The last resort for continuity

To create continuity, your players need to understand their support roles at the tackle contest. They also need to practise being innovative for when it goes wrong.


Support allows continuity of possession, whether from a pass or clearing out a threat at the breakdown. The first attribute of a good support play is good knowledge of the game plan.

From set pieces, all the players should know where the ball is going to be passed to and what the move will be. This helps forwards and backs understand their support running lines.

For instance, the openside flanker (7) will set a target for his support line and set off towards the probable point of contact with the opposition. He will want the ball carrier to get to the gain line. Off a scrum, this is regarded as a line extending across the pitch from the middle of the scrum. Half a metre behind the gain line and he has to go back to support. Half a metre or more in front of the gain line and he can run onto the ball or drive in more effectively to clear out a threat.

The gain line and support are key. Frequently each team only commits two players to the ruck area and this can make for fast ball. If this fast ball is behind the gain line, then the support runners will be struggling to get into position. We have a mantra, which is: ‘stay in the game’. Good support comes from players looking to be continually involved, even after a pass or being involved in a ruck.


The second attribute of good support play is knowing the way team mates play. A flanker, especially, will want to know how 10, 12 and 13 take the ball up to the defenders and then off-load. How do they hold the ball, are they likely to off-load the ball with one hand, how will they step before contact and how might they present the ball. I like the players to have ‘alliances’, where they are familiar with each other’s game to help generate their support lines.


Support play starts with the ball carrier and what he is likely to do. If we think in particular about the role of the ball carrier in the contact area, we want to consider the offload and ball placement skills. We want players to work on their one-handed offloads. This helps us work into ‘channel one’, which is the space directly behind the tackler. The support player needs to read the movements of the ball carrier and then change his angle of run to take the pass and move into this space.

I use the following sequence of play to develop the support decision:

  1. The ball carrier, using footwork, creates a ‘weak shoulder’. This means the tackle will be made using an arm (due to a step or swerve away by the ball carrier), as opposed to the tackler using his shoulder. An arm tackle is far less powerful than a shoulder tackle.
  2. The support player decides on whether he will receive the pass or move to clear out a threat.

The ball carrier needs to decide, should he have taken contact, which of three actions he is going to undertake once he goes to ground. His decision should be based on how close the support player is and how the ball carrier has fallen:

  • Pop the ball to the support player because he can carry the ball away, ensuring fast ball and continuing the phase of the attack.
  • Place the ball because a support player is very close and can protect him on the ground.
  • Roll the ball back because the support players are not close enough yet.


If there is no opposition in the passing channel and the support player is close enough, then the best form of continuity is a pop pass from the ground after the tackle.


If there is an opposition player close by, but a support player also there, then place the ball away from the opposition. The support player can then clear away the threat, or pick up the ball.


If the support player is too far away to protect the ball, it makes sense to roll it away. Otherwise, there is a risk of a turnover, or that the player on the ground holds on to the ball and gives away a penalty.


To practise these skills, I get my players into columns of four. The first player runs out, puts the ball on the ground and turns to become a defender. The next player picks up the ball and attacks the defender with good footwork. The next two players act as support players in the contact area.

Once happy with the skills, such as footwork before contact, I will add another player. Now I have two defenders, and the ball carrier will probably have to roll the ball back.

All this leads to a pick and pass situation. The first support player to the ball on the ground picks up the ball and passes to the next player, so we are attacking about two metres away from the edge of the tackle area or ruck.


When we have worked on the skills in a small area, we need to expand the area where we work to test the skills of the ball carrier and support players. Both have to make decisions. The ball carrier is trying to put the defender in the weakest position possible. The first support player is identifying the threats.

If there is a threat, then the first support player clears that threat. If there is no threat, then he picks and passes. He becomes a distributor. The next support player goes through the same process. If there are still threats, then he clears. No threats, then he is the distributor.

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