Geraint Davies and the team at Bajad8a break down the building blocks of elite rugby. Here they look at a key decision: to run or to kick?

Rugby Explained: When to kick and when to run

In any one elite-level rugby match, a team can expect to receive the ball via a kick between 15 and 20 times. To put this in context, a team will get between three and five scrum put-ins per match.

The decision-making and strategy of the receiving team is, therefore, a key factor in getting themselves into scoring positions. This is particularly important in those situations where a catcher has enough time to decide whether to set off on a counter-attacking run or whether to kick. But how are these decisions made? Let’s take a look.

There’s no doubt that during the Six Nations, watching a full-back catch the ball and then set off on a side-stepping and offloading mission up the field is wonderful. The realities of professional rugby make this spectacle challenging on most occasions. There are a large number of variables that could influence the decision – however, we can break these down into four common principles.

When to kick

France’s Brice Dulin makes a decision to kick (Getty Images)

  1. Whether the catcher is alone in the backfield and how close their support is.
  2. What type of player is in the backfield. A No 8 will have a different set of skills to a scrum-half, which will influence their decision.
  3. The organisation of the chase line. Highly organised chase lines make it difficult to break through.
  4. The teams pre-determined kick strategy. We are all familiar with the trend of kick exchanges involving multiple kicks from each team. The hope is to force an error from an opponent, perhaps by using one of those clever spiral bombs where the kicker fires a corkscrew kick high into the air.

Take Stuart Hogg’s famed spiral kick in the 2021 Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham as an example. When he received a kick from England’s Elliot Daly, he was positioned near the middle of the field, giving him a good angle to kick for touch. There was also a large space on the left side of the field to kick into, his 14 teammates were in front of him, and England had a well organised chase line.

This scenario in addition to his desire to push England deep into their 22m, and his ability to kick the ball long all combine to help him make a quick and effective decision. Of course, he could have run, but the chances of him running the ball into the 22m were slim in comparison to kicking the ball.

Most kicks are made as part of a well-planned chase and kick return strategy. The best example of this is the box-kick, which I’ve illustrated in Figure 1 below.

Wales have organised their chase line ready for a box-kick from their nine, Tomos Williams. Ireland have kept back Hugo Keenan (15) and CJ Stander (8) inside the 15m line as this is the most likely place for the box-kick to be targeted. Johnny Sexton (10) and James Lowe (11) are holding open, which gives Ireland the choice of moving the ball across the field to target the outside spaces.

When to kick

Fig 1: Box-kick chase and receipt set-up. Wales v Ireland, 2021

Note also both George North (13) and Hallam Amos (11) positioned on the blindside. Their objective will be to make a quick and effective tackle forcing Ireland to play from within their own half. However, Ireland are preparing for the Welsh chase and as highlighted in the yellow circles in Figure 2, the Irish forwards have created an opportunity for Stander to run.

This is known as an escort team and is a deliberate ploy to both protect the catcher and to create breaks in the defensive line that act as holes for an attacker to run into. Stander catches and immediately run straight for his own teammates who need only to step aside to allow him through. This scenario results in an Irish ruck on the Welsh 10m line, a positive outcome.

When to kick

Fig 2: Box-kick receipt, escort teams and creating holes. Wales v Ireland, 2021

Where players get really excited is when they receive a kick from a team who have either just turned the ball over and have kicked immediately, or have been forced to kick under pressure. The field in this example, as demonstrated in figure 3, is now significantly more disorganised than in the previous examples, which affords exciting opportunities for wingers and full-backs in particular.

In the example below, Scarlets fly half Dan Jones has been forced to kick after a stray pass forced him backwards with the majority of his team in front and out of attack shape. Ospreys speedsters Dan Evans (15) and Mat Protheroe (11) are presented with a perfect running opportunity where the worst-case scenario would be a tackle on half way, close enough to the retreating forward to set a play-off nine and to regain shape.

However, the positioning of Scott Williams presents a chance to gain some protection. So without hesitation Evans runs immediately for Williams who cleverly steps aside towards the touchline opening a path for Evans to run through. Scarlets centre Jonathan Davies (13) is able to make a covering tackle giving the Ospreys a ruck on the 22m line, a net gain of 40m from where the ball was caught.

When to kick

Fig 3: Kick receipt and attacking disorganised defence. Ospreys v Scarlets, Pro14.

The decision as to whether to run or kick is, therefore, a complex one. The best players and teams make it look easy. A key focus for players is to ensure  they are scanning the field for opportunities before they receive the ball, a skill that enables them to make quick and effective decisions when their opportunity comes.

This piece was written by Geraint Davies – part of the Bajad8a collective.

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