Head’s Up Rugby is common name given to a style of play that doesn’t rely much on structure, but demands players keep their heads up, scan for opportunities and either seize them or create them through quality coordinated play. It demands a lot of the players and can be chaotic, but it allows skilled players to express themselves as they see fit and plays upon the notion that, especially at amateur levels, there are plenty of opportunities to be had without over-complicating the game. It also is favoured by teams that believe overly-structured play can cause players to worry more about their positioning and follow orders, missing clear opportunities in the process.
Two vital elements of heads up rugby are:
1. Players must evalute their surroundings and coordinate themselves on the fly
a) Seize and exploit the ‘easy opportunity’ (ex. over-lap, gap, strong vs weak, fast vs slow, poor alignment, etc.)
b) Create an opportunity by using a simple move (can be simple as a sudden and sharp change of direction that manipulates the defence and allows support players options, or a multi-option snap play like a loop or a blocker line)
c) Before the defence re-aligns, look for a new exploitable easy opportunity. This is a simple cycle that can be self sustaining if players keep scanning, communicating, and execute moves that get them over the gain line. By getting over the gain line, the opposition will be on the back foot and susceptible to further attacks.
2. Maintain a quick tempo and play to your strengths
When there are no easy opportunities or creative efforts in the moment are being shut down teams can still play ‘heads-up’ if they purposefully string phases together. This is where good scrum halves and fly halves shine, directing play to areas of strength. Typically, the scrum half takes control of the forwards and the fly half the backs, though the fly half should have veto power being in a better position to see more of the pitch. Other players should also feel empowered to call their number and execute with intensity. The ultimate aim is to maintain a quick tempo and continuity to keep defenders retreating and in a state of disarray.
If we think of the the defence as a wall, the first aspect seeks to find ways around or through the wall, or to create doorways; the second aspect seeks to chip away at and break down or shift the wall when those easy access points aren’t immediately apparent.
Specific Factors in Achieving This:
Awareness – at all times – scanning / communicating / listening (playmakers use info to make informed decisions)
Work-rate – whoever is aligned first has the initiative. In contact, the fewer people needed to win a tackle contest, the more people we have for the next phase. Moving into position when not needed at the breakdown to maximise potential on the next phase.
Alignment – more than one layer, everyone considering themselves a ball carrier increases options. It also means that players have to consider their actions.
Ball movement – more than just quality and accuracy, timing of the pass is vital to the success of a move. An early pass gives the receiver more time and space to use it. A late pass should put someone into a gap. Two quick passes can get us into more space in a hurry. Well-executed offloads maintain continuity.
Running lines – straight running fixes defenders in place and preserves space for team mates. Sharp and sudden changes of angle can exploit space. Running too early can get you ahead of the play; too late invites the defence to take space away. Remember that a line can be a great decoy, so make sure not to ‘demand’ the ball when you’ve drawn the attention of two or more defenders. Passers also need to consider this and select the best target. Multiple players in motion do more to confuse the defence than one obvious strike runner.
Focused roles – each player should consider their best role in an attack and make a determined effort to play that role. It doesn’t help high tempo heads up rugby to have the biggest, most powerful ball carrier standing as the deep support player in a pod of forwards. It doesn’t help to have the fastest player in the league hanging out on the wing not seeing very much ball. Are you a play maker who sees opportunities and passes well off both hands? A power runner who can make holes and drag several defenders in? A speedster who can burn defenders with pace and/or step around them? A strike runner who has a well-timed crack at space in the line? Or an equally-vital support specialist who does more than ‘hit rucks’, recognising when others are about to break the line, getting into good positions to call for and receive a pass? (Maybe a combo of more than one!)
The obvious drawback to this strategy is its almost-chaotic nature and relative lack of structure. It quickly breaks down when defenders are able to read and stop the best players and moves the attacking team has to offer. It’s a strategy that requires the ability scan for and seize opportunities and high quality skills (relative to your competition’s capability to play defence, it must be said). It isn’t difficult for a team suddenly caught in a slow ball situation to adopt a structured approach, but if you don’t have the personnel to play a powerful slow ball game or the defence are more than up to the task, you might be forced into a kicking game, hoping to establish territory and broken play scenarios that way.