Home Columnists Old and grumpy or just two different games?

Old and grumpy or just two different games?


unnamedRuggaworld welcome a new member to our family… Benjamin Pegna…Ben currently coaches around the world as a consultant. Amongst teams like London Wasp, London Scottish and England 7’s.  Before coaching he played in the UK, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.


Another year of 6 Nations rugby arrives and another year of me pondering whether I am just getting old and grumpy (affirmative), whether I have just watched too much rugby and I have had enough (possibly), or perhaps, just maybe the game has changed (definitely)?

But then I watch a Super Rugby match (normally a Kiwi team) and my underlying inclination is confirmed that it’s not the game I have fallen out of love with, just the way it is being played in the Northern Hemisphere.

But why is there such a vast chasm between the two hemispheres?

It’s confusing watching rugby in the Northern Hemisphere, whether that be International or Club rugby. Listening to the commentators, a new rugby watcher would believe that one of the founding principles of rugby is Territory. It’s espoused it as if it is THE fundamental principle – akin to one of Sun Tzu’s key Principles from Art of War.

Robot fashion a pundit rolls out the line that ‘x’ lost because: ‘they played in the wrong areas.’ Recapping on the Principles of Rugby Union I am reminded that the commentators other standard go to lines of ‘(Contest) Possession’, ‘Go Forward’, ‘Apply Pressure’ and ‘Score Points’ are all there.

I look again but can’t find ‘Territory’ (or playing in the right areas). I search further and also can’t see ‘Round the Corner’ (Maybe I am looking in the wrong place!)

But there they are, the two remaining Principles that I have been looking for. By the way two of just six Principles so they are pretty important!

‘Provide Support’ and ‘Create Continuity’

So why in the Northern Hemisphere has Territory replaced Support and Continuity in the eyes and mouth of experts, pundits and the majority of commentators and why is this relevant?Maybe the Principles of the game are outdated and have changed and the game has moved on beyond them?

Perhaps gaining territory has replaced ‘Support’ and ‘Continuity’ in the ranking of how to win a game and it is now more relevant to winning a game of rugby. Could it be that we do still value Support and Continuity in the Northern Hemisphere but that they have come to have different meanings in each hemisphere and this is affecting the way the game is played and the product we are watching?

Watching the Highlanders and Hurricanes in last years Super Rugby tournament, and the Chiefs and Crusaders over many years and the All Blacks, Argentina and sometimes Australia and South Africa, a pattern and style emerges.

At any stage in the match and on any part of the field you will invariably see a player run and have a ‘duel’ with an opponent – try and beat the guy opposite him. As the play unfolds you will see a team mate arrive from a position of ‘Deep Support’ somewhere near to vertically behind the ball carrier. The ball carrier if tackled might go to ground depending on several of factors, but their first choice will be to pass before, during or after the contact to the player coming out of their trail.

Within these teams this is what they mean by ‘Support’ and ‘Continuity’. They want to keep the ball alive, in the hands and off the deck. They know that once they are in behind the opposition’s defensive line it is very difficult to defend them.

Conversely, in the Northern Hemisphere ‘Support’ and ‘Continuity’ is within many teams defined as just keeping the ball, and primarily, this in effect means going to ground, setting up a ruck and keeping the ball for as many phases as possible.

What’s wrong with that?

This would appear to be high percentage, risk averse and clever rugby. Herein lies the problem. Every time you set a ruck up you allow the opponent the opportunity to re-organise and set a defensive line.

Two weeks ago watching England play against Ireland the pundits were dumbfounded. How could England not be 4 or 5 scores up at half time?

How could they have the majority of possession, dominate territory, but still not have a large margin. After all the same pundits apportion defeat to not playing ‘in the right areas’ and here was a team playing ‘in the right areas’ with all the ball! So how did they only have a very narrow winning margin at half time?

Accuracy was bounded around, and sure there were some errors.

But at the heart of the reason why England could not convert their dominance into points in the first half was this different definition of ‘Support’ and ‘Continuity’. For the majority of England’s line breaks or ‘gain line battles’ won, they were satisfied to go to ground and recycle the ball.

Sometimes they had quick ruck ball of about 3 seconds, but regardless of how quick the ball was delivered, on each and every occasion setting up a ruck allowed the defence to re-group, get shape and allow them breathing space.

Crucially, when the defence take stock they have one direction to face – forwards, they know that all the opposition are in front of them.

Any player, defence coach, General, or military tactician will tell you this is much easier to defend against than when the opposition are amongst you, your line is broken and every player is facing in a different direction (watch Braveheart and Gladiator again if you’re not sure!).

