Counter-attack: decision-making

(Rugby News Service) Thursday 21 June 2007

By Lee Smith, IRB Regional Development Manager Oceania

Counter attack takes place immediately after the defensive team has regained possession. Often the opportunity to counter-attack occurs when the ball has been deliberately kicked by an opponent. However, infringements from which advantage is played and the regaining of possession in close quarters are other situations in which the opportunity to counter-attack arises.

Decision-making variables

Once possession is regained the question is how to counter attack to gain the best result.

This will depend on:

field position, the position of team mates and the positioning of opponents.

Field position

The decision will be based on field positions both down the field and across the field.

Down the field the decision will be based on the pressure felt by the ball-carrier. The closer to the team's defensive goal-line the greater the pressure to get the ball further down-field. The option that will be taken in this situation will most likely be to kick to space or kick to recover. Depending on lineout strength, the kick may be to touch.

If the kick is made down-field but not to touch both a chasing pattern and a receiving pattern need to be established to prevent a running and passing reply in the first instance and to field a return kick in the second.

In zones of the field in which it is not necessary to ensure the ball is cleared from the danger zone, the kick option will just be a case of returning possession to the opposition. The kick is a poor option and the gain must be greater than the loss of possession; running and passing options should be used. The attitude should be to regard the ball that has been kicked to us as possession regained enabling an attack to take place.

In part the use of the ball to counter attack will be based on position across the field, as the ball carrier will want to avoid the touch line, so that both left and right options are available.

Position of team-mates and opponents

Of more importance will be the number of team-mates available relative to the number of opponents, their positioning and especially their depth on the ball. Depth allows them to move into play and to offer options. Lack of depth prevents this.

The principle that should be played to is to move the ball laterally away from the opposition while at the same time keeping opponents confined to where they are.

This will depend on how close the defence is to the ball carrier.

A Close Quarter Turnover

The ball is like a magnet drawing players to it. In close quarters players will be converging on the ball. Once possession is regained, the aim should be to make the ball beat the man and pass it quickly away from congestion to space from which the ball carrier can go forward.

Too often players regaining possession merely consolidate that possession and miss the opportunity to take advantage of the slower adjustment of their opponents and immediately counter-attack.

A Turnover From A Long Kick

If the ball carrier is some distance from the bulk of players, usually when fielding a kick, the space between the two allows the defence to adjust to the use of the ball.

As with the above the aim is to move the ball away from congestion to space. To do so the opposition must be held in place whether they are grouped so that the space for the counter attack is retained.

This can be achieved by running towards the defence holding them in place because they may have to make a tackle, and passing the ball to the space the ball carrier has moved away from i.e. passing to the space created by the ball carrier's running line.

If the ball is passed in the direction of running then the defence will have time to drift with the ball and stop the counter attack.

This will particularly occur when the ball is kicked down the field from a scrum or lineout.

In counter attacking, the ball carrier's running lines should be towards the zone around the set piece while passing to team-mates away from it.

Examples - "Box" kick to the blind-side wing (no. 14).

No. 14 runs at the source of possession and passes to no. 15. No. 15 angles to the source passing to no. 11 or no. 14 who should have doubled round after making the pass. Each ball carrier attempts to do the same i.e. run at the source, pass away from it and double round the receiver in support.

The same basics can be applied to a long kick down the field and the wipers kick.

The opportunity to counter attack from an up and under or Garryowen follows the same principle as counter attack from a close quarter turnover with the ball being moved quickly away from the point of convergence around the ball to space before it is moved forward.

This is the first option in a pattern of counter attacking that is based on the position of the opposition, i.e. hold them in the city while we retain space and attack into the country.

The fluidity of the game does not always create this neat positioning of opponents. They may be spread across the field and be in various formations based on depth down the field.

Using the 80:20 Principle, three further patterns can be identified. These are:

1. Opponents in a single, flat line across the field.
2. Opponents randomly placed across the field.
3. Opponents in an arrowhead formation aligned from team-mates closest to the ball.

A limited range of options can be practiced to exploit these formations:

Single, Flat Defence Line


Kick over the defence recovering the ball behind the defensive line to continue the attack. Attack the defensive line using linear support, knowing that once support breaks the defensive line at one point the whole line will be penetrated. This is very similar to attacks from phase play in general play. Kick long to space behind the line to the sides of the field so that the opposition can only move to the left or the right but not both. Chase to a pattern and have a receiving pattern to field a return kick. The chase should "offer" the opposing team the touchline creating the opportunity of driving them to touch.

Random Defence


The defence has moved forward in no particular pattern with players out of alignment.

In relation to the position of the ball, if players are ahead of those closer to the ball then they are creating "dog leg" gaps similar to those in a backline that is out of defensive alignment.


Initially the ball carrier runs straight at the closest defender to hold the player. This player may not be the defender who is furthest down the field.

Two options will then arise:

1. The ball carrier may attempt to evade the tackler to left or right. The best choice is to choose whatever side the defence is flatter. Their lack of depth will effect their ability to move towards the ball. If the tackle is made a support player will be in a position to continue play as the flat defence will have partly penetrated the defence.

2. Secondly the ball carrier can hold the nearest defender and pass to an unmarked player to continue the attack. As in backline attack with the defence out of alignment the support player will have to run passed a defender before receiving the ball. Upon receiving it space will be available to continue the attack.

Arrowhead Defence


An arrowhead defence will be that formed by a well-organised team.

One or two players will be at the point of the arrow aligning to give the ball carrier no running options.

Team mates will be aligned on the left and right of these players flat enough to reduce the time and space to counter attack to a minimum but in sufficient depth to see play clearly and be able to adjust to it.

The most likely adjustment is to be in a position to move to tackle should the ball carrier evade those at the point of the arrow. This alignment also allows them time to recover kicks made over the initial defenders and to identify and defend inside out the ball carrier they will most likely have to tackle.


If there are greater attacking numbers then the overlap should be used making sure that each defender is committed, i.e. no miss passes. Linear support playing down the channel can be used to draw defenders to the ball. If the attack is able to penetrate it keeps going if not then phase play will create space to continue the attack along a back-line.

General Considerations

Whatever option is chosen ball that is turned-over is possession regained and, in most circumstances, should be retained to build an attack. The ability of players to read the cues and perform these options will vary greatly. It may be necessary to limit the options to those that reduce pressure and/or create space to attack. Consequently in a progression that will develop counter-attack players may have just two options initially:
Option 1: Run, kick to recover or kick to space and chase.
Option 2: Run towards the greatest number of team-mates, use support to form a ruck or maul and continue from there. Experience indicates that there is insufficient practice time for most amateur teams to develop the skills to perform the most advanced options.The above two options may be all that can be achieved given the team's playing priorities. The highest priority in developing counter-attack is in the mental attitude to possession regained by whatever method. It is possession to be retained and it creates an opportunity to mount an attack that exploits the slowness of the opposition to defend.