Every time there is a ruck or maul, we have a new phase of play. These tackle contests force teams to re-organise themselves for another shot at beating their opponents and the quicker this is done, the better. Attacking players must commit to phases and get organised for the next one before defenders set-up to take advantage of mismatches, space, poor alignment or general unreadiness. Having an understanding of how one phase creates distinct opportunities for the next one, or at least knowing where to go before the ball emerges from the ruck / maul, is how attacking players gain this advantage. Below are several strategies teams can organise their phases, or take inspiration from to create their own way of providing the team with a structure to follow:

1. PATTERN OF PLAY
There’s an old debate in American football as to whether it’s best for the passing game to set up the short running game or if the running game puts you into position for a quick strike via a pass. Rugby has something similar – which is an often-used cliche – professing that the backs benefit from the hard work done by forwards. In reality, when you consider that both groups typically (but not always!) offer contrasting physical traits and operate in different spaces, each can benefit from actions of the other. This simple dichotomy can help players understand the impact of their actions in building and making the most out of phases:

  • Powerful strikes in narrow channels tend to draw in defenders, opening space away from the tackle contest for fast players to exploit
  • Faster strikes in wider channels tend to result in linebreaks that fracture defences, allowing powerful players to break through poorly defended spaces at the next breakdown

Many teams employ this concept in a simple ‘flow’ or ‘same way’ pattern, moving from one touchline to the other. They often run two forwards moves for every backs move. More are certainly possible for both, but teams must remember that the goal is to keep defenders disoganised so they must not waste time setting up.

2. SEQUENCE OF PHASES
One downside of using a pattern of play is that it can become predictable. Another way to conceptualise phases is to focus on who’s passing to whom at a given phase and what a unit typically achieves with that action. A sequence of specific actions play to a team’s strengths or are used purposefully to manipulate the defence and put their best players in the most advantageous scenario. Teams will give each of these scenarios a code word so they can shout out a sequence of words at the start of a set piece or on the fly to tell players what’s coming next. The code can also be used at random when a playmaker spots an immediate opportunity.
Forward Ball When?

  • Scrum half occupied
  • Defence fractured
  • To maintain an established tempo / forward momentum

What?

  • Pick and Pass (short ball from forward to another forward)
  • Pick and Pass (hammer / latch)
  • Pick and Hammer / Latch
  • Pick and Go
Scrum Half to Forwards When?

  • to maintain forward momentum
  • to power through the defence
  • to drag the defence one way or the other with a series of forward plays

What?

  • Put forward into a gap
  • Power over defender(s) through weaker channels – funnel support or pass away
  • Use arcing runs to draw defence, put forwards into created space
  • Establish an offload game through pods of forwards
  • Planned hit-ups in a specific direction to create a better opportunity on the next phase by moving or occupying defenders
Scrum Half to Fly Half When?

  • To play forwards into areas with wider gaps or into smaller backs
  • To play the ball through the midfield or out wide
  • To use a tactical or strategic kick

What?

  • Inside / outside / pocket runners off fly half
  • Angled runs to exploit space
  • Pass to elusive runners who can create their own opportunities
  • Using a forward screen play to draw in defenders and pass to backs in the second attacking layer
Wide Quickly When?

  • There is an immediate opportunity (overlap, mismatch) in a wide channel
  • We have numbers in the wide channel to overwhelm the defence

What?

  • Two quick passes (at least), with little if any forward running to change the point of attack to the widest channel (outside centre, wing to expose)
  • Bringing full back into the attacking line
  • Bringing forwards to exploit a size mismatch or funnel through wider gaps and away from the majority of defenders – playing within the backline or coming from behind the backline, taking a late pass from a back
3. CHANNEL ATTACK
A third way to conceptualise phases is to think about each tackle contest as having three distinct channels. Each channel has unique qualities based on the players who typically find themselves in those channels and the space available. These can be called on the fly in a sequence or used at random when a playmaker spots an opportunity.
Channel 1: Between ruck and fly half Strengths:

  • Shortest route to the gainline
  • Takes advantage of powerful forwards and a scrum half with good passing / sniping skills
  • Fly half can use as a decoy and call the ball back at a moment’s notice
  • Box kicks by scrum half can expose winger

Threats:

  • Can be the most congested channel, requiring more energy to break through
Channel 2: Between fly half and centres Strengths:

  • More space between defenders
  • Takes advantage of quality fly half, midfield, full back, and forwards intermingled with / behind them
  • Reasonably close to the gain line;

Threats:

  • Player caught behind decoys might not have quick support
Channel 3: Outside centre – touchline Strengths:

  • Has the most space in which to operate
  • Kicks over wing can expose centrally-aligned fullback

Threats:

  • Furthest away from gainline
  • Furthest away from support
  • Turnovers here can be most difficult to contain
One way to look at this is that each channel’s number indicates the typical number of passes required to take on defenders within it. Channel 1 requires one pass from the ruck, Channel 2 a pass from the ruck and a pass to the eventual strike runner, and Channel 3 three quick passes to get the ball wide.

It’s also important to remember that each tackle contest will have space on the left and right, so playmakers might want add a direction. If the fly half wants more width on the right, she/he could call “One left!” to have a tight phase drag defenders that way. Finally, while the channels are described using certain players, they reflect the space typically occupied by those players whether they happen to be there or not. For example, a Channel 2 attack after a backs move is entirely possible if a group of forwards are in position to take on the defence two passes away from the breakdown.

4. POD SYSTEM
Players can be deployed across the pitch in a series of small groups – referred to as ‘pods’ – that help players know where to be and give them an idea of what they are to do.

This is probably the most rigid style of attack but can be useful to teams that do not have a full grasp of the game’s flow or one that needs structure to help overcome other limitations compared to their opponents.

Rather than try and explain these in greater detail, check out these explanations from The42.ie’s knowledgeable writer Murray Kinsella:

The 1-3-3-1 System

The 2-4-2 System