Reading the Play

Being able to read the play should be part of every fly half’s skill set and is something that must be developed regularly. It’s tempting to give newer players a set of scripted plays and a rigid pattern to follow, but in my opinion this does little to prepare them for the future. Especially for those who’d like to play at a higher level, why not take the time to practice reading what the opposition offers at younger, amateur levels where there will be more opportunities/mistakes to see and to act upon?

The essential elements of reading the play are:

  • Scan the field
  • Get into position quickly and with purpose
  • Check to the side / behind for support (this is often forgotten, but support is not only vital for ball retention but should be part of the decision-making process)
  • Scan again to see if things have changed with the opposition and communicate the plan
  • Execute the plan (if involved; if not directly involved start the process again immediately for the next phase)

Obviously there is a lot to do and there might not be time to do them in every phase, but even amateur players can develop their ability to read the play in time and with support. Any information provided to the fly half by supporting players paints a clearer picture of what’s going on around him/her. When the great Jonny Wilkinson retired he humbly admitted that he couldn’t have achieved what he did without great centres whose feedback helped him with speedy and insightful decision-making. Coaches will be tempted to shout guidance from the touchlines, but I think this kind of support is better provided after the fact as part of a reflective learning process. Let players do their learning in the game with a clear set of guidelines and an awareness of what to expect. Self discovery, supported by teammates, can be the most powerful form of learning.

The Anticipation and Cues, Attack – Tactical, and Attack – Strategic sections provide a lot more specific information on how to attack in open and structured play. That said, a short conceptual framework for attacking play is as follows:

Exploit Opportunities – Create Opportunities – Exploit New Opportunities

… specifically, look for easy options; if there are none, go with something more structured. A well-executed move with an aggressive clear out and quick ball leads to new possibilities, and the loop continues so long as we maintain possession.


Partnership with the Scrum Half

It is vital that there is understanding and communication with the scrum half so he/she knows what’s needed before he/she has hands on the ball. They might also agree upon a call or situations in which the scrum half takes over decision-making. The French seem to give a lot of this work to the scrum half, with the fly half calling the shots only when the ball must go wide. Many teams, however, direct most of the play through fly halves because they are better positioned to see more of the field than the scrum half who tends to be looking down at rucks and who typically has more things going on in their visual field.

The fly half must…

  • Know the scrum half’s passing ability and limitations. How well can the scrum half pass off the left / the right? How do they handle passes under less-than-ideal conditions?
  • Align with high priority on receiving an accurate pass. Creating width and avoiding the pressure of fringe defenders is good, but not if the pass has a greater potential for inaccuracy.
  • Understand how quickly the scrum half can pass when the ball is sitting at the back of the ruck, when a player’s body part is in the way, and when the ball has to be dug from underneath players.
  • Communicate adjustments to his/her plan as soon as possible so the scrum half knows where to pass to.
  • Keep the passing channel between the fly half and scrum half clear of other players so the scrum half has a clear target. This especially applies to forwards setting up to run off the fly half. They must not crowd the area because the scrum half is often passing so quick and in front of the target’s hands that there’s no time to sort out which target to hit.
  • Get set as early as possible in phase play. Everyone else can then position themselves accordingly. This should be done considering: “What are we trying to do here? Where should I stand to ensure success?”
    • Flat – best for setting up others or seizing opportunities
    • Deep – best for making kicks
    • Narrow – preserves space for wider players
    • Wide – avoids breakdown defenders, opens space for inside passes
    • Running – engages defenders, better chance of breaching defensive line
    • Standing – easier to pass to and better for making quick passes to teammates

Play Calling / Directing Play

Teams that are less experienced or skilled, or ones that are facing incredibly well-drilled defences tend to rely on on patterns, sequences, and plays to focus their attack. See the Organising Phase Play page to learn more about these. When not working moves with the other backs or to punch holes in the defence to set up opportunities for other teammates, fly halves will play the ball to a group of forwards. To be effective, the fly half must do more than simply pass them the ball.

Forwards Off Fly Half

When running forwards off the fly half, he/she must actually engage or otherwise distract the defence. Too often, such moves involve a lazy pop to a forward without any active engagement of the defence and the forward makes a bullish charge into the arms of ready-and-waiting defenders. In that case, the ball might as well go straight to the forward pod without using the fly half at all. To engage the defence, the fly half can either target a gap or defender’s shoulder to open a door for the forward to exploit. Alternatively, simply taking the ball flat can do the trick, drawing the immediate attention of defenders. Needless to say, timing of supporting players’ runs and the timing of pass / reception is very important.

Forwards around the fly half should take up positions that allow them a variety of strike opportunities (inside, outside, deep pocket support), varying width and depth so each provides the fly half with a unique option and, importantly, causes the defence to consider multiple dynamic threats. It is important that they not crowd the fly half, because the scrum half needs a clear picture of and path to the receiver.

As the fly half starts the move, it is important to keep an eye on how defenders react to what’s going on. Several supporting players in motion are more likely occupy the attention of defenders than if they are more reactive to the fly half’s motion. With so many threats to consider, the defence are more likely to miss someone and even allow the fly half to have a go his/herself. It’s important to know that sometimes ball carriers fail to recognise this with all the pressure they are under, so it never hurts for a supporting player to yell: “Hold and go!”

Being someone who asks the fly half to be the orchestrator of our attack, I usually demand that they NOT be part of cleaning up rucks – unless absolutely needed to prevent the ball from being turned over. This keeps them free to reposition themselves and manage the next phase as quickly as possible. It also keeps the scrum half’s playmaking partner free to help direct traffic and keeps other backs where they are most useful.