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Use turnovers and counterattacks effectively

By Tony Biscombe and Peter Drewett


Many tries, especially at the international level, are scored from turnovers. This is because the defence generally is out of position when the ball is given over. Most often, the ball carrier is turned or loses the ball in contact, or sends a wayward pass that is intercepted. Good teams look for these turnovers and know how to attack once they have the ball. Your reaction to a turnover depends on where you are on the pitch, what the score is, and various other factors. Plan for all scenarios in the game and practise your counterattacking routines. Generally speaking, if you win the ball unexpectedly from contact, the best thing to do is to make two quick passes away so that the ball carrier has time and space to look up and answer these questions:

  • How close is the defence?
  • Where is the space?
  • Where is my support?
  • How will we score?
  • Should I run, pass or kick?

Another common way of receiving unexpected possession is from a kick downfield. Some basic principles from all kicks can be applied. The abiding one is, Don’t be caught with the ball behind the majority of your teammates. Your essential role is to set up an attack that has a very good chance of clearing your half and open up the field for any follow-up attacks to give your team the best chance of scoring. If you are in any doubt, either kick back downfield as long as possible with a good chase, or kick into touch as far downfield as possible and then trust your defence.

Many of the most exciting attacks come when the ball is kicked to a wing or full back and is then run back at the chasing team from inside the 22-metre area. If this is team policy, all players must understand their roles in making such scoring attempts part of the attacking ploys available to the team. Any kick ahead may leave the kicking team exposed to some form of counterattack. Your task is to know how to make the most effective use of any ball that comes your way. Follow these basic counterattacking principles:

  • If there is space out wide, use it (figure 11.11a). Otherwise, fix the chasing players, especially the forwards, by running the ball towards them (figure 11.11b).
  • Switch the point of attack once the defence is fixed.
  • Support, support, support at pace.
  • Flood the attack area with players. Hit the space hard and keep going until you score or need to change the point of attack.
  • Keep the pace high and don’t allow the defence to rest or reset.

The final way of receiving unexpected possession is by being awarded a free kick or penalty. This can leave the opposition very exposed, especially if they have a large number of players near the ball or on the ground. Opponents near the mark of the penalty must immediately move 10 metres away and allow the ball carrier to run at least 5 metres. This effectively gives the ball carrier the opportunity to make ground into and possibly through any defensive structure and close to the opponents’ goal line. A quickly taken tap penalty often leads to a try. For example, when a free kick is given at the scrum, the number 9 immediately throws the ball back to the number 8, who taps and runs from the base. This effectively takes out all the forwards from the defence and gives that player a free run into the three-quarter defence with close support from the back row, scrum half and inside backs.

Every team should have an acute awareness of what is possible from free kicks and penalties. Make it part of your team’s overall strategy to take these quickly and support the ball carrier in numbers.



This is an excerpt from Rugby: Steps to Success.



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