Winning ugly in rugby

In rugby, there is a style of game that is attractive to watch and that is where a team advances by passing the ball back and forth among teammates while running, and even when there is a breakdown due to a dropped pass or a tackle, quickly launch a second or even third phase by getting the ball out to its fast running backs. This attacking style is fun to watch.

Then there is the slower defensive game where the burly forwards dominate and ground is gained slowly with the ball frequently obscured by the masses of players converged on it and piled on top of one another, with the referee then blowing the whistle for a penalty or to start a set piece scrum. This game is definitely not as exciting to watch but is often the option chosen when playing in rain and the ground is muddy that makes the ball and ground slippery and the fast passing game difficult to pull off. Some teams choose the dour defensive game as a strategy even when the weather conditions do not require it

Robert Kitson clearly prefers the fast game and he chides England for playing ‘robotic’ rugby against Japan in the current World Cup, when they scored all of their 27 points by penalties and drop goals, all kicked by their incredibly accurate fly half George Ford. Kitson says that Portugal (who lost to Wales) and Uruguay (who lost to France) and Fiji (who also lost to Wales) are playing better rugby even as they lost to higher ranked teams.

While fans of rugby who have no strong partisan allegiances will clearly prefer the fast, open style because it is so entertaining, those who are ardent supporters of their team will undoubtedly prefer an ugly win to a pretty loss.

My high school team in Sri Lanka consistently had one of the best school rugby teams in the country. For a few years they had a coach who carried the desire for fast, attacking play to the extreme. The players were forbidden from doing the standard defensive move of kicks to touch to relieve pressure even when they were deep in their own territory or even behind their own goal line. They always had to run and pass the ball. This gave their opponents chances to win ugly because since they knew that our team would not kick the ball to touch, they could anticipate better what our team would do and move their own defensive players into attacking positions.

So while my school team was the most fun to watch, and they won a lot because the coach was very talented in teaching them how to play this type of game and motivating them to do so, they were vulnerable to opponents who executed a careful game plan that could exploit the lack of defensive plays.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    While fans of rugby who have no strong partisan allegiances will clearly prefer the fast, open style because it is so entertaining, those who are ardent supporters of their team will undoubtedly prefer an ugly win to a pretty loss.

    I take some issue with that. The degree to which one enjoys a match depends a lot on one’s knowledge of the game. I get the entertainment value of fast, open play. But I also appreciate the dedication and tactical nous required to grind out a victory, especially against a flair side.

    BTW, a drop goal is a thing of beauty and consummate skill.

  2. John Morales says

    Pretty sure any true sportsman wants to win; winning ugly is winning, losing beautifully is losing.

    “This attacking style is fun to watch.”
    “This game is definitely not as exciting to watch”

    Generalising, but of course de gustibus and stuff.

    In days of chess gone by, it was like trying to compare Petrosian with Tal.

    (Dour defence and positional strangulation vs mad attacking skillz and brilliances)

  3. markp8703 says

    Nitpick: Ford’s amazing game where he scored all of England’s 27 points was England’s first game in the 2023 Rugby World Cup, against Argentina. England played all but three minutes of the game with only 14 players and, I think, played very nicely.

    The game against Japan was a lacklustre affair, with England only starting to play decent rugby in the last 20 or so minutes.

  4. Holms says

    #2 son
    To any AFL viewer, that kick is extremely meh. And drop goals in rugby look to be so easy as to be cheating.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    @Holms, #5:
    Aussie rules posts are 6.4m apart. Rugby posts are 5.6m apart -- so 13% narrower.
    Rugby posts have a horizontal crossbar 3m above the ground. Aussie rules posts… don’t. So the targets are different.

    Are Aussie rules players really regularly dropping goals that clear the ground by three or four metres, dead centre, from 67 yards out? (We don’t get the games here in the UK any more -- we used to, in the early days of Channel 4. In those good old days you could watch American football, Aussie rules, sumo and kabaddi.)

  6. sonofrojblake says

    (aside: I don’t play and as a rule don’t watch rugby. I never really understood why, if what Lydon did in that clip is legal, why most teams don’t score most of their points that way. I have to assume it’s because it’s much harder than it looks…)

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    Holms @5: In rugby, a drop goal can only be scored using a drop kick, in which the ball has to hit the ground before it is kicked. My understanding is that drop kicks have all but disappeared from AFL. Perhaps you’re confusing drop kick with drop punt (in which the ball is kicked before it bounces). That is an easier kick.

  8. Holms says

    #6 sonof
    …From directly in front of the goals, and under no pressure from opposition? Not guaranteed by any stretch and I will take back ‘extremely meh’, but also not out of the ordinary.

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    Once the preferred method of conveying the ball over long distances, the drop kick has been superseded by the drop punt as a more accurate means of delivering the ball to a fellow player.[33] Drop kicks were last regularly used in the 1970s, and by that time mostly for kicking in after a behind and very rarely in general play.[34] AFL historian and statistician Col Hutchison believes that Sam Newman was the last player to kick a set-shot goal with a drop kick, in 1980, although goals in general play from a drop kick do occur on rare occasions, including subsequent goals by players such as Alastair Lynch and Darren Bewick.[35] Hutchison says drop kicks were phased out of the game by Norm Smith in defence due to their risky nature; Ron Barassi, a player Smith coached, took this onboard for his own coaching career, banning it for all but Barry Cable, who, according to Hutchison, was a “magnificent disposer of the ball”.

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