Game Plan and Assessment

It is important that your tactics and strategy matches the personnel you have and the skills they possess. Too many amateur coaches want to do the same thing they’ve always done, something everyone in the club is doing, or what they saw on TV without considering: “Do I actually have the tools to do this?” This is asking for trouble on the pitch, frustration, wasted time, and players losing joy because of it.

Athletes in amateur rugby still come in all shapes and sizes and physical abilities (including limitations), so it’s entirely possible to be as creative as you and the team wish. Make sure everyone is on-board and involved in the decision-making process on the pitch and at training. You and the players also need the skills and knowledge to execute your plan or at least the will, ability, and patience to work on them over time.

What should be in every coach’s mind are the strengths and limitations of the entire team. What should we do to maximise our abilities and avoid or accommodate our limitations? What do we do if there are injuries to our best players? Choose a strategy that suits everyone and that can use your best as added bonuses to use when we can (‘force multipliers’ is a great military term that applies here!). While winning is great, people play amateur rugby because they enjoy being involved. No one likes to be treated as second-class with all the attention and glory heaped on the supposed ‘stars’ of the team.

If there is any pre-game knowledge of the opponents, it can certainly be used to formulate a game plan. It shouldn’t make major changes to the way you typically play, however, because a team should be confident in the style of play they regularly train for. A coach also shouldn’t make high-pressure changes to people who are only in the sport for fun. Weather and field conditions also have a part to play. Wetness tends to lead to more conservative approaches in attack, but it’s also worth considering that the opposition will be slipping around as well.

Without prior knowledge of the opposition, coaches and team decision-makers should collect as much information as possible to help focus game plan in attack in the first ten minutes of the game. This involves running through a range of different attacking options to see what their opponents are capable of. They should keep a keen eye on their attacking pattern(s) and tactics to gauge tendencies and the abilities of individuals when defending as well.

  • Defensive shape / tendencies
  • Attacking tendencies
  • Key threats in attack / defence
  • Possible liabilities in attack / defence
  • Can they defend kicks

Again, this shouldn’t result in wholesale changes to the game plan, but knowledge of what to expect and tiny tweaks – say, going wide more to expose an advantage in the backs – should provide greater focus and build confidence. A coach should be helping players to read the game as such so they can eventually make such calls themselves on the fly, within this team or anywhere else rugby takes them.

The Big Picture

To keep things simple, beating the opposition happens in one of four ways:

  • Go Through – Go through gaps or make them.
  • Go Around – Outflank the defence with passing and running or a cross kick.
  • Get Behind – Even when a clean break is not achieved, getting over the gain line and behind the defensive line is the next best thing.
  • Go Over – A purposeful kick might not be regathered, but there are many ways a well-placed and well-chased kick puts immense pressure on the opposition if not.

Which option is best depends on a lot of factors. Simply, we want to find or create space as quickly and as effortlessly as possible. Going through the middle might be the shortest route, but it might require more work to break the defensive line and secure possession. Going around might gain more territory, but it might also be further away from support. These are things all players must be aware of so that they can make the best calculated decision in the moment and with consideration for subsequent phases.

Walls vs Doors

Another way to think about attacking play considers what the opposition is trying to do on defence. Effective defence relies on creating and maintaining an unbroken ‘wall’ of defenders across the entire pitch. To extend the metaphor to attacking play, we want to use tactics to open doors in the wall, not charge blindly into it. Speaking simply, we can:

  • Go around the wall (outflank narrow defence)
  • Go through open doors (find space)
  • Open doors where they do not exist (create space)
    • Use pass to someone in space
    • Sudden run to get into
    • Pass to put someone through
    • Deliberate run to open door for someone else
  • Punch a hole in the wall (use offloads, power moves)
  • Go over the wall, if must or there’s nothing behind to protect (with a kick)

With that in mind, take a look at the ‘wall’ and make a quick decision on the best way to breach it:

  • Tightly packed, narrow wall (go around)
  • Wide, thinly spread wall (go through)
  • Unbroken, solid wall (go over with a kick, shift it or chip away at weak points – not the wall’s studs – with powerful moves)