Game plan attack priorities to blunt defences

Peter Russell is very experienced coach, having worked with premier teams across the rugby globe. He was head coach of Hawkes Bay, assistant coach with the Highlanders Super Rugby team, head coach at the Newcastle Falcons and the NEC Green Rockets in Japan. He is now head coach at the Manawatu Mitre 10 Cup team.

In the pod, he was keen to chat about the game plan concept, trends and the exposure of defence systems.

In this detailed discussion, here are some of the many areas we covered:

  • What is meant by an attacking part of a game plan
  • What are the key elements to this game plan
  • How does an attack breakdown the modern, aggressive defensive systems
  • Why “shape” comes second
  • How does “shape” work, for example, with a 1,3,3,1 system
  • What happens in training to enable the game plan to work
  • What’s the role of kicking in a game plan
  • Why we need to think about the width of passes from the base of a ruck
  • What the All Blacks disastrously forgot against the Lions in 2017


Teams in the modern era have to deal with aggressive defences, like the ones devised by Shaun Edwards. They come forward quickly, denying your attack time and space. We have to devise ways to dent this defence, get around, or go over it.

One method is to use dual play-makers. For example, the All Blacks use their 10 and 15 to offer to “pivot” players, so the defence doesn’t immediately guess which side the attack is most likely to go. Or, you can have a realistic second kicking option at 12, like the Farrell and Ford axis for England.

Teams will use an attacking shape to breakdown a defence. However, they need to remember that it is important to go forward first. Once you can’t go forward, then you revert to a “shape”. Typical shapes are 1,3,3,1 or 2,4,2, which are how the forwards spread themselves across the pitch.

Ideally, you play in general play. There is no need for shape. If you are slowed down, then you might aim to get to the touchline, and set up your shape. From the touchline, you aim to dent the defence in the midfield. This could happen from the first play from the touchline, or a couple more.

From here, the key decision makers decide where to play next. They will be receiving crucial information from their outside players, especially those on the edges of the defence (the space between the last defender on the line and the touchline). These edge attackers, typically the wingers, might spot mismatches or space. They relay this into the decision maker who then determines whether to play to that edge or not.

The pivot players are also looking for mismatches in the defensive lines. Perhaps slower forwards haven’t filled in the line from the previous attack, or the defence is out of position in the backfield.

Sometimes, the attack has to reduce the impact of a particularly damaging defender, one who shoots out of the line to stifle a move. The attackers should look to exploit this with inside passes at the last moment.

In training, depending on the numbers, teams need to map out how they are going to play. This map, and probably the key point to all planning and mapping, must be based on the profile of the team. While it would be great to replicate any team in the world, the harsh reality is that teams have different strengths and weaknesses.

While we would love to see props and hookers kicking more drop goals, game plans and attacks work best if the players are able to execute the basics. Any work that improves players handling can mean that forwards in the shape can all be better decision makers. In a set up of a pod of three forwards, each needs the ability to make a short, flat pass and to be able to pass the ball behind the pod to a back, perhaps to attack wider.

Part of those skills include taking a “zero” ball, which is a very flat pass. This reduces the distance to the gain line, meaning defences can come forward as fast. This also aligns with other efficiency improvements. Forwards need to take sharper running lines to get into position, beating defenders into position. Instead of taking wide arcs, the forwards should be running L-shapes.

Overall, game plans need to be realistic, matching player expectations and ability with your goals. The playbook is not long. Each play will lots of options. Yet, simple terms, you still need to plan on how to gain possession first. So, number one, win your set pieces. Then, go forward and attack the gain line. After that, if you can’t go forward with general play, you get into shape.

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