What is Warrenball? It’s a term often used and never explained in detail.

The term Warrenball was coined and used carelessly during the Lions Tour of Australia in 2013, however, Warren Gatland himself has asked what it means exactly. It has rarely been explained in any great detail and is often thrown away as a crude, overly simplistic tactic that requires brute strength alone. This is not the case; it is a very effective way of playing rugby, many teams play this way at times, including the great All Blacks.

Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
British & Irish Lions, South Africa 2009, Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan


Warren Gatland, Ian McGeechan and Shaun Edwards all worked together during a hugely successful period with Wasps between 2003 and 2005. All three were appointed to coach The British & Irish Lions on the 2009 tour of South Africa. Together, they formulated a clear gameplan that could be learned easily by players from four different countries in a very short period of time. It needed to be simple, effective and capable of beating South Africa in South Africa. What they formulated was modified for the 2013 Lions Tour and called Warrenball.

The Goal

The objective of Warrenball is to compress the opposition defence in order to expose space out wide and also create mismatches in the opposition line of defence.

This is a basic overview of what Warrenball could be.

Warren Gatland warrenball

First Phase

At it’s core, it is hugely physical. Warrenball is about winning the collisions and it requires a runner to break the gain line from first phase possession. A scrum or lineout at one side of the pitch is often the starting point. We will study a lineout for this example. The ball is quickly delivered to the number 12 who takes an aggressive attacking line going from outside to inside. The goal is to take out two defenders, usually the opposing 10 and 12.

The theory is, if one attacker can take two defenders, it will compress the defence and create an overlap out wide. To compress the defence fully, this pattern of hard running between two players needs to be repeated again and again.

Warren Gatland warrenball

Getting around the corner

Gatland does his utmost to ensure his players are fit, especially the pack. He needs them to be fitter than the opposition to get around the corner repeatedly. He wants his pack to get quick ruck ball while leaving his backs to strike run when needed. Gatland prefers his 13 not to join 12 in the ruck. Keeping a backline full of backs ready to pounce when a mismatch or space occurs is paramount to the gameplan.

Warren Gatland warrenball

Rinse and repeat

Players keep moving in the same direction, runner after runner, looking to compress the opposition defensive line. This is relentless and requires high levels of fitness. Once they reach one side of the paddock, they change direction and come back again, phase after phase. This will either compress the defence, cause a mismatch or after a long time, fatigue the opposition.

Targeting opposition creative backs

Gatland likes to select big backs. He will have his runners target the opposition 10, 12 and 13 on each strike run. Over the course of the game, this has an affect on these players. The opposition doesn’t like to have their playmakers defending in heavy traffic, and after a while it takes it’s course and mistakes occur.

Warren Gatland warrenball

Space will often be found out wide once the opposition compresses. Then it’s the case of the ball through the hands or a kick pass to score.

Warren Gatland warrenball

Creating mismatches

Let’s look at the opposition defence after a lineout. The tight five usually occupy the front of a line-out and like to ease back into their defensive line once the ball is lost. Remember, Gatland’s tight five are trying hard to get to the rucks and get around the corner. After the first strike runner (12) makes contact, the first ruck is only about 20m from touch and easy to defend.

Warren Gatland warrenball

After another strike runner (8) the gap is wider. It is wider still after a third runner (7). Now let’s look at the opposition tight five. They are covering a large amount of space. If the attack changes direction and fast backs approach them, well, it’s the mismatch backs look for.

The opposition would need to bring some of their backs to the left side of the ruck and get some of their tight five to the right side. Again, this causes fatigue, moving about after big collisions. Once the opposition defence is jumbled up, the attacking ball carriers target the weakness in the defence to compress the defensive line even more.

It is a hugely effective gameplan, particularly in the northern hemisphere and against a heavy pack of forwards. But can it work against the All Blacks?

From The Shed

For a more indepth discussion on Warrenball check out the video from The Shed and subscribe to The 1014 YouTube channel.

Photos: www.photosport.nz


Author: Gareth Dinneen

Gareth is from Limerick, Ireland and has been obsessed with the All Blacks and NZ culture since 1989. He first arrived in NZ in 2001 to tutor in New Media and has since worked with Weta Digital on movies like Avatar, King Kong, The Avengers and most recently Valerian. Gareth grew up listening to his father Len on sports radio. Len is known as ‘The Voice of Rugby’ in Munster, Ireland. The 1014 brings Gareth right back to his sports media roots.



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