Physical imposition rugby – the Sydney University system - Green and Gold Rugby

Physical imposition rugby – the Sydney University system

Physical imposition rugby – the Sydney University system

I wonder how many people watching the 2010 Sydney Premiership Club Grand Final realised they were seeing a classic demonstration of a profoundly revolutionary style of play that I have termed “physical imposition rugby”.

The clash of Australia’s two most historic and successful clubs saw Sydney University triumph by 46 points to six; five tries to nil; and seven goals to two. Both sides were weakened by injuries the previous week, Randwick losing five players and University two.

Tom Carter

Game strategies based around physical domination are nothing new in rugby, but where the Sydney University style is innovatory is that it is not just based on the forwards overpowering their opposition but the whole team systematically grinding the other team down.

The foundation of the University system is a training methodology which involves minimal actual conditioning but rather an almost exclusive focus on heavy strength and speed training. The counter-intuitive result of this radical approach is that the team is renowned for its ability to finish over the top of its opposition, particularly in the final quarter of games.

If we take the Grand Final as a template of how physical imposition rugby should be played we can distinguish a number of defining characteristics.

Sydney University play is structured and methodical with an emphasis on patience and relentless control. In defence the team presents a “brick wall” across the width of the field and has confidence in its ability to continually repel attackers. Two or three players engage the ball carrier and try to drive him back, usually so effectively that multiple phases yield either no net gain or a loss of territory. The aim is to frustrate opponents so that they eventually lose the ball in a turnover or knock on.

Although multiple players usually make the tackle and initially attempt to secure possession, virtually no one is subsequently committed at the breakdown. This frees players to fan out at the sides of the ruck in readiness for the next assault on the defensive line. There is no attempt to slow the opposition ball down as the more tackles the team can make with multiple defenders engaging a single attacker the greater the toll on the opposition’s reserves of strength and fitness.

In possession, because of their enhanced physicality University players enthusiastically attack the line, often recruiting support players for the ball carrier even amongst the backs. In tight play they frequently vary the pick and drive from the back of the ruck with passing to a small pod of forwards standing four to five metres to the side of the ruck.

One of the distinguishing features of the Sydney University style as it has now developed is the use of big midfield players who function like forwards. Both centres in the Grand Final weigh around 105kg and play very physically.

Supplementing the trench warfare is a strategy of field position where the emphasis is on relentlessly going forward. Both Berrick Barnes and Luke Burgess kicked into Randwick’s defensive corners aided by a very committed chase typically led by Tom Carter. This produced defensive lineouts near the Randwick try line or a hurried kick with insufficient angle to gain much distance.

When Randwick attempted to kick deep, University usually had at least a couple of players in position to receive the ball. Rather than floating a long pass across field the ball receiver typically elected to counter attack directly, often into a heavily populated area where they would get past at least a couple of defenders before being brought to ground. Then the process of physical imposition would continue.

University’s patience and relentlessness predictably caused frustration in the Randwick players giving an outstanding kicker in Barnes opportunities to keep the scoreboard ticking over to yield a 16-6 lead at half time. In the second half physical and mental fatigue caused Randwick to concede another 30 unanswered points.

During the match University played some very enterprising rugby but much of it came after they had softened up their opponents.
The precondition for playing physical imposition rugby is a specific type of fitness which is essentially anaerobic and heavily strength based. However it also requires exceptional mobility in order to contain and counter the opposition game plan. Technical proficiency in the set pieces and mauls is a primary focus, but it is a 15-man

involvement in physical imposition that is the strategy’s defining characteristic.

Sydney University has demonstrated that physical imposition can be employed very effectively at a semi-professional club level and there is no reason why it wouldn’t be equally successful in a fully professional environment. However this would require radical rethinking of both player conditioning and the role and attributes of centrefield players.

  • Pete

    Interesting, I hadn’t heard a proper explanation for why Uni have been able to destroy teams so frequently in the second half before.

    Am I right in remembering that the Wallabies have been given almost the direct opposite conditioning, ie high cardio and low percentages of one rep max in strength work?

    • Happy Hooker

      Its also got a helluva lot to do with the fact that they recruit almost all the Australian Schoolboys into their Colts program, often with scholarships for those looking to study, being most of the private school students (ie, kings, view, joeys, shore, knox etc etc). No other club can compete with that unfortunately so they get the cream of the system straight out of school. Its only a matter of time that many of them go on to play grade.

