Understanding the breakdown in rugby
The breakdown is a rugby term for the short period of play just after the tackle and before and during the ruck. To understand the importance of the breakdown, you’ll need to get your head around the idea that the breakdown has developed as a point of competition for the ball.
The first and most important principle of rugby is the contest for possession, and the breakdown delivers the most volatile form of contest in the game. That is, aside from a well executed Haka or Sipi Tau.
The following are stats from the 2015 Super-Rugby Season. An average super rugby game will have roughly 180 breakdowns within the 80 minutes of play. The team in possession of the ball will successfully hold onto the ball through 94% of its breakdowns. 7% of tries scored are a result of a turnover at the breakdown.
35% of all tries scored are from three or more phases (meaning three or more breakdowns). 29% of breakdowns occur within the attacking team’s 22m area. The breakdown accounts for the plurality of penalties within a rugby game with the average rate being just less than 50% (47%).
THE BREAKDOWN IS A 15-MAN GAME
The breakdown has traditionally been the area of the game where loose-forwards have been dominant. But in recent years it has become increasingly important that every player on a rugby team have the same breakdown skills. Faster line speed on defense and the use of skip passes and back-door plays has seen the point of contact move away from the ruck and into wider attacking channels. These wider contact points are too far apart for the defensive team to rely solely on your loose-forwards to secure or slow down the ball.
Bryan Habana was one of the first wingers to focus a lot of training effort on breakdown skills, particularly under Pieter de Villiers when he was with the Springboks. This additional skill set allowed Habana to not only help secure a quick recycle when the Springboks were on the attack, but also to apply pressure on the defense and win a significant number of steals and forced penalties. Habana’s performance at the breakdown was a major advantage that aided in the Springboks victory over the British and Irish Lions in 2009.
As much as this is a 15-man task, this article will focus on the breakdown from the perspective of the loose forward. Why have we chosen to be so specific? We’ll focus on loose forwards because they are very often chosen for their ability over the ball at the breakdown. While props might have this skill in their bag of tricks, it’s not typically a reason for their selection in any given rugby team.
CONDITIONING FOR THE BREAKDOWN
Good core strength is essential in being able to compete and retain possession at the breakdown. A player’s core muscles act to stabilize the spine, pelvis and shoulder girdle. A strong core provides a solid, balanced base that allows for the arms, legs, and head to be moved in a powerful and controlled motion.
In a face down position, balance on the tips of your toes and elbows while attempting to maintain a straight line from heels to head. This exercise focuses on both the anterior and posterior muscle groups of the trunk and pelvis. Tense everything in your body when you’re doing a prone bridge. Don’t rely on your arms to keep your hips off the ground. Flex your core and keep a slightly rounded back through the movement. When you feel that position slipping, rest and start again.
Start on your side and press up with your right arm. Form a bridge maintaining a straight line from your hand to your foot. Rest on your elbow to increase the difficulty. This exercise focuses on the abdominal obliques and transverses abdominous.
- Start by sitting on the floor with hips and knees flexed to approximately 90-degree angles.
- Grasp a medicine ball or small dumbbell and swing it to the right and left as you keep the hips from rotating with the shoulders.
- The arms are not perpendicular to the torso, but instead, kept low, near the thighs, as the medicine ball is swung to each side.
- Stand with feet shoulder width apart with knees slightly bent (at 20).
- Start position: Grasp bar with overhand grip shoulder width apart. Back should be straight in a neutral position.
- Bending at the hips, lower bar to approximately knee height. Keep knees bent at 20 throughout the movement.
- Return to starting position.
Remember to keep back straight – movement should occur at the hip. To facilitate this, shift gluteus back as if ready to sit down. Knees should not move forward beyond the toes.
As we explained in our workout program for lineout jumpers, the hollow body position is one of the strongest you can develop. It’s used extensively in Gymnastics, diving and other sports where a strong core is essential. You can see a demonstration of the hollow body hold on our youtube channel. For best results, try to combo these with some stretching, particular hamstring stretches that get you into (or even just towards) a pike position.
