Crouch, Bind… Set or Broken Play?

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I really enjoy listening to stand-up comedians, it reminds me to laugh at myself and I honestly think they have a cunning ability, at times, to impart on us some much-needed life wisdom. One of my favourites is Louis CK, although controversial at times, he has a real aptitude for being hilariously funny. One of his famous skits is a rendition of his experience of kids playing on a school ground. He says a playground is a life-like representation of space and you see all the forces of nature at play – there is the bunch of kids just running in all directions like a solar explosion; there’s the single kid just waving his arms in the air and jumping up and down while spasming out like some singularity ; then two kids holding arms and running across playground like a gigantic real-life limbo game in progress, knocking a bunch of unsuspecting kids to the floor and just to level the playing field to a uniform height – the entire scene plays out like a monstrous cosmic experiment, desperately trying to find equilibrium – I can’t do it any justice in writing of course, but trust me it’s really funny.

Whenever I think about broken play in a game of rugby, this scene I described above, is the one I see play out in the back of my mind; just a bunch of super aggressive guys running around with no plan or objective, just running around in circles. This is of course not entirely true and on a more serious note, there has been numerous debates and questions if broken play has now become the new norm, and if set-pieces are on the out. Can statistics and analysis of some of the past and current tournaments point us in the right direction, and if so, is there a favourable format of the game that reigns supreme?

Beers, Cheers and Peanuts

One of the pleasures of rugby is that the one can enjoy a game in a variety of interesting settings; you can feel the exhilaration of a live game in a stadium, or you can watch the game at home with a group of friends (where it usually turns into a huge social affair), or you can head down to your local watering hole with your mates and enjoy the game with a crowed of other eager mates. I think it is imperative that one experiences all formats at least once.

For the sake of this section, I will select the pub is the setting. I have always been a firm believer that, even blindfolded, once would be able to follow the game by simply interpreting the cheers, shouts, moans, and you would reasonably be able to see in your mind’s eye what is happening. It’s a game of voice.

Exhilarated shouts when a player makes a decent run during a superb break is closely followed by less favourable low groans of disapproval reverberating through the pub when a player is tackled out of the field or knocks on the ball in a tough pass initiating a scrum or line-out. The set-piece is somehow frowned upon, as if it’s the party-pooper there to stop our fun, like an intrusive commercial during a video clip or a forced pitstop in a Formula 1 race. It seems to disturb the forces at play, it steels our team’s momentum. However, when our team scores in the corner because of a line-out or a turned-around scrum we easily forget that it was indeed that very same set-piece that created the try. Like an unsung hero the set-piece goes about its business without applause.

One can be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the time of the set-piece is over or the relevance in the new game has waned, but do we really understand the importance of the set piece. What role does the set-piece play and do we even need it anymore? Has the game not become so quick and fast that it’s all about broken play now? What few supporters recall, when they celebrate the majestic dive across the try line by their favourite player is how that player ended up with the ball in hand in the first place. We forget our disappointment when the referee’s whistle blew a few seconds back, but we marvel at the running break that followed. The set-piece is like beans and peas – we know it’s good for us, but we still don’t like eating it!

Straight Down the Middle Or Is That Centre?

I enjoy several podcasts, TV shows and documentaries. One of my favourites is The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, a satirical view on American politics, discussing and debating current issues and influential individuals in powerful positions. During one of the episodes the late Supreme Court Judge, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or RBG as she was famously known, appeared as one of his guests. During the show, Colbert used a comical line of questioning but in the process showcases Ginsburg’s judicial genius. This is a verbatim record of their conversation:

Colbert: “Is a hotdog a sandwich?”.
RBG: “You’re asking me? Well you tell me what your idea is a of a sandwich, and I will tell you if a hotdog is a sandwich”.
Colbert: “A sandwich is two pieces of bread, with almost any type of filling in between, as long as it’s not more bread”.
RBG: “You said two piece of bread; does that include a roll, that’s cut open, but not completely?”.
Colbert: “You see that’s the crux which you got into immediately, this is why you’re on the Supreme Court, that immediately gets to the question of does the role need to be separated into two parts. Because a sub-sandwich…a sub is not split, and yet it is a sandwich?”.
RBG: “Yes”.
Colbert: “So then a hotdog is a sandwich?”.
RBG: “On your definition it is”.
Colbert: “Well-played Lady Justice, well played”.

