Rugby Scenario Coaching

Rugby scenario planning tips

Every action invites a reaction. This reaction changes the situation and the character of the options that are available will change. In rugby the situation is never static. It is continually changing. 

Within the team’s game plan there will be a number of patterns of play and tactics that will be used, based on the situation in the game. From each pattern the team will have a move that will generate a number of options. This will cause a reaction by other players, the cues of which the player must learn to read so that the option that is next chosen is the one that brings the best result.

The ability to recognise the change and to react to it to gain an advantage is called reflexivity.

The advantage that has been gained may not initially be great, but as play develops it will create more opportunities to score in attack and to regain possession in defence.

Attack Scenario Planning

Having gained possession from the set piece, the attacking team usually has a move that they will use to threaten the defence. If the move is unsuccessful, the attacking team will form a ruck or maul and try again. From here some teams will make it up as they go. This leads to teams playing off-the-cuff and success is often a matter of good luck rather than good judgement.

This also leads to backlines having innumerable moves in the hope that one will succeed. The choice of moves may be based on a number of factors, but the difficulty lies in there being so many moves that there is little hope of doing any one of them well.

Any move, be it the throw to a particular player in the lineout, the entry of a player into a backline attack or the use of a rolling maul to move play forward and in-field, creates options based on the behaviour of the defence. So it may be better to have a limited number of options, perform each of them well based on the ability to read the behaviour of the defence, so that the greatest advantage is gained.

From both the restart and the play that follows there are a limited number of options available, at each phase, within the sequence, based on the initial move. These options can be prioritised, from those most likely to occur, to the least likely. It will follow the 80/20 principle in which 80% of the situations can be based on the 20% of the opposing team’s actions. This makes the situation manageable and means, for any given move to be successful, the opposing team’s cues that have to be read by the players are relatively small in number.

In dynamic play the ball carrier will react to the opposition, taking one of three or four options. At practice, these options can only be performed by creating scenarios that include practising against opposition. Care must be taken to regulate the opposition to the most likely reactions, but also, to limit the variations to those that are within the player’s capabilities. Over time these will increase, but the skill of learning to read another player’s behaviour is an instinctive one that some players will find difficult and practice is needed to ensure that any progress players make is permanent and not temporary.

Example of such sequences:

The aim of this sequence is to create space outside #13 in which there are fewer defenders than attackers, allowing the team to penetrate and maybe score.

  • From a scrum the team intends attacking to the right and therefore wishes to advance the right hand side of the scrum. This will take the opposition loose forwards to the left enabling our loose forwards now being closer to play as it develops.
  • In going to the right, it is intended to use the #8 to clear the ball so that the #9 can become a running back committing an opposition defender. 
  • In addition # 12 and 13 are intended to cut inside #10 as he runs across the field, acting as decoys, holding the defence close to the scrum and drawing their defenders back to the left. 
  • The next step is for #10 to make a wide pass to the left wing who has come from the blind side to a position outside and behind #13, from which play will be entered.
  • He will be accompanied by # 15 who should be in space to penetrate.

During each of these stages in the sequence things may go wrong or alternatively, opportunities may present themselves because the defence behaves differently.

  • From the scrum the forwards may not be able to advance the right or tight-head side. The scrum may turn the more natural way, which is to advance the left hand side. The original move would now take place under less than ideal circumstances. However, the option of attacking down the left hand side offers greater advantages, and should be taken. As play develops down this side the ball-carrier will perform a limited range of options based on the behaviour of the defence and supporting team mates should react to these so that play continues. 
  • If the scrum is successful in advancing the right hand side, the #8 may find that the flanker moves to tackle #9. The #8 should take the gap.
  • The same applies to #9 in passing to #10. If the defence drifts out the ball-carrier should penetrate into the space. 
  • As #10 runs across he may find that the defence moves with him and is not held by #12 and 13 running as decoys. In these circumstances the ball should be passed to one of them. 
  • As #10 readies to pass to the left wing the defence, upon seeing #11,14 & 15 being available wide out, may drift onto them. The space to penetrate is now available for #10. Alternatively #10 may be marked and the defence may be flat marking our the #’s 11,14 and 15. If this defence uses the defending #15 and there is not defence in depth, a grubber kick into the space behind will allow the back three to run onto the ball to penetrate and maybe score.