GENERAL ROLES AT THE BREAKDOWN
The ball carrier
The ball carrier’s responsibility is to win the contest at contact, and look after the ball. Currently, the law allows for the player carrying the ball to have 2 “fights” with the ball. The first is the fight in contact, and the second is the fight on the ground that allows the player to twist into an advantageous position and retain control of the ball on the ground. This second fight is incredibly important, and the player needs to use this opportunity to change body position and get the ball as far away from the opposition as possible. This is where that core strength you’ve been practicing will come in handy.
*World Rugby are testing a variation of this two fight rule in the current Mitre 10 Cup in New Zealand where the player is not allowed to keep his hand on the ball to maintain control.
The first supporting player: the first supporting player’s responsibility is to either win the space over the ball or to eliminate the threat of a player from the defending team coming through the tackle area. The first supporting player is the primary decision maker at the ensuing ruck. It’s this player’s responsibility to assess;
- how many opponents (threats) could enter the breakdown
- the body position of the ball carrier on the ground
- the proximity of the supporting players behind them
Depending on these three factors, the first supporting player may choose from a few different options.
GENERAL PLAY ON ATTACK
As the ball carrier goes to ground and places the ball, the referee will allow one more fight on the ground, where the ball carrier may change their body position and get the ball as far away from the opposition as possible. It is imperative that the ball carrier makes use of this allowance. Distance from the opposition is a critical factor in ball retention at the breakdown. If the ball is placed well away from the defending team, there is a good chance that the defenders will make no attempt to steal the ball at the breakdown. The further it is away from them, the greater the risk of them committing a penalty by competing for the ball.
The first supporting player must assess the position of the player on the ground and decide how to act. #1, they can choose to “take the space” above the ball. This act is designed to secure possession, with the first supporting player keeping their shoulders low, chest unexposed (opening up the chest to the opposition allows them to get underneath) and head up is important.
This player should not allow their shoulders to fall below their hips, as this will signal to the referee that they are attempting to prevent a contest by going off their feet at the breakdown, an automatic penalty. Instead, the first supporting player should “clamp” onto the player on the ground to create stability, leaning slightly forward with the ball in line with the hips similar to a scrummaging position.
A clamp is exactly what it sounds like, a low position over the ball with a wider stance and head up. If possible, grab onto the ball carrier on the ground. This isn’t technically allowed under the Laws. But it’s very seldom called by referees and is the best way to guard against a counter-ruck.
The second supporting player who reaches the breakdown (now a ruck if there is contact over the ball) must come in consciously straight (through the gate) and with the option to either support and clean out or to play the ball immediately using a pass. Making the right decision here is essential. If the player commits to the ruck without a scrumhalf present, they risk exposing the ball to the opposition. If they hold off and try to play the ball in the face of a counter-ruck, they may be swamped by defenders coming through the gate. This decision-making process is covered later in the article.
Assuming the first supporting player has a strong body position and can deter counter-rucks, the second supporting player should come in from behind and clamp onto the first man. The collective strength of this position allows the ruck and possession of the ball to be secured, potentially without contest.
The third supporting player into the ruck must come in consciously straight and with the option to either support and drive over the ball or to shift the ball out immediately by playing it from the base of the ruck.
DEFENSIVE BREAKDOWN STRATEGY
The first decision for defensive players at a tackle situation is whether to challenge the breakdown or to ignore it and establish a position on the defensive line. It’s worth noting that this a decision that will be made by multiple players (as many as 4-5) on each team at every tackle situation during an entire game. Getting this decision right in a huge majority of cases is essential to achieve success on defense.
If the defending team gets this wrong even 10% of the time, that would mean that someone is out of position at every second tackle situation. Think about that for a second. For your team to be successful in this area, they need to be making the right decision collectively at least 90% of the time. That’s a very challenging proposition unless you have clear guidelines for who is allowed to compete for the ball at the breakdown and how they are allowed to do this.
