On the surface of it, a game of rugby looks like a melee of violence directed at an individual who is in possession an oddly-shaped ball. The carnage of the tackle, the chaotic mess of the Ruck and the seemingly odd song and dance at the scrum and line-out, can leave the casual observer confused and potentially afraid. However, the sport of rugby is one of most ingeniously designed games we can point to.

The body is the weapon, the mind the control center, and teammates are those in the trenches alongside you, rugby truly is a constant battle and a war-like scenario of strategy, small margins, and effective execution. Every chance a player has, to get wrapped up in this contest to try and lay hands on the ball, they will take. The Aspects that make sport a competitive love affair for athletes are perfectly married in rugby; the game of eternal contest.

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The contest for possession

Sport is always a contest. It is a fight to win at very base and primal level. But each game has its own internal battles - offense Vs defense in football, pitcher Vs batter in baseball, serve V return in tennis, athletics, swimming and the like. However, in rugby, the contest is for the ball. As such, it's useful to think of rugby as a contest for possession. The flow of the game is constantly overshadowed by the idea that defense can become attack in the blink of an eye. One simple and seamless change of possession can dramatically alter the outcome of the day.

The importance of eternally contesting for the ball is the fundamental core of rugby and the reason why the game works. This differs from sports like football and rugby league where possession is guaranteed for a set number of plays as long as the ball is retained in possession. A wiser man than me once described these sports as "polite" in comparison with rugby union. "You have 4-5 goes. Then I'll have 4-5 goes."

The coin flip is the first chance to win possession for the team. From the time the referee approaches the Captain, quarter in hand, to contest the right to kick or receive. From there, the kick-off sends the ball high up as both teams circle below to claim possession. This initial set-piece is the first contest of the game, as well as being the first movement, and sets the tone for what is to come.

At set pieces, such as the scrum and line-out, the team throwing the ball in will always retain a theoretical (and practical) advantage. But every set piece also creates the opportunity for both sides to compete for the ball. A line-out has to be thrown straight down the middle, and each team must have equal numbers in the set-piece. At the scrum, the ball is once again fed down the middle, and a contest is on.

In rugby, possession is constantly in flux. The most important contest happens in open play, and it is known as the Ruck. Rucks cause tries to be scored. Rucks build pressure. Rucks create urgency. Rucks provide a pause for strategic thinking; without the Ruck, there is no rugby.

Balancing the contest

The importance of possession is that once it is won, the attacking team has less to worry about than does the defense. In attack, the main goals are to make ground towards the try-line and maintain possession. In defense, however, the priorities are aligned differently. The defenders are attempting to achieve three things simultaneously;

  • halt and counter the attack's advance
  • win back possession of the ball
  • avoid being exposed in the contest

This last point, to "avoid being exposed in the contest" can most easily be seen at the Ruck situation. At the Ruck, the ball is brought to the ground and the contest for possession changes gears. The attackers are looking to protect the ball and make it available for their scrumhalf. This requires attackers to use their bodies to protect the ball so that the defense cannot either poach or push through the ruck to get the ball towards their own scrumhalf. This is one of the first things you'll need to learn if you're going to enjoy watching rugby

For both teams, Rucks require willing players to leave their attacking and defensive lines to enact this contest. For the attackers, adding additional players to a Ruck, over and above what is required to retain possession, can be sustained as long as they are able to keep the ball. For the defensive side, however, every non-essential participant at the Ruck is potentially a gap in the defensive line.

Fifteen men spread across the field, all making their tackles, is generally enough to blunt any attack and force a tactical kick. Because there is no requirement for the defense to put players into a Ruck situation, they should always retain a numerical advantage over the attack. Ironically, it is the attack that needs the defense to push for possession. By luring defenders into the Ruck contest, space is created, and attacks are more likely to be successful. For the defenders, the decision to participate at a Ruck or stay in the defensive line will be one that is made dozens of times a game. Any incorrect decision here creates the opportunity for the opposing team.

Going beyond possession

Territory (position on the field) is an independent, but also an interdependent, aspect of possession. Territory is a critical factor in a team's ability to score points. Since very few points are scored from a set piece within the attacking team's own half of the field. More on this in our piece about coaching a zone system in rugby.  An advantage in field position leaves less chance for the defense to stop a line break before a Try is scored. The defensive line, adjacent to any Ruck, is the primary stopping force that halts attacks. But if this line is breached, cross-cover defense, in the form of sweeping fullbacks or scrum-halves can effect a greater percentage of tackles if they're given more territory between the try-line and defensive line to work with.

For this reason, kicking the ball away, the voluntary sacrificing of possession is a tactic often used to gain territory and put the opposing team's attack in a position on the field from which they are unlikely to score. The decision of whether to kick or run the ball resides with the team's leadership and decision-makers. If it's more likely that they can win back possession from a defensive lineout in the opposition's half, they should kick. If it's more likely that they can continue running the ball towards the same position on the field, they should not kick.