      Sydney Uni also has the best network off the pitch which makes it a perfect place for anyone looking to develop their off field career.

      Couple these two factors – and success breeds success and other players want to a. win premierships, b. play with good players and c. play reps, and they basically monopolise a lot of talent, meaning they have copious depth. They’ve obviously got great facilities and coaches too but big corporate backing.

      Its great for the individuals and the club, but not the best for the wider comp in my opinion.

      I think the type of rugby they play has a lot to do with the people they attract, private schools, regimented, disciplined. Hope this add’s some depth to the article.

  • Yes, Pete, that’s certainly my understanding.

    “Almost the direct opposite conditioning” leads to almost the direct opposite result in terms of being “able to destroy teams so frequently in the second half”.

  • Andrew

    Dean Mumm …physically imposing? Since when?

    “Profoundly revolutionary style”. Are we talking about Carter’s headwear?

  • Darkhorse

    Good on the sydney uni boys for winning, but with the cattle they should win with any gameplan.

    What can you else can you expect when they have a full team of contracted super players coming back to play essentially just for the finals?

    While this is off-topic Bruce, The shute shield has become a joke. I go to sydney uni and naturally feel I should support them, but it’s hard to watch them flounder throughout the season and then dominate come finals. Especially when teams like souths have battled away and done so well.

    Fair go to uni, they certainly know how to make sure a player reaches his potential. It’d just be good to see them put that knowledge to use in a youth system of a any kind.

  • Hodge

    How is this ‘training method’ and ‘conditioning’ imposed on a ‘team’ that’s trains together maybe 3 weeks a year in total?!? If uni played with the team they had played with for the majority of the season you might have a case champ.

    I agree with darkhorse. Uni make a mockery of the Shute Shield. They are slowly killing Sydney Rugby.

  • hirando mifiadina

    Bruce – thanks for the 1.0% in “The Australian Economy”.

    Moving forward. I went to Southos v Uni at Uni and was surprised how small the players were. Beatham was a lot bigger than I thought. TCs mouth is huge, but not as big as his ego. Jerry Prop is a midget. Dont even get me going on the second rowers. Kane Douglas is frnakly pretty skinny – has a fair melon on him. Mumm is a backrower, but thunbs up for competing at tight lock this year…

    The stone cold truth is the biggest, most powerful dude on the field will never play for the Wobblies again – R Samo.

  • Joe Mac

    Interesting article Bruce,

    From what I know about training and conditioning, I thought that a stronger cardio foundation would help the player to play for a full 80 minutes as opposed to strength training.

    The current consensus on your bodies energy systems lies somewhere along the lines of;
    (1sec-10sec) ATP – Adenosine Triphosphate
    (10sec-45sec) CP – Creatine Phosphate
    (45sec-240sec) LA – Lactic acid
    (240-600sec) LA – Lactic acid combined with aerobic
    (600sec- onwards) aerobic

    I would assume due to the stop start nature of rugby. To play the full 80 minutes at peak fitness would lie somewhere along the linear continum between Lactic acid and aerobic systems. To compete at peak in these energy systems Robbie’s aerobic training is essential. The power training is very important to compete physically but as the game goes on, and the body relies more on the lactic and aerobic energy systems they become less important.

    A more likely conclusion is that the Uni team, similar like the SA or AB teams playing the current wallabies (with injuries) have this aerobic base but are physically bigger and more powerful people due to age and experience at this level and are therefore more dominant over the full 80 minutes.

  • Juan Cote

    Didn’t do ‘em much good in the club champ game this year…….

  • footyhead

    Just quietly, bruce ross is obssessed with weights training. My favourite quote ” minimal actual conditioning but rather an almost exclusive focus on heavy strength and speed training”. Contradiction alert.

    As much as you may believe strength and power are vitally important (they are to an extent). The game is becoming more fast paced and as a result we are seeing fitter teams dominate. i.e. the all blacks. Especially with the new law interpretations. Case and point Tom Carter, a great club player however his impact at higher levels is clearly negated.

    I believe Sydney Uni’s success is due to great tactical coaching, fitness and an odd wallaby here or there cant hurt.

  • Langthorne

    The interesting point here is that the Uni team does not do any aerobic fitness conditioning, but instead focus on strength and speed. According to critics of this system, they should be the ones poorly prepared for the physical requirements of rugby, and certainly flagging by the end – this is patently not the case. Surely the system warrants some investigation from those entrusted with the physical preparation of the Wallabies.

