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"Ploy Calling: A Simplified System"

(Originally published with the title modified to "Play Calling," the folks at RUGBY taking editorial license and thinking that word more American usage [although I still prefer "Ploy" as the term more distinctive to rugby])

[minor updated revisions and some elaborations are in brackets]

The system was conceived in late 1983 and developed early in 1984 and implemented in the practice and play of teams at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where I was a tactician and assistant coach .

originally published in RUGBY, "Coaches Corner," 21 January 1985
under first North American serial rights as submitted
©1984-2000 by Dean Franklin "Frank" Coffman, Jr. / all subsequent rights reserved
Contact the author at for permissions or information.

PURISTS OF THE GAME date the origin of rugby to the legendary exploits of William Webb Ellis who, as a schoolboy at Rugby School in 1823, " with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby Game." [1]

Learning the Game

The distinctive thing about how players learned and went about carrying the ball is that it remained principally unchanged for more than 125 years. Club captains and senior players would organize such practices as there were (for the most part, they were only scrimmages and practice games), and demonstrated the skills of running and passing, sidestep, swerve, change-of-pace, the classic fall-away pass, etc. These early practices and hard game experiences were the ways novices learned.


The British did not take to the notion of coaching until the 1960's, although it had begun more than a generation earlier in the former colonies of New Zealand and South Africa. They felt that if players were fit and experienced, the individual "flair" of the backs and the strength of the forwards would prevail. To them, the notion of a planned or signalled move among the backs was nearly unthinkable: it stifled creativity.

However, by the time Izak van Heerden's Tactical and Attacking Rugby appeared in 1967, many of the game's theorists were becoming convinced that the battle on the rugby field needed a definite plan of attack -- needed tactics as well as pre-game strategies.

This is not to say that every backline did not have its pet attacking combinations and ploys. Rather, there was no consensus on what to call these moves, how to call them, or when to use them.

Little Consistency

The resulting confusion has continued to this day. Although most people in the game understand such terms as "miss," "loop," and "scissors," they use such terms as "crash ball" with little consistency. Some terms, like van Heerden's "pocket" moves, have fallen out of general use in the common rugby vocabulary, and so, in the American game at least, are rarely seen. The non-use of a term has resulted in the relative non-use of a move.

Need for Standardization

There is a need for standardization of terminology and a simplification of the way we call plays [ploys]. Here is one place where American rugby can borrow from the game's over-specialized hybrid, American gridiron football.

Borrow from Football

This type of borrowing has two advantages. First, the tacticians of American football have devised, over the decades, an elaborate and descriptive system to tell 11 men what to do in an audible signal that takes only a few seconds to call. Second, as most American ruggers have played gridiron football, they have worked with this type of play-calling system.

Numbering System

What gridiron tacticians devised many years ago was the system of numbering the "holes" in the line (the gaps between linemen through which the numbered backs were to run). The standard system became odd holes left, even holes right. The standard back numbers became QB-#1, LH-#2, RH-#3, FB-#4. So, a fullback dive between the guard and tackle to the right of center would be called "44 dive," or simply 44. [Of course there were still some idiosyncratic labels and numbersings, but this was the basis of the system.]

The merit of this system is obvious: it quickly and efficiently tells a ball carrier [and the line ahead of him] what to do and where to do it.

A similar system can be usefully applied to backline play [ploy]-calling in rugby. If the backs are numbered according to their positions, one can call a play [ploy] with a command that includes only a 2-digit number and a single word or phrase. The first digit of the number is that of the ball carrier who initiates the move (all passing prior to the move is assumed to be normal passing out from the scrum half to wing on the open side). The second digit is the number of the player who is designated to receive the ball. The word or phrase describes the type of pass or action necessary for the move. In some few cases, a third number or a longer word or phrase may be needed.

The numbering of the backs is as follows:

Scrum Half #9

Fly [(Outside)] Half #1

Inside Center #2

Outside Center #3

Open [(Wide)]Side Wing #4

Fullback #5

Blind [(Narrow/Short)] Side Wing #6

[A move or ploy utilizing a Flanker would have him numbered #7]

[A move or ploy utilizing the #8 would have him numbered #8]

Code Words

An abbreviated list of code words follows:

A traditional pass in the direction of the open side touchline.

A traditional pass back toward the previous forward action (scrum, lineout, ruck, or maul) from the open side.

A traditional pass in the direction of the blind side touchline.


A traditional pass back toward the previous forward action from the blind side.


A scissors pass.


A miss-out [or "miss"] pass: the passer throws directly to the designated receiver, thereby skipping the intervening [man or] men.


A loop: the [ultimate] receiver of the pass must loop around the man he has just passed [delivered] to and recollect the ball [receive a pass] on his outside.


A pass delivered after the passer has crossed the path of a man outside him and offered a dummy scissors.


A pass given to the fullback or blind side wing who is entering the line and filling in [on the passer's inside] for a back who is "dummy looping" the passer.


A pass given to the fullback or blind side wing who is joining the line to make an extra man.