Luckily, the attacking team can make this decision much easier for you with their support play. For example, if the attack’s first supporting player gets to the breakdown quickly and establishes a strong position over the ball, the best option may be to leave the breakdown alone and defend at the Post, Guard or Monster position depending on the team’s defensive structure at the breakdown. However, if the attacking team’s first supporting player does not have a strong body position, over the ball, there is an opportunity for the defenders to counter-ruck by trying to get underneath the shoulders of that supporting player to drive them off the ball.
You can eliminate many poor on-field decisions by making these decisions in advance. A defender can do one of three things at the breakdown. #1 compete for the ball using their hands; #2 compete for the ball by “taking the space” above the ball or #3 leave the ball and getting in the defensive line. If your team is struggling with this decision-making process during the game, make the decision in advance for individual players. Designate those players who are “allowed” to compete using their hands. Usually the loose forwards and perhaps an exceptional hooker. Next, identify players who may compete by taking the space, usually the tight 5. By making these decisions for your players in advance, you’ve eliminated the potential for bad decisions on the field which can shorten your defensive line or cause unnecessary penalties.
GETTING FROM SET PIECE TO THE BREAKDOWN
An overlooked skill for loose forwards, in particular, is the creation of a relationship with your halves (scrumhalf and flyhalf). An understanding between this group of players will allow the loose forwards to leave each breakdown knowing where the point of contact will be. This communication can happen using a call for different zones of the rugby field. Or if the forwards are really on the ball, they can learn the backline moves and know specifically which ball carrier is expected to take contact.
If you have video footage in your league, studying the opposition’s defensive structure can be a great help in predicting what they are likely to do in a game, and where the tackle is probably going to occur.
As a supporting player who is trying to get from the set piece to the breakdown, the key is to run a tight line in support which puts you at 45 degrees to the breakdown when you’re around 2m away from it. This position gives you options. You can receive a pass from the breakdown, clean out, or support the player with the ball if they’re able to break a tackle. The action you take will depend on the criteria above, as well as whether the tackle is in front of or behind the advantage line.
This determination must happen immediately (as an example; if the defense has good line speed and your team has slow ball from the scrum base, then you should anticipate that the point of contact will be behind the advantage line).
Your supporting line should be as direct as possible so that you arrive quickly and in a good position. It’s much much easier to protect the ball if you are the first player to arrive than if you’re slow to the ball and need to move a defender.
Body angle: Come in directly behind the ball.
Body height: Low, head up. Bend at the knees, not at the hips. You need to be lower than the threat. Start positioning the body from two meters out, a good measure is if your hand can touch the floor (with a flat back) then you are at the right height. Accelerate to the ruck from the position.
Threat watch: identify the threat and prep body to win the contact (lower than the threat) Look at what is coming, don’t focus on the ball (know where it is, but focus on the threats), practice peripheral vision and keep the head up. If you are being driven backwards by the threat, holding the clamp will allow you to drag the player on the ground (and the ball) backwards with you.
Be positive: An important part of breakdown play is managing the referee. By staying positive and looking like you are supporting your own body-weight is vital, as referees will look for this.
Be safe: Keeping your head is the number one priority if you are over the ball. With the head up you can brace for the contact and absorb the pressure through your hips. Being blindsided is the number one cause of injuries at the breakdown.
The shoulder battle: this is the key contest at the breakdown; the shoulder battle is won on height. Getting underneath your opponent exposes their chest and once that happens you have a 70% power advantage in the shoulder battle. Keep this in mind and adapt your body position to be best placed to win the shoulder battle.
DECISION-MAKING AT THE DEFENSIVE BREAKDOWN
Approaching the tackle situation there are only three options that need to be considered:
- Assist in the tackle
- Pressure the ball
- Deciding not to commit
Some simple questions to ask while approaching the tackle will help determine the correct decision to make.
Assist in the tackle
Do you need to go in and assist with the tackle? Is your teammate being dominated in contact and could there be a rip or an offload (on defense) available to the attack?
