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"Backline Attack: Breaking the Weak Link"
by Frank Coffman

   Much of what will follow is predicated on the knowledge of an opposing side gleaned from a good scouting report and assessment of the weak link(s) in the enemy's backfield. Of course another way this information might be gathered is through frequent or at least occasional contests against a specific foe in ones own union or area, but why go unprepared into the initial match(es)?

   By "weak link" I mean the back or -- if we're lucky -- backs who lack good tackling skills, good defensive sense, good positioning, or good general rugby sense or fitness -- in any combination. Such scouted or generally known weaknesses as, for example -- "fullback is fairly good in attack, but not in defense; has speed, but trembles beneath the high ball; "hears footsteps"; not a sure fielder of the kick, takes it face on instead of side on; etc. -- ought to invite such an onslaught of "up and unders" and tactical kicks as would make their poor fullback believe he's at the receiving end of a bombing raid. But let's look specifically at attack with the backs, hypothesizing that we've scouted out a "weak link" in the enemy's backline.

   Let's assume, by way of example, that the opposing outside center is their "weak link." A useful strategy ought to evolve that takes advantage of this knowledge. Now a "weak link" is most quickly broken by strength, so let's use our "hammer" -- our hardest-to-bring-down, most punishing ball carrier, or our most evasive and elusive ball carrier, or a combination of the two (not likely to be the same back). We will "hammer" at this link until it breaks. And here is an important point: the "hammer" will not always be the mark of the "weak link," but we can and will make it so by various preconceived tactics. I'll continue the hypothesis with the assumption that, let's say, our inside center is our "tank" our "heavy cavalry" type of runner. Let's say our fly half is our most elusive man, especially in the open field. What tactics might we develop, given the above scenario?

   There are at least four ways to proceed:

  1. use specific ploys or moves to send the hammers again and again against the weak link;
  2. line up the hammer(s) out of normal position -- at least for a few plays, preferably deep in their territory -- to intimidate and let the weak link see directly what's in store;
  3. instill the mindset for the match that one "point of attack" is the unfortunate "weak link," again and again testing with numbers (at least two and, on occasion, more opponents) -- a sort of attacking "double team"
  4. alert all players to the "weak link" as one of the targets for the match, thus directing, potentially, some of the forward brawn at the poor unfortunate in multi-phase play and in the helter skelter of the loose.

   For our example, let me address point one in some detail, the others being relatively simple and obvious.

   Since our fly half and inside center are the two hammers, we are in an ideal position to focus on a few select ploys that this tandem (and maybe a few others) are coached, preconditioned, and -- in effect -- ordered to attempt in the course of the match:

Of course our outside center, the "weak link's" normal mark, should have some goes as well, striving to break through or past his opposite.

   Finally, the use of misdirection away from the "weak link" will often prove very effective-- especially when, later in the game and within their 22, the whole opposition has been trying to help cover for the obvious attack on their "weak link." In the scenario above:

These moves, given our present example, ought to have the effect of taking advantage of the other side's eagerness to help out their embattled "weak link."

   The strategic and tactical "mindset" of this "hammer-the-weak-link(s)" theory ought to be evident from the example. Scouting of the opposition makes this theory much more effective -- some might say even possible in the first place. Of course the "weak link" might be discovered in the course of a game, but the preference should be to determine this prior to the match and plan for the attack. After a few matches and the likely variety of "weak links" that will be faced, the possibilities of flair and spontaneity in response to the match-discoverd "weak link" are much more likely. Plan for effect; then effect the plan.


1 June 2000 by Frank Coffman, all rights reserved.
Frank Coffman is the moderator of the [tacticalrugby] e-group and webmaster of this website. A five-time president of the Illinois (downstate) R. F. U., he was also its Selector-Coach for that same period. He served one term as Director-at-Large of the Midwest R. F. U., two terms as the Executive Secretary of the Midwest, and also as Midwest Coaching Coordinator in which capacity he was also a member of the National Coaching and Selection Committee of the U. S. A. R. F. U. and, briefly, a Midwest Selector. He was the assistant coach at the University of Illinois in 1985 when they went to the "Final Four" in Monterey as Midwest Collegiate Champions.