Swap forwards and backs? – Jake

Jake White

The direction of the modern game is often a hot topic, and conversations about schoolboy rugby and professionalism eventually become a debate about the role of structure in the game and how creative players are limited by robotic roles.

It’s a good debate because over-coaching is a real risk. There’s no doubt that certain coaches are comfortable doing things a certain way and if they’ve come through a school system where they’ve always had big forwards, and they’ve always used those forwards coming round the corner, then that’s what they try to coach, even when they end up with a team that doesn’t have a big pack.

The aim of coaching structure isn’t to have players follow a list of instructions, but to put them in a formation that creates mismatches so that they can use their skills in the most favourable circumstances.

These days, with fewer stoppages and more ball-in-play time, most of the game is unstructured. The best coaches are good at structuring what their teams do when the contest becomes unstructured because getting reorganised quickly after winning a turnover or receiving a kick is key to winning.

‘Direct rugby’ is another term that people hear and they’re often not sure how it fits in. Sometimes a team will play off 9 and sometimes off 10. When they play off 9 it’s generally a lot more direct because it’s forwards carrying off passes from the scrumhalf.

We are so used to seeing that style of rugby, with forwards running straight downfield off 9 in a shape that plays it close with few passes. Generally, the effectiveness of that style of attack is measured in how much gainline the team gets and the speed of their breakdown.

When it comes to playing wider off 10, people talk about the first and second receiver and the role of the 10 and 12. Some coaches like having a 12 that can play a secondary flyhalf role in case the 10 gets stuck at the bottom of a ruck.

Legend has it that, in the old days, the forwards would take turns holding the ball in the change room because they wouldn’t get to touch it on the field. They’d be cleaning rucks and scrumming while the backs stand out wide waiting for the ball.

The game has developed since then with forwards playing a bigger, ball-carrying role than ever before, and maybe the next step is to complete that evolution.

If the backs are the better passers, and the forwards are the better carriers, will we one day see teams adopt formations that use the backs in the middle of the field and most of the forwards out wide?

The idea would be to get the physical mismatch of a big forward running at a small back in the trams, or the one-on-one attacking opportunity of a back with good feet and speed against a slower more cumbersome forward closer towards the middle of the field.

The attacking backs would have fluid roles so that they wouldn’t have to reposition every time the ball was moved from coast to coast. Anyone could be the first receiver.

I’m sure the number of passes would increase, because all the passers would be in the middle field, and this would probably produce a game that looks more spectacular because the ball would be moving from one edge to the other.

For the defence, they would probably load the middle of the field to negate the threat of the ball getting to the edge.

If the attack turned the ball over, they’d be exposed on the outside with their forwards defending against backs in space. The transition from attack to defence would be very important.

The 1-3-3-1 formation became very popular a few years ago, with six forwards in the middle of the field and one on each edge. The disadvantage of that formation is that, when the attack gets stopped before it gets to the edge, the midfield forwards don’t always know whether they should go round again or stay. But what’s to stop teams from taking the next step and playing something like a 3-1-1-3 formation?

I’m not saying this is the way to go, but the game is always evolving and it’s only a matter of time before someone experiments with leaving the majority of their forwards on the edge to give the defence a new problem to solve.

- Jake White

Let's chat

  • Barry

    It is certainly true – how often this year have we seen 8 attacking in the 11 & 14 channel, though it is a little overdone and often poorly executed.

    The Jaguars are a good example of a side making maximum use of their forwards in general play. They present resolute lines of defense and attack, consisting of a mix of both backs and forwards! They have evolved and it is reflecting on the score board!

    Sadly in SA we prefer big burly ball carriers, but we never seem to focus on whether these guys can off load or pass! In the current national mix, we actively ignore this facet, preferring to rather opt for the donkey like approach! Herman, your Q!

