by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
In rugby, having an established pattern of play is critical in shaping the organization of in-the-moment decisions with attacking possessions. The exact pattern of play a team utilizes is secondary to the importance of having one. Using a systemized approach, by the way, is a very American way of preparing teams to compete. As an example, at this time of year, I marvel at level of complexity and the number of attacking variations football teams use when on offense, but that is for a different conversation. Within a pattern of play there is a need for a balanced approach. Having pattern balance means the attacking team will not be easy to defend because their intent is not predictable. Of course in rugby there are more decisions made more frequently than in football, so the need for a framework in which to make decisions in attack is invaluable. Having balance in the pattern of play also asks more questions of the defenders as to where they will assign their defensive resources. Coaches use several pieces of information that is deemed important to them when establishing how and where we will attack.
A pattern of play is used to provide all fifteen players a high degree of expectation as to what will happen next with the ball, but can be overridden if there is an opportunity to go for their tryline. This is similar to a quarterback who calls an audible at the line of scrimmage. A player-maker might decide to go against the pattern of play from time to time, but also strive for balance in the choices taken. The balance of the pattern is flexible, so it can be altered based on considerations such as environmental factors, score, or time left in the match.
The decision-making sequence players access to maintain pattern balance can be trained throughout the week on the practice field by working through short list of primary phase menu choices. These training sessions must have clear, quiet communication between the halfbacks and forwards as to who will initially take on the defense in primary phase.
When a side is on the same page the decision and subsequent call made between the forwards and halfbacks will only serve as confirmation of what was expected.
As an example, in 2003, while competing in the Pan American Championships, the United States National Team defeated Canada 35-20. This score line was, in part, due to a very strong understanding by the players of the team’s pattern and the balance being struck within it. In this particular test match, Dan Lyle was at the center of these on-field decisions. I believe he called a “perfect game” by constantly keeping the Canadians off balance during primary phase.
Lyle’s perfect game happened because the balance he struck when deciding whether the forwards or backs would attack the Canadians. These brief, concise discussions happened on the move as a lineout or scrum was about to be formed. Lyle would, using the scrumhalf as a go between to the backline, quickly chose a menu item from the pattern to execute. Dan was responsible for selecting the length of the lineout, where the ball was going to be thrown, and movement, if any, by the jumper. All this was decided and communicated while Lyle performed his own position specific responsibilities.
The big number 8 had the Canadians baffled at primary phase by utilizing a balanced pattern approach much like an offensive coordinator would keep a defense guessing whether it would run or pass the ball. Everyone knows what a great athlete Lyle was, but those who witnessed Dan’s performance that day also were shown what a tremendous understanding he had of the importance of a balanced pattern approach.
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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