The heart of good rugby is an elegant, fast-paced running game. This relies on excellent ball-handling skills: everyone has to be able to pass and catch. It also relies on good control of rucks so that tackled players and the supporting forwards ensure their team can recycle the ball as quickly as possible. The faster you move the ball, the easier it is to pick holes in the enemy defence.
When running the ball a team has three basic options. The first is to stick close to the forwards. This means that the big guys are always close at hand for support, and there is always the option to try to create a maul. A team will play in this way if it has more confidence in its forwards than its backs, or if the weather conditions make running and passing difficult. It is essentially a ball control strategy.
The second option is to feed the ball out to the centres and try to punch through the defence with cunning patterns of running. This may involve side-stepping, passing to someone running at a different angle, coming up from deep at speed (the “crash ball”) or various fake passing tricks. This requires a lot of co-ordination, but is a joy to watch when it works. Blocking is illegal, so you will sometimes see a penalty called for “crossing”, that passing in front of the ball carrier to put off a tackler.
Finally the team may opt to get the ball out to the wings as quickly as possible, relying on speed to get around the defence. This tactic is most often used when the defence is disorganised and there is a gap in coverage. The defenders will cover the players closest to the ball, so the guy at the end of the line should be in the clear.
The most common penalties incurred during running play are forward passes (generally by accident because the guy you are passing to is running a bit too fast) and knock-ons. A knock-on happens when a player, in trying to catch the ball, accidentally drops it in front of him. This is counted as a sort of forward pass. Dropping it behind you is OK, but difficult to manage if you are running forwards.
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