The reason we enjoy satire as because, like comedy, it conveys an important truth. The story above, is a good illustration that we can only really start any discussion or debate if we can agree on each other’s view or conceptual understanding of a term or word. In other words to have a good conversation and to share our ideas requires that we understand what it is we are talking about. Pedantic yes, but necessary. In this article I aim to do exactly that; to analyse and investigate which of the two types of play, set-pieces or broken play, is more prevalent in the modern game , and if so, which of the two leads to a more inspiring game of rugby.

Locks, Props and Drops

This section is dedicated to the analysis of the set-piece and what the statistics tell us about this structured element of the game. I believe that most readers are familiar with the terms used in this article, but instead of being over-confident, I would prefer to play it safe and not discounting the possibility that some of our readers might have a peaked interest in the game and wishes to improve their understanding or become more proficient in the application of their rugby vernacular. I offer the following descriptions:

  • A lineout – a set-piece where the teams (usually players 1 to 8 from each team, in a standard line-out) form two rows into the playing field, while standing 1 meter apart (sides of their shoulders facing each other), while the hooker (player number 2, of the team, awarded the lineout), throws it above the player’s heads, down the center of the two lines. The other team, meanwhile, tries to intercept the ball to gain possession.
  • A scrum – a set-piece where a fixed formation comprising all the forwards (players 1 to 8 from both teams), interconnected in a three-row structure, pushing against each other upon the referee’s signal, to try and contest (hook) the ball for themselves, thus gaining possession of the ball by brute force. The scrum usually results from a forward pass, a knock-on or an accidental offside.
  • Start or Re-start – a set-piece where a kicker (usually the flyhalf) kicks the ball from the center of the field, towards the opposing team, in order to start the game or to restart a new play, after one of the teams scored a try, converted a penalty kick, or successfully completed a drop-goal. If an opposing team kicks the ball beyond their own try-line and it goes out of play, the re-start will take place from the 22-meter line. The kick-off can either be a placed kick or a drop-kick.
  • Set-pieces is the collective term used for the line-out, scrum and start or re-start and is often referred to as technical or structured plays, due to their technical rules, methods, and technique.

These actions although regimented often turn out to create unique point scoring opportunities for those teams that master the techniques. Have you ever wondered if the set-piece play has changed over the past 30 years?

A study of the Rugby World Cup set-piece stats reveals several interesting trends and changes since 1987. One of the prevailing gripes with set-pieces is the time it takes to complete them, but in earlier versions of the game these set pieces were really used as restarts. In the modern game, unlike popular belief, the set-piece has become a more time-consuming affair even though the number of set pieces is less.

It turns out that it was the sheer volume of set-pieces (approximately 50% more in earlier editions) being the reason for the reduced play time in a game. Lineouts experienced a noticeable increase in success rates, up from 68% (1987) to 91% (2019), keep in mind though that lifting was legalised in 1999. Scrums have also seen changes but has remained reasonably consistent throughout. A few fluctuations in the scrum penalties was mainly because of smaller technical changes to the laws. The scrum winning percentages was still some of the highest in the 2019 edition.

study of the set-piece statistics in the Super Rugby6 and Six Nations Tournaments7 reveals interesting trends in the more recent formats of the game. We seem to note contradictory results for the different game formats. An analysis of the set-piece statistics reveals the following:

Super Rugby Set Piece Stats

Overall scrums are at its lowest at 15%, its lowest scoring percentage since 2011, and have shown little improvement throughout. Lineouts have increased to 46% while restarts have remained low and unchanged.

In brief, lineouts continue shows a significant improvement in the set-piece play and teams who score low in this set-piece will do themselves justice by improving that part of their game.