(Fig.2) It becomes far easier in rugby to score from a position on the field that is deep in enemy territory. This is where phrases like ‘playing rugby in the right areas’ come from.

Possession of the ball comes with its own risks. Because possession is constantly being contested, it can change hands in an instant via a loose pass or an under-resourced Ruck. Mistakes on the attack can be devastating. Because the attacking team is generally shorter on numbers in the line (due to securing the Ruck) they are naturally vulnerable if a turnover occurs.

Having possession is the best way to avoid the opposition scoring points. But having territory is often the best way to score points yourself. On their own, though, these two states don't achieve much. To be in possession without territory demands an exit strategy. While to have territory without possession requires your team to take risks to win back the ball. Only in combination are territory and possession truly threatening.

1000 smaller battles

Rugby is sometimes thought of as one thousand smaller battles within a larger conflict. It is not just about getting over the try-line more than the opposition, every decision every player makes during the game has consequences. Each action a player performs during a game of rugby is aimed at winning territory, possession, or both. If an action is successful, it is usually because the player's team has gained territory or obtained possession. An action is a failure if territory is lost, or possession conceded with no reward.

For example, Team A, in their own 22, kicks onto the opposition fullback - in the other 22, Team A put in a good chase on the kick and force Team B to kick the ball out in their half. Team A now has made 30 to 40 meters of territory, and has regained possession - Team A has won this battle. In the same example, if there is no kick-chase, the result will be a staggered defensive line who have not transitioned quickly enough from attack to defense. Team B would now have the chance to run the ball back to halfway, chip kick to empty space, regather and score.

A big tackle is important because it gains the tackler's team territory and a chance to compete effectively at the ensuing Ruck. A miss-pass resulting in a line break has a similar effect for the attacking team. These smaller battles are part of the eternal contest for possession, territory, and the combination of both.

Opportunity and pressure

It's common for a team losing both possession and territory stats to be still winning on the scoreboard. Common, but not the norm. Territory and possession do not immediately translate into points. They just make scoring points more likely. How teams use their territory and possession is what counts. When the opportunity comes knocking in rugby, you have to answer that door, because it does not knock often.

Phrases like: ‘not using the ball’ crop up from time to time in rugby analysis. This kind of language is generally used when a team fails to capitalize on their territorial and possession advantages. While as we've been discussing, rugby's smaller battles are about possession and territory, these are just the building blocks that must be stacked to score points.

It goes without saying that to be in possession is the only way to score a Try, but that does not necessarily mean you need to have the lion's share of it. Tries can happen within five seconds of possession resulting from an intercept or turnover. In fact, the measure of a quality rugby team is actually how little possession they require to score points. Opportunity often arises from pressure, and pressure comes from the eternal contest.

Examples of Pressure

The attacking team in rugby is by definition exerting pressure on the defense. But the level of pressure is what causes line breaks and scoring opportunities.

For example, Team A trucks the ball straight into Team B’s tackler and then floods the Ruck, making it uncontestable. Team B is given time to abandon the Ruck and spread their defensive line before Team A repeats its move with no variation. Little pressure is created since Team B is not forced to contest for the ball.

In the same scenario, Team A trucks the ball into Team B’s tackler again. This time, the Ruck is not flooded, and the ball is presented quickly. Team B sinks a few defenders into the contest - leaving gaps out wide - while Team A clears the ball quickly. Team A has won the ruck contest, meaning fewer defenders in the line. The ball goes to the wing where there is an overlap, thanks to the contest and pressure, and a Try-scoring opportunity ensues.

Understanding the contest

Whatever your understanding of rugby is, it is hard to say that you know it all. The beauty of the game is born out in its complexity. The eternal joke made by outsiders is that forwards are brain-dead hunks of meat that go around smashing into each other while the backline is a bunch of airheads trying to fix each other's hair.

Rugby players see themselves as engaged in an eternal contest. A war of attrition, and battlefield strategy from the minute the whistle blows. There is no chance to put a knee down, waltz over to the coach, and ask what do we do next. Rugby is about live action, and the competition is everywhere.

It's beautiful to watch forwards as they compete at the ruck, or see a hooker sweep the ball on the opposition's scrum feed. It's majestic to see Locks engaged in aerial battles at the lineout - are they really being that mindless? When you're watching rugby online, notice how the backs will eek out territory by running at weak shoulders, dominating tackles, and making meters through tiny gaps in the line. Watch how a fly-half will land the ball in space off his boot. All of these intricate parts of rugby seem insignificant in the greater scheme of things, but this is the eternal contest, this is the 1000 smaller battles, and this is how the war of rugby is created... and then won.

AUTHOR

Darryn Pollock
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Darryn Pollock is a sports journalist by trade covering every aspect of rugby in South Africa, and beyond its borders. He has played first team college rugby, as either a hooker or flank. Between his playing days and his journalism, he was a coach and teacher in the United Kingdom and South Africa.