    I would like to see the other clubs raise their standards (in terms of recruitment, finances, and on field performance) in order to challenge Uni’s dominance. There is nothing to be gained from complaining about it, and even if there are valid criticisms they will only sound like sour grapes.

    • Darkhorse

      Yeah but as hodge pointed out, Sydney Uni is responsible for hardly any of the players fitness who played in the final. They all follow their respective super clubs fitness regime. Ones which you would think have a fundemental basis in sports science.

  • CJ

    Potentially some learning points for the Wallabies…. but it is another level to Super 14 and internationals… and sadly, it would never work with Quade Cooper at present!. What I do like is the recognition and use of size and bulk… much like NZ, much like NPC teams (Sonny Bill etc) and something the Wallabies are lacking out wide…. size in the backs.

  • James

    Good on Uni for winning the title, but the last thing I want to read is some Uni blowhard intellectualise about the supposed ingenuity and physicality of the Uni team. They’re very good, probably verging on great, but really …. come on!

  • JTM

    How do the All Blacks go about their training?

    If there is a team able to overpower anyone in the final stages it is certainly them.

  • All the love for Uni – it’s overwhelming!

  • Pants

    I must be missing something cause that game plan doesn’t sound ‘revolutionary’ to me, in fact it sounds pretty standard.

    • Hawko

      I think the revolutionary part is the conditioning system which then allows the team to physically impose themselves. The gameplan they use is similar to those used by some New Zealand and South African teams (Bulls, Boks, Crusaders, Blacks etc.). There are minor variations between teams of course. As a gameplan it works well if played well and badly if it played badly. Like any gameplan it can be negated if the opponents plan and execute well, which Randwick, for whatever reason, did not do in the final. One aspect of the plan that is different from most as Bruce describes it is to run back from a kick in traffic rather than to immmediately pass it wide and try to go around the chasers. That fits the Uni plan and conditioning because they can dominate the collision area with they players they select and train.

      • Pants

        But in the final didn’t they have umpteen Wallabies playing who would have had the aerobic conditioning from wallaby training anyway, which would make drawing assumptions about the effectiveness of just pure anaerobic conditioning invalid?

        If you had a team in isolation for a year and then just did anaerobic training, then maybe you could draw such conclusions.

        • Hawko

          In the forwards the umpteen Wallabies comprised McCalman and Mumm, the two centres were both not in the Wallaby squad.

        • Pants

          I don’t intend to come across as a nay sayer and detract from the achievement of the University team. Good on them. But on the other hand to claim the system they use is revolutionary just seems like a wild and fanciful claim. Saying that playing a tight confrontational game based on physical dominance and winning collisions based on anaerobic conditioning is ‘revolutionary’…come on. That almost sounds like the England game plan and we all know how boring they are.

        • Andrew

          I think a simple comparison of Sydney Uni’s playing stocks against other teams and the number of players who have been involved in top flight rugby – i.e Wallabies, Super Rugby or Academy teams gives the most obvious insight. Christ! isn’t that every single Sydney Uni player?

          Compare this against Randwick and sadly every other team and the competition really is a farce. I think they kicked the Canberra Vikings out for the same reason didn’t they? Its not Sydney Uni it’s clearly the administration that is to blame. The ARC may be dead…but long live the ARC.

          Got to agree with Fenton in his article

        • Joe Mac

          That is the best point I have read about this article Pants.

          The team full of Wallabies who have the aerobic base were able to play the full 80 minutes

        • Garry


          Great article from Peter Fenton about the state of the local game. All regular forum posters should follow the link and have read.

          We all have a gripe about the lack of depth in the WB’s ranks, and at the same time acknowledge the NPC’s role in the AB’s depth, so why can’t something be done about it. I’m constantly congratulating my AFL mates at the way the finals teams are successfully rotated between all the AFL clubs, due largely to the yearly player draft.

          Big Jon, you sorted out the NSL, what about our code? Sometimes I think the ARU is an old boys retirement village for senile businessmen.

          Please do something.

  • Garry

    Bruce, great insight.

    Although I didn’t see the match, how you have described Uni’s play,
    (a “brick wall” across the width of the field, two or three players engage the ball carrier and try to drive him back..yield either no net gain or a loss of territory, virtually no one is subsequently committed at the breakdown, the use of big midfield players who function like forwards)
    at cursory is sounding a lot like (dare I mention it) modern Rugby League.