The Northern Hemisphere teams, and the other Southern Hemisphere teams who play this risk averse type of rugby need to sit up, review their definition of continuity and adapt what they are doing. Speaking to the legendary player and coach Pierre Villepreux about this issue he looked at me perplexed and said something along the lines of:

“They call it the ‘Breakdown’ now in the modern game (referring to the tackle and ruck area) – the player has been tackled and died with the ball, and the attack has broken down!


Leave a comment


  1. Fundamentals remain the same. Kiwi style always been fluid and fast, but every aspect of their game is better than anyone else’s.

    Boks match them most for commitment and spirit which is why boks are only team who can beat them on anything resembling a normal basis but kiwis still way out in front.

    Their coaches have made a massive difference to Wales and Ireland and the Lions and all round the world. They know how to play the game

  2. Cool thoughts Mr Pegna.
    Back when the Brumbies were “all that” with George Gregan & Smith + Larkham etc….
    I would MARVEL at how they would hold the ball for like 40 phases. I thought it was cool that they could pull off such a feat without knock ons & providing support at all the right times. Was I watching a rugby union team or a centipede?
    But I think that the statistics show ( Bryce is good with statistics if he resists the temptation to distort their meaning to comport with closely held opinions) that its better to secure territory if you don’t make significant territory or score after 4 phases.
    Significant energy is expended holding the ball for umpteen phases & going nowhere. This energy expenditure will show in the latter part of games.

  3. Cheers Americano.
    I think you make a good point.
    I think the bottom line is the best teams adapt to what is in front of them and do what is appropriate to score.
    If the opposition can’t contest a lineout and maul then they will attack using that, if they don’t defend the backfield well then they will kick more etc.
    I think we have become scared of making errors, and therefore have become risk averse so don’t try and make passes. I feel this is a numbers thing too – if you practise enough and throw 25 – 30 passes that could lead to a try being scored then a certain percentage will stick.
    If 5 stick, then that could be 5 tries.
    I think rugby has to adapt, especially in the NH.
    The audience and viewers want a more exciting product and the players need a more skilful game to reduce the attrition/injury rate.
    Regarding just always going to ground and recycling, this is risk averse but when teams do something else, like Itoje passing out of contact yesterday when you are in behind the defence it leads to tries.
    Plus finally I don’t understand why you would willingly give go to ground and create another contest for possession when you already have the ball! That seems illogical to me.
    One thing I couldn’t understand about England during the 2015 RWC was that the game plan involved going to ground and setting up phases etc but they didn’t play an out and an out fetcher. They then utilised this tactic against teams who used two opensides, like Hooper and Pocock and the likes of Warburton who were much more effective than England on the ground!!!

  4. I have for years said that forget the weather, forget the culture, look at they way the game is controlled by referees and all becomes clear….

    Coaches, players change the game more on the way the game is handled than playing to weather or type for me. The way referees control the breakdows, scrums and the mauls is different than in the south.

    Tthere is a simple reason why last years WC semi’s was played by SH sides. It sometimes feel due to the fact that SH game is more towards open running rugby that referees even adopt to our style more than the NH more conservitive game.

  5. Interesting point.
    Would be an interesting experiment to see the refs from the two hemispheres swapped for a period of time.
    The other standout factor is relegation and the fear that casts over teams and players.

  6. @Ben Pegna: Ben, one thing I do see that a guy like Nigel, for me, an maybe just the way I experiece it, handle a Bok vs AB game different than when he does a Six nations game.

    Maybe I am wrong but that is how I see it. Maybe I need to check but I am sure that if we look at 6N then we will see a different game when SH referees handle the game as well

  7. I think S18 rugby has a festival component built into it. I loved it when the Fun-N-Gun Cheetahs threw the ball around fast-break style from everywhere eschewing defensive responsibilities because….
    It’s S18 – who cares about the outcome really let’s just let the champagne flow!

    But with test rugby – all that matters is the score – winning.
    I’m all for test sides keeping the ball alive & not going to ground -within opponents half- ( agree with you Mr Pegna – with the fecthers like hooper & pocock this is a risky endeavor these days for retention).

    I just don’t think playing hot potato with the ball in your end is a worthy gamble.
    Especially with teams like NZ. They need to be strangled & pinned in their end due to their dangerous strike runners.
    NZ did a masterful job in the final of pinning SA down territory-wise.

  8. @Americano Agree all that matters is the score, passing and using the ball is effective.
    Why is deliberately running into people more likely to lead to a team winning?
    I am not averse to playing territory when necessary, but don’t subscribe to the point of view that you can only play and pass the ball in the opposition half.
    In your own third the opposition have fewer defenders in the front defensive line, the back 3 are back and watching for kicks.

    As I said, the best teams do what is appropriate for the situation and after all a 2 v 1 is a 2 v 1 in your 22 or the oppositions.

Comments are closed.