Six Nations Set Piece Stats

A study of Rounds 1 to 3 of the Guinness Six Nations 2020 Tournament revealed that the top 4 activities that led to the scoring of the 39 tournament tries (as at the end of round 3) were as follows:

  • Lineouts: 22 (56.4%)
  • Counterattack: 7 (17.9%)
  • Scrum: 5 (12.8%)
  • Turnover: 4 (10.3%)

Interestingly lineouts, as a set-piece, also topped the charts so to speak at international playing levels but surprisingly scrum totals were significantly lower. The counter-attack spread amongst the Six Nations teams was predominantly even which makes it likely that, in this sense, line-outs were better integrated into broken play, i.e. the quick-lineout rather than forming part of the set-piece play.

There does seem to be a difference in the way teams play in the Super Rugby tournament in a franchise and conference format in comparison with the Six Nations tournament, which predominantly represents international team performances. I would speculate that the statistics indicates other factors at play between these two levels of the game. More about that a bit later.

Broken Play and Cigarettes

Old school rugby player smoking after the game

When I was about 12 years old, I had the privilege of accompanying my uncle on a road trip on his way to play a club rugby game. This was a regional league competition, and they were playing against a neighbouring town’s club. This was in the mid 80’s and club rugby, especially in the Free State, was known for its rivalry and fierce competition. This was the breeding ground of many a South African rugby legend to come, competition was rife and feuds between local clubs were a common occurrence. Many of the matches bordered on warfare and thuggery! They were tough games no doubt.

Admittedly I don’t recall all the details, but I do recall my uncle turning every shade of red very soon after the game started. Twenty minutes into the game his watermelon shaped belly hung in semi-labour position from underneath, his now sagging, sweat stained jersey. By the time the whistle blew for halftime (I am almost convinced it was barely 25 minutes and the other team looked just as cooked), all the players stood under a tree and were having beers, some had even lit their cigarettes with shaky hands wet with dripping sweat. I still recall thinking that none of these chaps were going to last another 20 minutes if that – and that my uncle did not seem destined to wear the Green and Gold any time soon). By mutual agreement, the teams shook hands and called it a day. It taught me something else too; tired people don’t easily disagree.

The reason I mention the story is that many spectators and supporters criticize set-piece play as being disruptive and slowing down the game. While there are numerous statistics pointing to the contrary, I wish to highlight that no team would want to play flat-out 80-minute rugby. Sometimes the game becomes loose and both teams need a moment to regroup, at other times players start losing concentration and injuries and errors creep into the game. But before we go to deep into the discussion, let us define a few key terms of broken play. Take note that for the sake of brevity, technicalities with regards to infringements, which can take place at the breakdown, have been excluded for the purpose of this discussion.

  • Breakdown – The breakdown is the period of play between tackles, the ensuing ruck and play during these phases as teams compete for possession of the ball.
  • Maul – When a ball carrier is held up (without being tackled) by both an opposing player and a player from his own team, it is considered to be a maul and players can join the maul, but only from behind that teammate.
  • Ruck – A ruck is formed when the ball is on the ground and two opposing players meet over the ball. Rucks commonly form soon after tackles but can form anywhere in the field of play where the ball is on the ground.

Broken play, by virtue of its very name and description, creates the impression of disfunction and error, a system that doesn’t work. Compare that to a different description such as “creative play”, or “running play” or “uninterrupted play”, and suddenly we feel greater harmony with the term. The truth is that this is exactly what broken play is all about – creativity, free running and line breaks, exciting kicks, tenacious off-loads, quick turnovers, unsuspected counter-attacks and forward motion, all represents the building blocks of broken-play. As a rule, short broken play happens between set-pieces.

A study of Rugby World Cup statistics confirms the overall belief that teams are better at defense and attack. The fear of the counterattack and lost possession has inevitably led to a lower-risk form of rugby. The 1987 tournament saw 30 offloads per match – double the total of the 2019 match summaries, and out of contact passes declined year-on-year (except in 2011). There is a direct link, if we read the stats correctly, between turnovers conceded and a more conservative style of play. Total turnovers conceded in 2019 was 50% less than in 1987. Turnovers also influence possession and the number of phases. In 2019 teams enjoyed 84.8 possessions per game on 3.0 average phases per possession, compared to 130 possessions on 1.4 average phases before possession ended.

