by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
Every rugby team schemes to advance the ball toward the opposition’s tryline with powerful efficiency through crisp passing, creative running lines and dynamic ball carriers. Entertaining rugby contains plenty of lightning-quick phases of play but there also exist a high number of slow, laboriously recycled possessions, too. Due to the frequency of slow ball possessions during matches and the fact these possessions should be handled differently, slow-ball tactics are required for teams to be successful. In this piece we will discuss causes of slow ball and some tactics used to restart the attack from these types of possessions.
Slow-ball instances occur in primary phase when a lineout ball is caught but the jumper is sacked immediately to the floor, or when the scrum creaks backward once the ball has been put in with the number eight doing all he can just to dig it out from between the lock’s legs. Though the possession has been retained, additional resources are required to maintain it. In these primary phase slow-ball examples, the offside line collapses and additional time and resources are needed to recycle the ball allowing the defenders to reorganize and be in a superior defensive position if the attack elects not to kick away possession. The attacking team must identify that they have a slow ball and select a tactic to restart their attack, minimizing their risk of turning over the ball.
During secondary phases of play, slow ball is often caused by the ball carrier’s run, body position in contact and/or ball placement. In cases where the defender dominates the ball carrier in the tackle, odds are great that if the ball comes back at all, it will come slow. Additionally, if the supporting players are late or ineffective at the tackle contest/ruck, slow ball is likely even if the ball carrier performs his role well.
These are simple examples of what slow ball is, and what can cause it. Tactics that attacking teams use to restart play contain a handful of similar traits. Slow-ball tactics are near the previous ruck, allowing for plenty of immediate support. The players are asked to be powerful more than skilfull, and the tactics are not very adventurous. The most straightforward tactic is to have a player pick the ball up and run it forward just around the corner of the ruck, thus termed “pick and jam.” As simple as that sounds, there are several important technical skills to successfully “jamming” the ball forward. Important to successfully jamming a ball forward is for the ball carrier to have a powerful, low body position using superior leg drive. Since this happens from a slowly recycled possession, supporting players need to quickly nominate themselves for subsequent roles, hurrying to get ready, but not hurrying to pick and jam the next ball.
Another common slow-ball tactic is typically referred to as a “post.” The “post” tactic has a similar organizational component to a pick and jam, with the addition of a player standing shallow, two to three meters away from the ruck. The post positioned player is available to either receive a pass and power forward or assist in providing immediate support should the player at the base of the ruck elect to jam the ball forward himself. The “post” tactic offers a second possible dimension to the pick and jam, requiring the fringe defenders to account for a slightly larger area. Again, immediate support is vital to the success of this slow-ball tactic.
A third slow-ball tactic that modern teams are employing sees a “pod” of three attacking players (typically forwards) standing five to six meters away for the source of the slow-ball possession in a very flat, shallow position. There are a few additional benefits to using the “pod” tactic although the depth doesn’t allow the ball carrier to be very powerful. The “pod” tactic is positioned as such to challenge defenders that are located at the hinge of the defense. Flankers or midfield players, not front five strongmen, are usually tasked with playing on the hinge of the defense. The “pod” slow-ball tactic also engages a new set of defenders from the previous ruck. Whereas the same small group of defenders are recycled and repositioned to defend a series of pick and jams, the “pod” tactic looks to put other, more important organizational defenders, in the tackle. The 2011 Rugby World Cup winning All Blacks utilized the “pod” tactic to good effect during their recent victorious campaign.
Occasionally, teams looking to kill off a match, thus preserving a victory, intentionally create slow ball to run the clock out. Slow-ball tactics have an important place in a team’s pattern of play. What are your team’s slow-ball tactics?
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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