cian Healy (1) and make a dominant tackle.

Tiny variations, but a world of difference in outcome.

What to watch out for?

The Language of Rugby