One of the smaller yet significant changes has been the proportion of carries made by forwards. On closer examination we note an increased share in carries but a reduction in the total distance during those carries, this means more carries are being taken into contact. This coincided with the rise of fast and agile players (typically locks and lose forwards) acting as ball carriers over the advantage line from around the mid 90’s. Therefore, we see a significantly higher quality of rugby with more intense physicality, greater fitness expectations, and faster game speeds. It would be fair to say that broken play is certainly giving us more watching pleasure with less interruptions in the momentum of play.

Studying the broken-play statistics in the Super Rugby and Six Nations Tournaments reveals a similar pattern and conclusion. Here are some of the stats and trends:

Super Rugby Try Origins

The great majority of the teams (6) scored 4 or more tries after successful turnover. The Crusaders topping that list. 4 Teams; The Crusaders, Chiefs, Waratahs and Stormers also showed that scoring from kick returns, after opponents conceded possession by kicking the ball, is a winning choice. 24% of the Stormer’s tries came from such plays, the highest of any other team.

Where tries come from in Super Rugby

Six Nations Try Origins

A study of Round 1 to 3 of the Guinness Six Nations 2020 Tournament revealed that the top 2 broken play activities that led to the scoring of the 39 tournament tries (as at the end of round 3) were as follows:

  • Counterattack: 7 (17.9%)
  • Turnover: 4 (10.3%)
Where tries come from in the Six Nations

Even though the Rugby World Cup stats showed a more conservative play pattern emerging, capitalising on turnovers with counterattacking play seems to make a significant impact and leads to points of the board. While we can agree that broken play is an exciting type of play to watch and although it creates scoring opportunities, the question we need to as is; for whom? If a team is on the receiving end, i.e. not good at broken play patterns then it be better to stick to set-piece play. Herein lies the challenge for each team.

Washing Powder and the Magical White Shirt

We all have some terrible recollection of the contrite washing powder ads of the 80’s, you know the kind where a pair of twins are placed next to each other parading their cleanly washed Lilly-white shirts, hands on hips, swaying from side-to-side. Into frame steps an eager actress, usually a 50’s rendition of a good mother, washing powder box firmly in hand with a broad smile boasting a full set of toothpaste quality teeth on full display, looking right at you and dreadfully asking if “You can tell the difference?”. The stuff of nightmares!

I promise not to compare anything to shirts, or trouser or any sort of garment for that matter, but I want to see how the numerous advantageous and disadvantages, between set-piece and broken play, stack up. Below I have prepared a table to compare these elements with each other:

Advantages and disadvantages of set piece and broken play


Around 2004 the SABC produced a word gameshow called a Word or Two presented by the 94.7 morning show (The Rude Awakening) host, Jeremy Mansfield in South Africa. Part of the TV show was a game where a scrambled bunch of letters with a hidden word is presented to participants, this part of the game show was called the conundrum. A South African family favourite as everyone tried to identify the mystery word first, followed by an unusually intense celebration when found!

A similar conundrum (if we use the word in its broader sense) arises when we can see that set-piece play is the main creator of points in non-international formats i.e. the Super Rugby series, whereas broken-play becomes the preferred style of play in test rugby. Why is this the case? I want to propose a few potential reasons for this:

  • Risks for Injury – Broken play is faster, more unpredictable which increases the risk for more collisions, potential injury due to unintentional high tackles, foul play, and highspeed knocks on player’s bodies. For Super Rugby (or similar) franchise players, risking their bodies can lead to the premature ending of a career. Set pieces create a more predictable play pattern with cleaner phases of play, and less likelihood of serious injury. This is by no means an allegation that the players are overprotective, soft or that any tournament at this level is weak, rather that a more structured play-pattern occurs
  • Longer Seasons – With many players signing seasonal contracts, players are seeing more game time, more tournaments, and consequently longer seasons, which also takes its toll on a player’s health, personal motivation, and fitness level and training regiments. Once again franchise or contract players must make wise career decisions when it comes to putting their bodies on the line
  • Players Contracts – While players are contractually protected and sure of their base income even if injured, performance bonuses, sponsorship and marketing incentives are linked to game performances, live appearances, and interaction with fans and promoting the team ethos. Clubs and franchises, like employers, expect a return on investment and it is in the player and the franchise’s best interest that players are healthy and injury-free. Handré Pollard and Eben Etzebeth are currently some of the highest-paid players in the sport, each signing a whopping £ 1 Million contract at Montpelier and Toulon, respectively, this just stands as two of many other examples of the extent of the financial commitments we are talking about here
  • Predictability of Play – The set-piece preference in the Super Rugby league provides predictability and a mechanistic rhythm of play for which players and teams can better prepare and train. Phases of play and game tactics can be structured around these pieces of play without creating bland and dull rugby. It’s a win-win for both player and spectator
  • Patriotism and Pride – At the international (test) rugby level, the picture changes drastically with far more points being scored and created around broken play. It seems players are risking more, running more, and taking harder hits. One reason for this phenomenon is that players are committed for a different reason other than financial incentives – they are playing for the proverbial King and Country with reckless abandon for their own welfare. An international match is not a match only between players, it’s a clash between nations, and a country’s pride is at stake
  • Different Rugby Traditions – There is also the longstanding theory and debate of the so-called North-South styles of play. At the one end region play a more set-piece forwards driven kind of mauling and brute strength kind of rugby, while on the other end of the spectrum teams play a more creative, more spontaneous type of running rugby which is understandably more broken-play orientated

The Blindfolded Lady

Below is the well-known image of Lady Justice. The symbolism of her attire and stance is created as such to be the embodiment of the execution of justice. She is blindfolded to ensure that she remains impartial to all the facts being presented to her, she holds a scale which she will use to symbolically balance truth against justice. She stands on a book, symbolising the laws of the land, while holding her double-edged sword which represents her ability to serve justice by delivering the necessary punishment needed to restore order and bring peace.

Lady justice

I will agree that Lady Justice is a rather intimidating symbol but, after having reviewed all the statistics, trends, comments and analysis about the set-piece and broken play, wish to, in similar fashion, present a final argument.

In the opening paragraphs of this article I asked the question; if there might be an argument for, or against the two main methods of play, in other words the set-piece and broken-play. Can we hold a strong position in favour of any one specific format, after having reviewed all the details?

I would dare to say, no, we cannot select one or the other. I would rather like to suggest that we acknowledge both have an important role to play. Besides the pros and cons which we covered, what can we take a way that goes further than just a simple yes or no?

I wish to end with four not-so-obvious closing remarks:

  • The prevailing statics on both types of play tells us a lot about a team’s own likelihood and probability to win or create scoring opportunities. Any team who can plan and play with that in mind, will greatly improve their own chances of winning or exploiting their opponent’s weak points
  • Teams must learn to play the percentages in their favour and should practice game plans and attack strategies that employ set-piece and broken-plays to match the team’s existing strengths and past successes – finding the balance can prove to be key to winning.
  • Teams must be ruthless in their own understanding of set-piece play and broken-play, both require speed, discipline, and precision. A team that fully embrace both techniques will be unstoppable. Keep ego out of the way
  • Create a kicking strategy to match your playing strategy. A high-quality kicking plan can greatly improve a team’s tactical ability and create marvellous scoring opportunities from both plays

While I don’t wish to serve justice quite the way it was served by Gerard Butler in Law Abiding Citizen, I do think there is enough reasons to agree that both parts of the game are equally important – if not…then we can always go and scrum in the parking lot or run around until we are tired!

Ivan Oosthuizen

Ivan is a freelance writer and specialises in creating digital content for clients on marketing, branding and thought leadership within the Medicine, Healthcare, Senior Living and Mental Wellbeing sectors. Ivan has more than 20 years of senior and executive management experience in various industries, and can be contacted