If you recognize quickly that your teammate is going to be unable to affect a tackle without giving up significant ground, or that the attacker stands a good chance of being able to free their arms and make an effective pass, go in and help! Defending the next breakdown is pointless if you haven’t got the ball carrier on the ground. Do this first. Always do this first.
Pressure the ball
As a defender, consider whether you can apply pressure at the breakdown. Pressure is designed to force the attacking team to commit numbers to the breakdown as they will see you as a threat to their possession. The ultimate goal of putting pressure on the ball could be to slow down the speed of the breakdown, commit additional attackers to the breakdown or to win possession for your team.
Winning possession of the ball at the breakdown is the most difficult of these three. But forcing the opposition to commit more supporting players is a win in and of itself. If you can force the attacking team to put two extra players into the breakdown, your team will then have a numerical advantage on the next phase of play.
If you are going to attempt to win possession of the ball at the breakdown, you need to be fast. Super fast. Lightning-f*ing-fast. Get down, get low and get your hands on the ball early and don’t let go. But we warned this is a high-risk, high-reward strategy that can turn ugly real quick. As we outlined above, the breakdown is where 47% of penalties occur. The majority of these come because the player uses their hands after a ruck is formed. If you find yourself in a ruck, your priority must immediately shift from winning possession to slowing the attack’s ball down. Being able to make this goal-adjustment separates the men from the boys.
Deciding not to commit
Are the attacking team’s players in a good position to clean out and neutralize a counter ruck attempt?
If the attackers have already achieved good body position over the ball, and there is more than one supporting player, it’s probably a waste to commit defenders to the ruck. The correct decision here is to fall back into the defensive line and save your energy for the next phase. Ultimately all of the decisions are judged by an effect. Will you have an effect if you take that option?
DECISION-MAKING AT THE ATTACKING BREAKDOWN
Approaching the tackle situation as an attacking support player, you are likely presented with 3-4 different options:
- Seal the ball
- Blow over the ruck
- The can opener
- Play the ball
Deciding to seal the ball
How many defenders are a threat to regaining possession?
As you approach the breakdown, you must assess the number of threats. If there are two threats to possession, blowing out one threat will leave the ball open for the second threat. In this situation, the best decision may be to seal the ball and brace for impact. Your teammates can help you with this decision by communicating your level of support. If they tell you that you’re alone, seal the ball. If they tell you’re that there’s help on the way, blow over the ball and take as many defenders with you as possible.
Deciding to eliminate a threat
With the knowledge that you have supporting players arriving close behind you, the decision to blow over the ball can be decisive. The second supporting player can assess the situation and shout “Blow” to let the first supporting player know that they can eliminate a threat and feel safe that possession will be retained.
Once you’ve identified a threat to eliminate, your job is to take them out of the game. Not permanently (we’re not animals!) but for at least one phase of play. Ideally, you want to put the threat on their back and get up off of them. If you identify a threat at the breakdown, they need to be incapacitated so that there’s no chance of them making a covering tackle or competing at the next breakdown.
The can opener
While it’s highly preferable to be able to get under the shoulders of a defender and lift them off the ball and away from the breakdown, this is not always possible. If you lose the shoulder battle and find yourself on top of another player, clamp under the arms to turn the upper body of the person underneath you (like a can opener). If the defender is on the smaller side, your aim should be to remove them from the breakdown using this technique.
If they’re on the bigger side, however, don’t try to get them all the way off the ball, just fight to expose a rib or two and let the next supporting player give ’em a good shot in said ribs to move them off the ball. The Can Opener is a somewhat controversial technique as it does increase the risk of serious ligament injury of the player being “opened” so please use with caution.
Play the ball
Your last option as a supporting player at the breakdown is to play the ball. This assumes several things. #1, that all threats have been eliminated and #2, that you have support with you. Unless both of these criteria are met, it’s probably best to simply seal the ball and wait for support. In the video below, Chris Baumann does an excellent job of showing how to seal the ball, wait for support and only then does he pick and drive through contact. Atta boy Chris!