The winning tactics of tri nations rugby

by staff

In the press and on community sites over the last few years, there has been a lot of discussion of "running rugby" and how it's the way to win games and take down bigger rougher and ten-man-rugby opposition.

The Reds (a side that wasn't considered to have the best players) and All Blacks have been shown as saviours in playing this style of rugby. These teams started making sure the game was played with the ball in play as much as was possible. Clearing kicks are made to bounce down the field without going out.

They don't kick from their end without trying to run it out a few times first.

I don't mind watching the blend of opposing tactics at work in a match. Execution will often be the determining factor in the end anyway.

This is going to be a bit of a rant, but I want to speak about the differing tactics of Tri-Nations rugby sides. Hopefully it will start people thinking about what they watch and consider the efforts made by more than the person executing a skill at any given time on a rugby field.

As a start I want to point out that a tactic is how you distribute your men, how you plan to play the game. A tactic is NOT an execution of fundamental skill. The South Africans play a game style that has become known as "kicking for the corners" or "tactical kicking". I would like to say that kicking is not a tactical manoeuvre and shouldn't be considered as such, it is a fundamental skill that is part of an overall tactic.

In fact, I think this is something the Australians will need to learn as well.

South Africa

The tactic employed by the South Africans could be more rightly described as "field position".

Even though it is perceived as a simple game style there is still much more to it than just kicking the ball long: The deployment of a flat backline to enable a great kick chase.

The big emphasis on having great line-out jumpers in your team. There is an acknowledgement that tries are going to be hard to come by and as such, quick opportunistic wingers are needed to make the most of 1 or 2 chances a game.

These are all tactical decisions a team makes to play this style of game. The kicking is a fundamental skill but all the deployment of players in a certain mindset and position is a tactical decision. It is easy to spy a fly-half kicking and label it as a tactic by itself. It is a fundamental skill that helps a team play out a tactical decision.

One thing to recognise with is that results over the last few years South African teams have become very good at this tactical playing style.

Through repetition of skills and moulding the choice of players in the squad they make the most of the tactical advantage that can be gained by playing that brutish, suffocating style.

Ball in hand

The teams that play well against South African sides are ones that make tactical decisions to keep the ball in play. The fundamentals that go with that are accurate inbound kicking, wide passing and accurate cleanout at the rucks.

The tactical adjustments are much more than the change in kicking, passing and running fundamental skills.

The tactics include: A flatter stand-off with a deeper backline and players running at speed. Conscious decisions by the half-back to run the ball around the ruck. Forwards working together in the ruck and in pods while running to ensure possession is retained quickly. Clear pre planned progressions of play calling (i.e. what needs to happen before we swing it wide?)

These tactical deployments were done very well by the Reds this season in the Super 14. Not well enough to win the competition but they have only been specifically learning this style of play for a short time and will hopefully continue to improve as the South African sides have shown over time you can if you stick to it.

New Zealand

On the international stage, the All Blacks have played what looks at first like a very similar game plan to the Reds. But what we are doing is mistaking the kicking, a skill, for a tactic.

They do try to keep their kicks in play against South African sides, but they play differently to the Reds with ball in hand in recognition of the increase in defensive skill in Test Rugby.

Reds tend to keep the ball in close with Will Genia giving forwards run after run at the line until enough defenders are in close before they spread it wide.

This year, as far as I can tell, the All Blacks have gone the other way around quite often against South Africa. They move the ball to their outside centre and back 3 quickly a few times, stretching the defence across the field.

They then hit the forwards up the middle to make the most of a slightly less compact defence.

That was obvious from reading the stats of their last match. New Zealand outside centre and back 3 had the ball 38 times and gained 351m. Where as South African outside centre and back 3 had the ball 12 times for a gain of 130m.

That important distinction can be lost if we just watch the obvious skill being performed and not pay attention to the rest of the game plan. New Zealand with this backwards style in particular shows an ability to adapt quickly to new tactics against new opposition.


Australia/Deans/Wallabies seem to assume the new trend is to keep the ball in play and spend a lot of time emphasising "playing what is in front of you." In reality, this means they want to be able to bring the ball forward from the back quickly to make the most of that open space when teams kick to us.

The problem is that New Zealand won't try so hard to keep the ball in play against the Wallabies. They are happy to set a defensive line at the back of a lineout.

In spending so much time emphasising "playing what is in front of you" the Wallabies seem to have lost what people used to say about them – "playing smart."

They don't have many ideas other than just running or passing off the cuff and expecting that they will make significant impacts.

New Zealand appreciate this and set their defence and watch us sit half way between the "field position" tactical deployment of a flat backline and the "spread it wide" style of play with deep backs and swarming forwards aligning themselves to orchestrated plays.

Australian outside centre and back 3 ran the ball against New Zealand 31 times in their last match, much more than South Africa did last weekend, but without a clear tactical plan what to do next they lack execution and start aimlessly running one out against a strong defensive line.

In their first match against South Africa in Brisbane Quade Cooper at fly half only kicked the ball once all night. This is probably as much a sign that we finally have a natural ball player as it is a choice to play a certain style. If you're good on your feet and can pass well those would be the first things that come to mind.

The team kicked 11 times as a whole to South Africa's 16 kicks - not a great disparity.

The thing that was similar to the when we played the All Blacks is that there weren't many instances of deep set backlines with predetermined moves being made to add spice to the ball retention.

Until Australia finds a way to decide on their tactics they will continue to struggle to maintain a solid week to week wining culture. South Africa lost a few games with what is considered an old style of play but stuck to their tactical alignment and almost beat New Zealand on the weekend.

It probably wasn't the tactics that lost them the game, it was a case of the athletes not being able to execute the skill as well as their opposition. Australia playing halfway between two tactical deployments had better decide what they want to do and stick to it if they want to beat South Africa at home.

I hope that generates some thought about tactics playing a role in winning rugby and at the same time causes you to consider what tactics you prefer and think are effective. It gives teams an identity that goes far beyond the skill of individual players matching up favourably against the opposition.

It definitely isn't a black and white (or should I say, Black, Green and Gold) issue – it's a matter of preference and personal philosophy.