Rugby IQ Part 1 is the first in a series of analysis articles.

The intention is to analyse a few scenarios from a game. So far so normal. However, most analysis articles are a detailed play by play that mostly describes what happened. This is fine, we can still learn a lot from this. However, this series will focus more on the thought process that led to each decision.

Rugby is like Jazz, not Opera. Opera is detailed, precise, complex and pre-planned. This is how many people imagine top level rugby. But it’s not really like that. Rugby is more like Jazz. Jazz has a basic structure, around which musicians make real-time choices. This series will look at those choices.

England Attack

Our first game is the England win over Australia on 18th November 2017. Early in the game Michael Hooper (7) has made a tackle in midfield and England have quick ruck ball. Australia have five players around the ruck area to England’s four. There must be an opportunity somewhere. At the top of the picture, Bernard Foley (10) is vulnerable. He is looking at the ruck defence, having spotted the space between them and himself.

Ned Hanigan (6) and Rob Simmons (4) have turned their shoulders in towards the ruck, perhaps worried about the running threat of Ben Youngs (9). They may not have fully adapted to the new rules and are still looking for opportunities to disrupt England that aren’t there anymore. They have their backs to Foley, oblivious to the danger behind them. Foley can’t be sure his inside shoulder is covered. He can’t drift, and out of shot England have a big overlap.

Foley has to stay where he is; he can’t count on help from the defenders inside him. England ignore their six on three overlap for the time being. They want to preserve the space on the outside. Chris Robshaw and Joe Launchbury target Foley. They are hoping for a lightning 2 man ruck, then to move the ball left. England are expecting the quick ruck to hold the drift defence. They can then use Ford (10) as the stand-in scrum-half and move the ball to Owen Farrell (12) at the front of the 3-pod (circled).

This 3-pod of backs is looking to attack Marika Koroibete (14) on the edge of the defence. Farrell will run straight at Koroibete. He will have Jonny May (14) and Jonathan Joseph (13) either side of him. He plans to decide as late as possible which of these players to give the ball to. Another option will be a wide pass to Anthony Watson (15) or Elliot Daly (11).

Thwarted at the last

Rob Simmons (4) hasn’t made it across to help Foley. Ned Hanigan (6) is even slower to get across. Samu Kerevi (12) doesn’t help Foley because he is worried about leaving a hole for George Ford (10). The isolated Foley misses his tackle. Robshaw fixes Kerevi, slips the ball to Launchbury, and England flood through. If not for a missed knockback from an Australian hand, England would have scored. Even if Foley makes the tackle, England will secure the quick ball and an overlap.

Australia Attack

Here we see 9 England players concentrated too closely. Owen Farrell (12) has shot out of the defensive line. This is a poor decision as Australia have a 7-4 overlap. Giving ground and drifting is a better choice here. Farrell’s inside shoulder is well covered, unlike Foley earlier. He can drift if he chooses to. By jumping out of the line, he also leaves Chris Robshaw (6) in a weak position. Robshaw is against faster players. He is defending a 10-metre channel and he has George Ford (10) outside him. Ford is a good defender, but if he is caught one-on-one he will have a hard time stopping either of the Australian centres. Farrell has come up too quickly to cover Robshaw’s inside shoulder.

Kurtley Beale (15) is first receiver of a 4-pod, a tactic Australia use often in this game. Beale is a dangerous runner that opposition teams always identify as a particular threat. Australia uses that threat to draw defenders, often slipping the ball back to Foley and allowing the pod to do its job without committing to contact. The pod members can then support the attack again.

Beale draws Farrell and releases Foley out of the back. Michael Hooper (7) runs a very good dummy line which slows the rest of the English drift. This is important. Without this checking line from Hooper, England will use the touchline to shut down the attack.

Spotting the isolation

Foley spots that Robshaw is isolated. He runs at George Ford’s inside shoulder to force him to step in. Ford wants to move across and take Tevita Kurindrani (13), but Foley’s line prevents this. Robshaw cannot get across in time. Robshaw wants to be marking Samu Kerevi, but Farrell’s mistake has forced him out of position. This line allows Foley to draw Ford (10) and release Samu Kerevi (12). Jonny May (14) has read the play and spotted that Kerevi will have a 3-1 overlap against him. If May holds back, even with cover coming across, he will be in trouble.

May attempts to cut out the danger. He is nearly successful, but Kerevi sees him coming. Kerevi raises his arms above the tackle and gives a fantastic pass to Tevita Kurindrani (13). Australia are around the defensive line and a kick through almost leads to a try for Michael Hooper. Hooper is called offside after a TMO review, but otherwise, the attack was beautifully executed.

Part 2

Part 2 will look at some of the tries in the Exeter win over Harlequins on 19th November 2017. This match took Exeter back to the top of the English Premiership, and it demonstrates just how well they attack. Marcus Smith also gives a glimpse of why he is rated so highly by Eddie Jones. See you next time!

Author: Daniel Pugsley

I am a 31 year old from Yorkshire, England. I have played social rugby for 25 years in England, Japan, Italy, Poland and the UAE. I play for Abu Dhabi Harlequins 3rds and coach the U6s where my daughter plays. I teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I am new to sports writing, but why should the Quins lads be the only ones to suffer my ramblings!


    • Hi Paul, I’m glad you found it interesting, it was fun to write. I am actually hoping other 1014 contributors would like to write analysis articles within this series. That’s the reason it’s titled the way it is; so that if there are multiple authors it’s easy to find the one you want.

      I have long held the belief that in professional sports there are only small physical differences between teams. I think the reason some teams are better than others is the speed and accuracy of their decision making. That’s why I find it interesting to think about what choices players make and why they might have made them.

      If anyone would like to write an article for the IQ Series all I would ask is that they title it the same way and that it focus on decision making. I am sure Steven will make sure the series number is correct. I would really enjoy reading other people’s articles in a similar vein, perhaps you would like to write one yourself Paul?

  1. Great article Daniel, also enjoyed your article on the springbok 1-3-3-1. I agree the with you on the differences between professional teams being small, but often reflecting larger on the score board. In regards to contributing to the IQ series. What kind of analysis would complinent best to your series. From what I understand we choose a part of a game that reflects a teams tactics and decision making, then analyse as above?



    • Hi Wouter, glad you liked it. I can’t take credit for the Springbok 1-3-3-1 article though, I think that was Connor Wilson. If you want to contribute to the series, it can be analysis of anything but focused on the decision making involved. If you stick to a single game the names involved don’t keep changing, which can make people lose the thread of what you are saying. If you want to write one, please just title it Rugby IQ Series: Part # (game with date). I look forward to reading it!

      • Hi Daniel,

        Thanks for your reply. Yes, sorry just noticed the 1331 article was Connor Wilson. Sounds good on the Rugby IQ series, will see if I can add something. Likewise look forward to reading more of these articles.

        Wouter Joubert


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