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Structure, System and Shape

Evidently New Zealand has a point of difference in unstructured attacking rugby, where teams and players have an ability to create stuff out of nothing. This is seemingly linked to how Kiwi kids build their rugby instincts by playing with their siblings, neighbours and friends in school grounds and backyards. But is this still the case?

These days we as coaches seem to be stifling this attacking flare as we grow an ever-increasing fascination of attacking systems, structures and the latest trend… ‘shape.’ Could this infatuation be creating a generation of robots who know where to stand, but struggle to play the game? When did learning the structure, system or shape become more important than learning the game? Maybe we should blame Eddie Jones and the ACT Brumbies?

The 2001 Super 12 winning ACT Brumbies, coached by Eddie Jones, was praised for innovation by bringing in attacking systems that mapped out three, four, five phases or more, where each player knew where they needed to be. Because of their success, competing teams started replicating the Brumbies style by having team structures and systems.

And over time shapes such as 1-3-3-1 and 2-4-2 developed to help players know where to stand so they could get a perceived attacking advantage. But at the same time, defences improved and attacking shapes became less fruitful, so now professional coaches of this modern era are working out how to break down defences, often through unstructured play. WTF? Are we coming full circle?

Now as community rugby coaches adopt trends from the professional game, attacking structures, systems and shape have been implemented across the world… and with kids… sometimes as young as 8! Surely not? But should kids be taught attacking structures, systems and shapes? We’re not sure, but here’s a few considerations.

Set Structures Stifle Innovation & Creativity. Coaches applying set structures will often resort to unopposed run-throughs where the team rehearses play after play in order to ‘get it right.’ The kids are often restricted to certain parts of the field, where success looks like being in the right place at the right time, and then ‘told off’ for leaving their zone.

The Match Rarely Goes Perfectly To Plan: An analyst for a professional provincial team was asked to find footage of the 2-4-2 system being applied (to script) in a match. He trawled through 10 round robin matches to find ONE example through the entire season. So after hours spent perfecting the system, they only executed it once in an entire season. Why? Because their opposition were doing stuff to disrupt the system!

Teams Get More Ball From Random Situations: 56% of possession in adult rugby will come from unstructured / random ball sources such as kicks, turnovers, opposition mistakes. In kids rugby it is closer to 75%, so wouldn’t it make sense to practice unstructured play?

Attacking Structures Helps The Defence: There is a perceived benefit that an attacking system will help the players attack as they are more likely to know where the ball is going to go. But doesn’t this also help the defensive team?

We certainly don’t have all the answers, but could it make sense to focus on coaching attacking principles such as fill the field, move the ball to space, go forward, support… rather than perfecting a structure, system or shape? In 5 years time, the game may look totally different, although key principles and skills are likely to remain the same. You decide.


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