Unopposed: the pros and the pitfalls

Is a team run without opposition a necessary evil? Experienced schools and club coach Bill McDonald considers both sides of the argument, with solutions to some of the pitfalls and ways to make your team runs more effective.


In the training session before a match, you will want, at some stage, to run through the plays your team aim to use. Unless you are extremely fortunate, it’s likely that this week’s team will be different from the previous week’s. Returning or new players to the match-day 15 will want to connect with their team mates and vice versa.

If you have new plays for the backs or forwards, you will also want to put them together with each other, so support lines can be established.
In defence, you will be keen to check out who covers who from set pieces and how the defence reacts to various situations.

It’s impractical to run this against a full opposition for two reasons. The first is that you want to keep your players fresh and therefore avoid too much additional contact, if any contact at all. The second is that you won’t have enough players to act as opposition anyway.

Therefore, from a purely practical point of view, taking an unopposed team run is a necessary evil. However, you need to consider that it has its limitations. You might need to adjust certain elements of the run to make sure you put your players under enough match-like conditions to help transfer learning effectively.


1. Numbers

You only need one set of players for an unopposed team run. It can even be an effective exercise if a couple of players are missing. This makes it ideal if you have a small squad of players. If you are missing key players (scrum half, fly half) it is a great opportunity to try out different players in these positions in case they are needed to play there.

2. Game plan speed

You don’t have to wait to win the ball. You can spend more time on fluency and accuracy. You have far more goes at different patterns and scenarios.

3. No worries

By removing the contact aspect of the game you reduce the chances of injury to players. This is ideal in the build up to games and again suits you if you have a small squad.

4. Develop understanding

Use the time to ask questions, especially about options in the game plan. Are they in the right position, was that the best alignment.


1. No pressure

There is some pressure, but the players will inevitably not need to worry about contact. Also, poor execution of skills won’t lead to turnovers, so there’s less incentive to be accurate.

2. Running too far

Without opposition in front of them players have a tendency to run too far with the ball removing the realism from the exercise. The attack is always working off front-foot ball which is very easy to support.

3. No one in the ruck

Players don’t present the ball properly when they go to ground. The support players either “ruck over” poorly or simply don’t go into the situation. That leaves too many players on their feet, which is unlike the game.

4. Too fast

With no contest at the breakdown, the attacking team receive perfect ball every time. They always works off quick ball. Sometimes this means that the forwards don’t have time to realign as they would in the game.


> Semi-opposed

Use spare players to act as a defensive line. Use two-handed touch.

> Specific defenders

As above, but have one or two players who might go for the ball at the tackle.

> Lines to stop at

Start at a line on the pitch and the attacking team aren’t allowed to cross that line. That creates a sense of recycling against a good defence.

> Countdowns to slow

Have a signal or call for the 9 when they can release the ball. You can put up a hand or countdown.

> Embrace speed

Play unopposed super quick so the players have less time to realign.

Bill McDonald has coached the following clubs: Glasgow Hawks, Hillhead, Glasgow Accies, GHA, Helensburgh and Garnock.

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