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.