The designated back has a go at breaking the defensive backline (this is signalled by using zero as the second digit to show there is no pass, i.e. "10" or "10 Go" -- the flyhalf tries for a break [Note: this can be expanded to help give the forward as well as the backs some info. The flyhalf might call out "10 In" or "10 Out" to indicate angle of attack or on which side of his man the break will be attempted.]


When added to a call, the signal for a fake or "dummy" of the move.


The receiver loops in to take a ball directly from the passer. [This is usually the outside center taking the ball directly from the flyhalf or the wing taking the ball directly from the inside center -- in either case, after having looped "in" around the intervening man. This has the effect of altering the angle of attack and is, by my understanding, the classic and original sense of "crash ball."]


Are signalled by using the designated kicker's number for both digits. [The code word becomes something indicative of the type of and/or the direction of the kick.] An example would be "22 Box": the inside center lofts a high kick to the box -- the zone behind the opposition forwards and ahead of their wing [and fullback]. Others might be "11 Drop" and "44 Cross" -- with obvious meanings.

Compound Moves

A team that adopts this system and extends the code word vocabulary should be able to call and execute even complicated moves simply and quickly. These compound moves are, as the name would imply, usually combinations of more simply called plays [ploys]. For example, the play should be a dummy scissors between the centers with the fullback joining the line. The call would be "245 Cross-Join." The third digit represents the ultimate receiver. The second code word represents the second action of this two-part play [ploy]. Where the fullback joins can even be indicated: "join-in" for inside the wing, "join-out" for outside.

Quick, Easy, Descriptive, and Comprehensive

This play [ploy]-calling system has the virtues for which it was designed: it is quick to call, easy to understand, descriptive of the action indicated, and comprehensive. It has proven effective in the coaching of players at the University of Illinois, and was instrumental in our club's sweep of both "A" and "B" divisions of our Union Championship. Young initiates to the game, familiar with American gridiron, have mastered it quickly, and older players have adapted to it readily.

[And, in addition, it offers other potentialities and implementations.] [First,] It should be useful as a standardized shorthand for scouting the opposition, one of the new additions to rugby and another borrowing from the American game.

[Second,] It can be used inventively by the rugby tactician. By playing with the numbers and words, one can hit upon a few new, workable plays. One can come up with new varieties of what van Heerden calls "moves of enterprise and surprise . . . advanced tactical moves of evasion and deception -- the 'foxy' moves which bring the tries, and put magic in the game." [2]

[Third,] If the player understands the system fully, it should enable him to visualize and execute plays [ploys] never previously practiced: for the call describes the play so that the player can see the move in "instant pre-play."


The example ploys that were illustrated for the article and their respective captions are as follows:

23 Cut

A scissors betwen the centers -- the inside center (#2) gives a scissors pass to the outside center (#3).

13 Cut

The outside center drifts in two men to take a scissors ball directly from the fly half (this is the famous "Rangi Move," named for [Ron Rangi,] the Maori New Zealand center who ran it to perfection).

21 Around

The flyhalf loops around the inside center after giving him a traditional pass and collects again on his outside to extend the line.

13 Skip

The fly half passes directly to the outside center, missing the inside center.

24 Crash

The open side wing loops inside around the outside center to take a pass directly from the inside center, thus straightening the line of attack.

24 Cross

The inside center offers a dummy scissors to the outside center and passes directly to the wing [The more I think on this, the more I think it should be called as a compound move for clarification to the "dummied" man: thus, it would become "234 Cross"--or it could be "23 Dum" or something like that, the implication being that the winger would likely get the next out pass anyway.]

95 Away

The scrum half passes directly to the fullback [entering] on the blind side.

30" or 30 Go

The outside center tries to breach the defensive backline.

245 Cross/Join

The play is a dummy scissors between the centers with the fullback joining the line. The third digit represents the ultimate receiver. The second code word represents the second action of this two-part play. Where the fullback joins can even be indicated: join-in for inside the wing, join-out for outside. [As above, maybe "23 Dum-Join would work, although that doesn't keep the initial pass from the center to the winger as a definite action prior to the fullback's join.]

[Of coures the names of these ploys might be changed to virtually anything that you think might be best for your side; the numbers and theory of (# or ball possessor or passer/# of ball receiver), I would think, need to be kept pretty much as described above.]

Comments and suggestions are welcomed.

©1984-2000 by Frank Coffman,

all rights reserved.

The following material appeared at the end of the Rugby article.

Note: Differences between this system and the USARFU Guidelines for club coaching include:

1) "In" and "Out" in the USARFU Guidelines designate the positions of the weakside wing and/or fullback when entering the backline.

2) "Cut" is the equivalent to "Scissors" in the Guidelines.

3) "Skip" is equivalent to "Miss" in the Guidelines.

4) "Around" is equivalent to "Loop" in the Guidelines.


[1] A part of the inscription on the plaque embedded in the wall near the original pitch on the "Close" at Rugby School. [use your browser's BACK command or
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[2] from the opening chapter of Tactical and Attacking Rugby by Izak van Heerden [use your browser's BACK command or
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