Defence Scenario Planning

The same applies in defence – some individual examples of which follow:

  • A direct feed from a line-out may allow the loose forwards to move immediately to defend the mid-field. The mid-field backs will be able to shuffle across the field and defend there. The opposition in anticipation of this occurring start to maul from the line-out. The re-action may be to collapse the maul immediately rather than later in a worse field position. The collapse may not result in a penalty.
  • Stationary, slow ball may allow the defence to become established in greater numbers changing the pattern of defence from inside-out to outside-in.
  • Good passing with receivers maintaining their depth and receiving the ball flat when running at pace will force the defence to maintain its discipline and show patience. Orthodox tackling will ensure territory has not been gained.
  • Poor passing and receivers catching the ball standing still will create the option to “tackle the ball” i.e. a tackle that will contest the ball in order to regain possession.
  • Regained possession may create the option for an immediate counter attack or force a ruck to be formed to create space to attack.


Create scenarios that sequence play together.

Practice should follow this sequence in order to develop these skills.

  • At practice initially develop a menu of skills that enables the players to react successfully to each situation.
  •  The next step is to simulate each situation, using scenarios, enabling players to learn to read the cues and react to them.
  •  Finally these should be built into the team’s sequential patterns of play.

By creating scenarios that sequence play together and being aware of the opportunities that may occur at each stage of the sequence, the team is able to work cohesively, complementing each others actions as the attack develops. 

Each episode in the sequence is an opportunity to go all the way, but if it is countered, the counter triggers the next episode with its range of opportunities and so on until the attack succeeds. 

It is relatively easy for players to cope with a situation that develops in an orthodox way from a set piece.  Sequencing challenges coaches to familiarize players with the opportunities that exist from continuing dynamic play.  To ensure this is based on a thoroughly prepared foundation, the team may operate to very few patterns of play, but these will generate sequences of play.  This will ensure that the players find the situation manageable. 

The most basic understanding for players is that at each stage the situation changes and they must be aware of the key elements that do change and the new opportunities that are created.   

Basic Principles and Sequencing

There are some basic principles upon which sequencing can be based:

  • The first is that rugby is a game of expansion and contraction. By taking the ball forward, players are drawn in to either support the ball-carrier or to defend.  By grouping players in a small channel, space will be created on the periphery. Alternatively, by passing the ball across the field the defence will be spread, creating the opportunity to penetrate down a narrow channel where the defence is thin. 
  • The second is to retain possession for as long as it is necessary within the point scoring zone, until points are scored.  The longer possession is retained, the greater the pressure on the defence and the greater the opportunities to score points.  This may lead to a conservative attack in which there is always support to make sure possession is retained and that the play moves forward. 
  • Thirdly, there is a need to accelerate play once the gain-line has been crossed so that the defence has insufficient time to regroup and defend effectively.  Each phase should result in the quick recycling of the ball and an appreciation that the team is better to work together in maintaining the pace.  An individual ball-carrier must avoid isolation and team-mates must support to ensure this does not happen.
  • Finally, there must be an awareness that when the attack has run out of lateral space i.e. it has no more room to go side-ways then the defence will have to be drawn across before the attack is reversed so that space is re-created.

Final Thoughts

Some coaches may think that the use of creating scenarios that sequence play is only applicable to play at the highest level, but it is actually a matter of applying it based upon a team’s current abilities giving them a framework within which to operate.

It is all relative and if we are to empower the players to show initiative within a framework then this can occur at any level.