Rugby is a weird game.
It lacks the simplicity of soccer/football, yet it is much easier to grasp than the American gridiron version of the game.
At its core, its a simple game; anyone can carry the ball so long as they’re onside, the ball can be kicked in any direction but only thrown laterally or backwards. From there, dive into scoring, penalties, etc. There’s layers to the game, but there aren’t too many weird situations.
For truly great rugby players, those weird situations are fantastic opportunities.
Last week, the Seattle/Utah game provided such a situation. With the tight-head prop on a yellow card, Seattle’s replacement prop came off injured. As such, Seattle was required to temporary replace one player with a replacement front row player for the uncontested scrum, as well as drop down to 13 as a result of the uncontested scrum due to the yellow card. (The referee initially erred by not forcing the Seawolves to drop to 13, but rectified the issue at the next scrum.)
The scrum in question came as a result of a Utah knock-on. While Seattle captain Reikert Hattingh didn’t understand the situation, a truly great player would have seen the tactical advantage.
Consider the exact same situation playing out with one change. Instead of Utah committing the knock-on, what if they’d been awarded a penalty for one reason or another?
A player without an understanding of rugby nuances might tell the kicker to aim for the corner or go for the posts depending on the situation. A player that knew the situation would understand that calling for the scrum would result in the opposition being forced down an additional man and be uncontested.
A good decision maker could justify to himself the former options, especially with Seattle starting to dominate the scrum. A great decision maker would know the exact situation and call for the scrum on anything other than a play in which three points wins it on the spot.
Consider a completely different, but equally unique, example from the first round of the 2022 Six Nations. In the Calcutta Cup between England and Scotland, English hooker Luke Cowen-Dickie is yellow carded for a deliberate knock-on resulting in a penalty try. Minutes later, Scotland has a line-out just inside the English half, at witch Finn Russell calls for a maul. The maul rolls sideways into the open field, allowing Russell the angle to grubber the ball into the corner.
Since Russell was past the midway line, England takes possession, but the gain in territory is only one reason for the move. Since Cowen-Dickie was yellow carded and there hasn’t been a scrum since, England haven’t been able to bring in a replacement hooker. Instead, loose-head Joe Marler takes the thrown in, which goes… poorly.
Scotland get the scrum for the ‘not straight’ call. England give up a penalty during the scrum to put the icing on the cake, but the brilliance was the decision making that led to it.
Russell gained about forty meters against a team that was down a man by understanding the situation. Knowing that England didn’t have a trained thrower on the field meant the line out was certainly going to go wrong. Its a calculated risk by the Scottish 10, but a risk that results in an incredible reward. The subsequent score put Scotland over the top and kept the Calcutta Cup in Scotland for another year.
This isn’t commentary about American players not fully understanding the game, though the examples could make it appear that way. Few players in the world would think to do what Russell did. Its a weird situation that creates a tactical opportunity.
Rugby is a bit like chess. Some moves aren’t about the immediate checkmate but setting you up to take the king in the following moves.
If you want a fantastic dive into the Russell play, check out the analysis by Squidge Rugby below.