    Although we purists can only look back and wonder where RL came from, with the advent of RU professionalism (and the ability of players to build and train 24 – 7), perhaps this is where it headed all those years ago?

    The diffeference in training and playing styles between Uni and the national side is interesting. This may explain why TCarter never clicked for the WB’s.

    With this in mind,
    For all our lamenting about how we used to have one of the best defensive games in the world, as we stand currently, would a Muggo style coaching addition be able to correct our frailties, or would our current training regime even gel with the physical requirements of it?

  • Pedro

    I still don’t see how you can avoid training aerobically. The article is full of insight I just feel similarly to other readers that uni won it with their influx of pros, not a training regime.

  • Garry, it is obvious that rugby league has had a huge influence on defensive patterns in rugby. However, once the tackle is effected in league the physical engagement stops whereas in rugby it can continue for an extended period and involve multiple players on each team. Also there are no counterparts in league to the rugby scrum, lineout jumping and lifting and the maul, all of which are strength draining. Hopefully the two sports will never attempt to converge. In general the attractions of each are not visible to adherents of the other code.

    I don’t see much fundamentally wrong with the defensive patterns of our national side but we seem to be unique among the major rugby nations in not having any real focus on strength training.

  • Hillsy

    I really struggled to read this article. The love for University is too much to handle.
    Bruce, i doubt you could have written this article after 6 weeks of competition. I think the Shute Shield is seriously flawed, if a second rate team such as a mid year uni can win the comp after the Golden boys come back, there has to be something wrong.

    Southern districts and Manly were fantastic all season but then were overtaken by a bigger budget at the tail end of the competition. Really disappointing if your a fan of these clubs.

    Tom Carter made another fool of himself with his Johnny Mac impression and his stupid try celebration, im sure to person on Parramatta road enjoyed the gilbert through their front windscreen. D**khead.

  • Nice article Bruce, but I reckon you could have saved yourself a fair bit of time by just going to the bathroom cupboard and reaching for the tub of vaseline.

    Who’s on the team at Sydney Uni designing the programs for all the athletes that appeared in the Grand Final? They’re doing a great job…blokes looked well cut.

  • NTA

    I think a few people are missing the point: Fitness is of course important but its the mixture of power and fitness that supports the technical training. Within the concentrated strength and speed training, the necessary aerobic capacity for fulfilling these areas will come out.

    If you concentrate on having every player run 5 metres at top speed, knock over a ball runner, then get up and retreat 5 metres, and have them repeat that 20, 30, or even 50 times, they’ll be fit enough to execute the game plan far better than if you made them run 40s for 20 minutes of your training session.

    If, however, they start missing tackles out on the park, then your game plan is in trouble.

    Of course, a shitload of Wallabies and flat-track bullies like Tom Carter will also help.

  • Mark

    I watched Uni win the semi on the back of Berric Barnes who was absolutely the difference against Souths. Barnes is an example of a player who has derived 99% of his preparation from playing with the Waratahs and Wallabies – not Uni. To suggest that he is the product of a revolutionary uni training system (that suspiciously mirrors that of every other good rugby team in the world – e.g. the Bull and Stormers, the AB’s etc) is silly. Uni win because they have the most depth and players, not because of some radical training system.

  • Pete

    I recall when the coach and a fair % of the off and on field Wallaby talent made Randwick the team everyone most wanted to beat (or join). Some were out of towners and given employment (e.g. Campo) – a far cry from the residential colleges at Uni. Even in those days of less rep games the ‘stars’ would show up to get their clubs home at the tail of the season. With 6 consecutive titles/ club championships/colts championships Uni is now that team. Winning is obviously a combination of factors – not just talent, fitness and skills; these results are a far cry from 80’s Uni with Wallabies aplenty. Winning means looking to attract, nurture and develop players. If that in this professional era includes career as well I am all for it. The less NRL style behaviour/scandals the better. Other clubs (like Uni some years back) need to lift their approach rather than talk of hobbling others. All clubs have this potential. They just need to look inside……


Bruce is President of Sydney Uni Sport & Fitness, the parent body of the forty-odd sporting clubs there. He is also the inventor of two machines, the MyoTruk and MyoThrusta, which are extensively used for strength training at the University gymnasium

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