Tips for Effective Rugby Counter Attack

August 26, 2013 — Leave a comment

Many articles, as you know, have been written about the counter attack in Rugby. As a professional kicking coach, (often collaborating with backs/attack coaches) I feel it necessary to provide some of my considerations on the subject including focus points for successful execution. With such a subjective coaching topic, I will outline some key considerations, with the aim of giving your Counter Attack some layers and structure. Although definitely not exclusive, many a good counter has been launched on the back of a kick receipt or turnover. The “transition”, in my opinion, is an area of the game that has been under-coached at many levels , so here I will endeavour to provide some of my thoughts and simplify the subject.

If we consider the age old cliche about Rugby being a simple game, then what really is the essence of a good counter attack? In my opinion we are only ever interested in exploiting weakness in the opposition defensive structure. Game plans developed using objective analysis will give a holistic view on the opposition’s attack/defensive systems and potential opportunities, so this will always help. But spur of the moment events are prevalent in Rugby, so a PLAN is needed to better handle these moments (opportunities) for successful game management.

With defensive systems becoming more sophisticated over time, renewed emphasis has been placed on seizing these chances to launch an attack during transition phase of possession.

So what’s a transition anyway?

A transition is essentially one of those moments in a match whereby one team surrenders possession, presenting their opposition an opportunity to attack through (or around!) unstructured defence.

These key moments only exist in small windows, so it is essential for teams to be able to quickly assess the moment and make a correct decision on how & where to attack. Although still considered risky by some coaches, a well executed counter attack can produce great returns. I have even observed, particularly at schoolboy level, that many teams find it very difficult to “stop the bleeding” against good counter attacking opposition.

More often than not, a team that is strong in this area generally has “counter guidelines” that are played out, depending on the specific situation. I believe it is critical that teams develop their own set of flexible team rules for counter attacking. This builds unit cohesiveness and a sense of responsibility, but ensures all players understand their role when a counter is to be played out. Although appearing very chaotic and free-wheeling, most well executed counter attacks are built on solid foundations in the first phase after taking possession.

Any attack, including a counter, should be designed around what the defence presents at that particular time and place. For instance: how is their shape? Is their chase committed? Where is the space? 

This will also assist players to decide if the counter is NOT the right decision to take. So many players (noticeably schoolboy rugby) continue to counter (often one-out) when just considering (quickly) the above, may have prevented a poor decision. We will agree, I’m sure, that this is a team movement, right? And the team need to all be on the same page…..

What should the ball carrier/counter attacking players be looking for?

Generally moving the ball away from the traffic (or herd, or masses etc..) is a nice rule of thumb, when initiating a counter attack. But eventually the contact will come so we need to look deeper into what to exploit here.

I know of several coaches that instruct the counter attack to come back through centre field, ideally with the 15. This is a great starting point when considering a quick shift (away from oncoming traffic and/or sideline) will most commonly find space and centre-up the options. (Usually from deeper kicks where a winger or centre has time to link up). Although I have seen this executed successfully on many occasions, I feel the first priority is to assess & scan the space and defensive shape. Even though generally the defence will track the ball across during transition, the best opportunity to attack may in fact be right in front of the ball recipient, not always through centre field or the open side. By simply returning the ball to the middle (if not the best decision) may remove time and space from any such attacking movement presented in front. The key is to scan all options first (quickly), not just instinctively throw long ball just yet.

Considering this is a team movement, we need to give roles and instruction beyond one player and one pass..What next?

A positive carry, good support and recycle can most definitely keep a counter attack alive! Here are some target areas and focus points for successful execution…..

  • Own the Space – Be totally positive…
  • Find A Mismatch – Where are the numbers, big on small, fast on slow, injured player?…
  • Make a Quick Decision – No Dancing! Pick the obvious route (space) and go for it, time is of the essence here…
  • Passer to Follow in Support – Your job isn’t over, the team will need your follow up play. If not at the next breakdown, consider a “trailing” position on follow up to be another receiving option…
  • A Good Gain Allows For Numbers in Support At Next Breakdown
  • Quick Ball Essential at Ensuing Breakdowns to Hinder Defensive Realignment – And “Long Quick Ball” is a killer if well directed into the right channel… 
  • Midfielders to Work Back to Assist/Support the Back Three

It’s important to remember:

Most tries from counter attacks will involve at least one pass and one ruck. Don’t worry if you don’t make a clean break. If you have correctly identified the right avenue for attack you will most often make the gain line or even a breach of the line. This, in itself will continue to unsettle the defence allowing for continuation of momentum at next breakdown. It is here that good support to the breakdown, and well recycled ball will keep the counter alive. The process continues: Identify (or create space) or target the mismatch etc..but pick the obvious and do it Quickly!

Teams must Exercise Patience and Recycle Clean Ball

Watch the clip below as respected Rugby Analyst Murray Kinsella  demonstrates the concept of identifying or creating space for successful Counter Attacking….Note the:

* Limited amount of time a team has to counter attack, particularly from a turnover

* Every player needs to execute their job effectively for counter attack success

Session Design

In a recent article on this blog (Rugby Kicking Games & Development), I outlined the benefits of providing well designed modified games in your program to develop skill and game awareness. As coaches we need to facilitate an environment that fosters the learning that comes from simulating game scenario in our practice activities. For counter attack I see this as THE ONLY WAY to improve execution. It certainly is the best way to practice your “plan” under pressures closely matched to that of a real game. Generally speaking “Technique + Pressure = Skill”, so we will only know for sure the likelihood of countering effectively (making correct decisions) if your players are working on their “game awareness” in match-like conditions. And of course modified games, where the coach provides thoughtful constraints and relative player questioning have a profound effect on other skill areas as well! Adaptabilty in training is the key to successful transfer in matches.

We’ve covered some key areas for teams when countering, but what should individual players work on to improve their involvement in such movements? Here’s how I see it:

  • A player must be good (strong) on their feet, particularly in contact, staying alive as long as possible…
  • A player must be able to beat an oncoming defender in a 1v1 situation. A good fend or step (footwork) is paramount…
  • A player must be able to (when off the ball), keep space for the team by engaging defenders. Clever line running…
  • A player must be able to receive and pass from either side of their body. Of particular importance is sound offloading when countering.

The Rugby Counter Attack, in my opinion, has no definitive right or wrong way. However, for consistent results, all teams need a plan where players are clear on their roles and intended outcomes. 

By Stuart Lierich


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