In the build up to the first British and Irish Lions test against the All Blacks, the travelling nations’ media obsession with ‘Suffocation Rugby’ appeared to catch much of the New Zealand public off-guard.

But what exactly is this system, and where did it come from?

What Is Suffocation Rugby?

Suffocation Rugby is a strategy implemented to beat the opposition by preventing them from scoring more points than you. This style of play is inherently based upon a resilient defence. But it has to be accompanied by the ability to counter-attack immediately through kicking and forcing turnovers. While it can be very attractive to watch at times, it has often been described as ‘negative rugby’.

Where did it come from?

Its origins can be seen throughout Northern Hemisphere rugby – with its emphasis on set pieces and the prioritisation of size. In addition, the winter months of the European fixture lists (November to January) often favour this style of play. Essentially, it lessens the opportunity for the winning team to lose their lead in the poor weather conditions through handling errors. However, to truly understand this system we must observe its most notable proponents – Saracens.

Mark McCall Director of Rugby of Saracens celebrates after winning Aviva Premiership Final in 2015; on the back of Suffocation Rugby. Photo Michael Paler/ Photosport.co.nz
Mark McCall Director of Rugby of Saracens celebrates after winning Aviva Premiership Final in 2015; on the back of Suffocation Rugby. Photo Michael Paler/ Photosport.co.nz

Suffocation Rugby in Europe is truly the child of Saracens coach Mark McCall, who assumed the role in the 2010/11 season. McCall implemented this system to utilise the defensive skills that his side possessed. This involved not contesting the opposition’s ruck in order to have a solid defensive line. Commentators quickly dubbed this the ‘Black Wall’ or ‘Wolf Pack Defence’. Gradually, through investment in youth such as Owen Farrell and the purchasing of established finishers such as Chris Ashton, McCall has developed a Saracens side that can attack equally well as it can defend. This has resulted in three English Premiership and two European Championship trophies. The fact that six Saracens players were called up for the Lions speaks volumes about their reputation.

Maro Itoje of Saracens brings a new dimension to their game. Photo Michael Paler/ Photosport.co.nz
Maro Itoje of Saracens brings a new dimension to their game. Photo Michael Paler/ Photosport.co.nz

How have the Lions differed from this?

The Lions have adapted this model to counter the media’s scrutiny of ‘Warrenball’. While still using his beloved system interchangeably, the use of Conor Murray’s box-kicking and relatively not contesting the Kiwi rucks imply that Gatland has warmed to McCall’s system.

What is Warrenball? Will Warren Gatland's Lions use it?
Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan/www.photosport.nz

Where the Lions differ appears to be in their attacking game. Despite Sean O’Brien’s try in the First Test, this has not been representative of the Lions in open-play. They have struggled to seize these attacking opportunities. To truly utilise this system, teams must implement a quick line speed that can force errors, which the team can then capitalise upon in a broken field.

Could this system ever beat the Kiwi Model?

In a short answer, probably not. This system is the product of generations of European rugby. Teams in the north have to adjust to the weather and an over-emphasis on physicality over core skills from a young age. Whilst it may not be as attractive a model, it is important to observe this successful trend in worldwide rugby strategies.

Photos: www.photosport.nz

Author: Rob Morris

I think that this is one of the more imaginative ways for a student to avoid focusing on their degree. Born in London to Irish parents has left me with a peculiar network of teams which I support. A huge rugby and football fan, with an interest in other sports such as Rugby League, Gaelic and Boxing.

1 COMMENT

  1. The Boks from 04-07 and perhaps even up to 09 played pretty much the exact same way. Territory, kicking game, pressure and ‘Blitz’ defence, although where they differ is I they did compete at the breakdowns. It actually did prove to be effective against the Kiwis, for a short while that is

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