Why Passes in Rugby Go Astray

Why do so many passes in rugby go astray? Even at higher levels of the game, many promising moves break down because the receiver has had to reach up, or even reach behind him (or her), to take the ball.

Sometimes, there will be technical reasons, such as passing off the wrong foot. Often, the pass from 9 to 10 will go high because the 9 has been imbalanced at the point of ball release. This can particularly happen if the front foot has come too far across. In an effort to maintain balance, the head comes back and up, with the result that the pass has an upwards trajectory.

But the main reason that passes go astray is that they have not been aimed properly, and this generally happens because rugby players are human beings. If one person is looking to see where another person is, it is natural to look for their face, just like you would look for somebody’s face in a photograph. But if you are looking at the receiver’s face when you pass the ball, it’s likely that the ball will go in the general direction of their face. If the receiver is running forwards, the ball may well disappear somewhere behind their head.

The other problem is that receivers like to read the intentions of the players inside them. In particular, they might want to see if the ball carrier is looking in their direction, so they can anticipate when the ball might be coming in their direction. In order to get a good view of the face, they come up almost level with the ball carrier. This means that the ball carrier has only three options, all of which are poor: a forward pass; a flat pass that the receiver can’t run onto; or a pass behind the receiver.

The answer is to train players, ideally from a young age, to use their vision effectively. How many coaches drum into their players that passes should be made for the receiver and not to the receiver? How many explain where the ball should be aimed, and how this varies according to the speed of the receiver? How many tell the receivers about being able to see the number on the back of the ball carrier’s shirt so they don’t overrun the ball?

Above all, are coaches using realistic opposed drills, so the players can put all this in the context of the timing of the pass, and whether to pass or not? If you are, then asking the right questions, even with young players, can lead to the players working out the answers for themselves. For instance, what are they looking for in the defenders that tells the whether to pass or dummy? What can they do in their footwork that would make them more effective?

But if players are taught in a mechanistic way, then you might as well just pick bigger and bigger wrecking balls, and not bother about the fact that they can’t pass a ball. Some would say, we’ve reached that point already.