    • Herman

      Thanks for the invite Barry. I’d just like to thank the sponsors, my wife and mistress for this opportunity. My plan is to let these guys play Sevens or even 10’s as a big part of their training regime. No quicker way to get the skills and visionary aspects of a player tested in a faster paced format. It will also help the coach find out which players are truly donkeys and who can actually adapt to the expansive game used by most teams worldwide and will most certainly be a factor at the WC.

      Regrettably from what’s been seen in SR recently not many will past the test. Rassie’s plan of 80% of the players from last year being shoe in’s at the WC is seriously flawed in my opinion. A few real stars and a serious over supply of average is his biggest problem. Wouldn’t like to be him. Cheers.

  • Brendon Shields

    Just last week I mentioned how some primary schools coaches would do well (for development purposes) to pick their big props at 11 and 14, so that the other 13 guys at least get to play rugby to get the ball to them.

    What is a remarkable stat is that taking aside the line-out set-piece, only 7% of a rugby match at schools level is played in the tramlines. The reason for this I suspect is that wings (because they hardly ever see ball) are considered the weak players in a team. They are almost hidden away in the trams. No ball goes there because a) coaches use fatties in middle to take ball up and b) centers break inside literally ALL THE TIME from under 9 up to under 16 level.

    I for one would love to see some coaches take up Jake’s suggestion and shift the formation a bit. I can just see an under 9 team able to quickly pass the balls through the hands to this lekker chunky prop who coasts over to score!

    • John Comyn

      In my view part of the problem is the abuse of the off-sides rule that goes by the name of “rush defense”. By the time the ball reaches the 12 the defense is standing next to the 13, 14 and 11. The way to create space out wide is for the 10 and 12 to play the crash ball and draw in the defenders in the hope of creating space out wide. The only other way is take the ball way back in the pocket and use dummy runners as a decoy where, more often than not, the attacking side get caught way behind the gain line. I think the rush defense is killing any chance of attacking from the set piece. Most of the action we are seeing is coming from broken play.

      • Barry

        Would tend to agree with you. Grubbers through and chips over are also effective, but good execution is paramount!

  • Roland

    Having forwards in the wide channel is nothing new. I recall Sam White lock doing it really well using his height to draw smaller defenders and getting his quicker wingers an unopposed run to the try line. John Mitchell did the same for the force a while back.

    There is no one single shape or numbers. The team that can adjust the most is the team that normally will win.

    The Crusaders is a great team that does that. No wonder they are at the top.

  • Konrad

    At last some awesome thoughts on tactics rarely seen on any platform of rugby. A joy to read. Almost football analysts

  • Nick

    True Roland. And bob Dwyer was having quicker backs attack forwards with pre pro era wallabies.

  • Pierre

    The problem in our school coaching, in my opinion, is from a young age the coaches pick players in certain positions because of their size instead of their skillset. So if a player is big and fast who can read the game and is stuck with the forwards doing dirty work, he’s talent get wasted. If he would play in the backs where he is supposed to be, he could then be destructive. Thats why we usauly only have small wings. But that said, if we utalise the forwards better, then the player can make use of he’s talents.

  • Albert

    Interesting idea. Though I think the very fact that we are playing nothing but contact rugby from a young age is the reason we are in this limited situation. The big kids run over the little ones without ever developing ball skills or the idea of running at spaces not faces. We should do what people in other countries are doing.

    I have been playing tag/touch rugby for a while now and have noticed the different skills and vision it has taught me, which I have taken into my contact rugby. Speaking to all my Kiwi and Aussie friends, who grow up playing tag and touch rugby and even taking part in the the world cups, they clearly have that idea in their systems of developing an understanding of space and skill. The proof is in the pudding they say, and when you see the NZ props with deft off loads and running smart lines you have to identify that as one of the key reasons. They are playing heads up rugby from a young age and not dependant on size to win. There are obviously other reasons such as weight instead of age category for playing contact etc. But simply telling the big lad to go wing will not change the fact that he can still run over his opposite number.

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