by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
Sports have varying degrees of strategy, tactics, and techniques interwoven into them. The process of examining how teams think about the game and understanding how they want to play can be an insightful exercise for players and coaches alike. Having coaches and players curious about team strategy, tactics, and technique is a must for our game to continue to improve here in America.
For this discussion, let’s use the following definition for strategy: “a plan, method, or series of maneuvers or stratagems for obtaining a specific goal or result.” In rugby, strategy is often referred to as a pattern of play, the mechanics of tying together a series of maneuvers to advance the ball and eventually score points.
The degree of strategy typically mirrors the level of sophistication within the team. Novice sides demonstrate very little by way of strategy while advanced teams employ sophisticated patterns of play. Patterns of play provide a high degree of certainty as to what the team might do next with the possession based on an established decision-making criteria set out by the coaches. Patterns of play do not limit the player’s decision-making role during a match, but rather provide the team with a shared sense of purpose. A pattern of play is not sequencing, where player’s assignments are predetermined irrespective of the quality of the possession, but both patterns of play and sequencing would be considered strategies in rugby.
Tactics, or the maneuvers themselves, are designed to service the objectives of the pattern of play. The tactics, like the pattern of play itself, should take into consideration the assets and liabilities of the players that comprise the team. Successful strategies are built using tactics that exploit your team’s strong suit.
Within the pattern of play, and tactics used in the pattern, are a series of techniques, some generalized and some position specific. Techniques, defined here as “the manner and ability with which an athlete employs the technical skills of the game” and, in my humble opinion, where the rubber meets the road. Teams must have sufficient skill levels to execute the tactics that make up the overall strategy for a team to experience success.
Asking players to execute tactics that are beyond their current skill level happens in teams because the process of training core skills isn’t as entertaining as mimicking a play seen during a Super 14 match. Without a sufficient level of core skills competency, the chosen tactics and overall patterns of play will fail to materialize. The phrase we use at Cal is “skills, not schemes” when discussing what we feel is the proper evolution of patterns of play.
For example, a team receives a restart on their right hand touchline. Their strategy is to consolidate that kick, form a ruck, and execute a box kick with designated kick chasers. The best teams in the world all employ this as part of their patterns of play. In this example, there is a dozen generalized and position specific techniques that must be performed well for the tactic (box kicking the ball down field) to be successful. Although being successful at the technique level will not automatically assure the tactics will always prevail, it does provide the side with a fighting chance to achieve success in the team’s pattern of play.
When rugby is at its best, all fifteen players have a clear understanding of their team’s strategy, the tactics used to accomplish the strategy, and the techniques needed to fill the tactics. Players are encouraged to make their “in-the-moment decisions” with this overall pattern of play in mind.
When a team uses a pattern of play, with tactics and sound technique, it reminds me of one of my favorite rugby sayings: “Fifteen as One.”
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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