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Physical imposition rugby – the Sydney University system

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Bruce Ross

Ken Catchpole (46)
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.

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.
 
W

WB3

Guest
Bruce - their focus is on max strength and speed, but surely they must do some aerobic conditioning (even if it is indirect; like fast-paced drills with little rest etc) in order to maintain consistent anaerobic efforts. What is their practice regimen like? I wouldn't be surprised if their gym work comprised of max effort and speed work but what they did on the paddock had a more aerobic component.
 

Lee Grant

John Eales (66)
Staff member
Good post Bruce. Somebody should put it up as a blog, but I have no clue how to do it.

Uni are one of the few teams in Oz who are willing to grind things out a bit and then benefit from it later, or if they are holding a lead near the end, to grind out the win.

I mentioned a while back that if Oz rugby could come up with the ARC Mark II that Sydney University should be one of the teams. You have described the reasons for it. Why should a resource like that be spurned because it may seen elitist to some?

It should be the goal of other clubs to try to emulate Uni as much as is possible without having a university and wealthy connections. Manly and Southern Districts are doing something right to get out of the ruck and it's up to others to find the right people to do the same.
 

I like to watch

David Codey (61)
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.

Bruce, you clearly know your stuff and all that you say makes a lot of sense. previous posts have suggested that McQueen will be employing similiar tactics with the Rebels next year.
however, I believe some of your arguments are based on false assumptions.
How many of Uni players in the GF are "semi professional" The whole backline are full time professionals,as are the majority of the pigs.

Rather focussing on the Final game of the year, when stocked with F/T professionals. A fairer analysis of this style of play would be on how they fared throughout the season.From memory they finished 4th or 5th.
Randwick fielded teams in the GF in all grades, surely this indicates that their style is more effective?
Or maybe it's just a matter of the best cattle wins in this grade of football?
Having said that, I will certainly be encouraging any young guys to adopt this syle of training
 
R

Redsfan

Guest
Isn't this essentially the same game plan as the All Blacks? Minimal commitment to the rucks, good kick-chase and couter-attack?
 

Bullrush

John Thornett (49)
Isn't this essentially the same game plan as the All Blacks? Minimal commitment to the rucks, good kick-chase and couter-attack?

I thought the same thing.

While everybody was complaining about the All Blacks 'cheating' and the ref's not calling it, I think what was really happening is what Bruce has detailed here. The All Blacks play a very physical and imposing defense which tries to drive the ball-carrier back or drop them on the spot. If a defense can consistently do that, it creates more chances at turning the ball over and makes it difficult for the attacking team to get quick ball. Mentally, I think it's a real spur for the forwards and loosies because if a ball carrier is driven backwards, the momentum is already going forward for them to try and drive over the ball and compete for possesion. I don't think the ABs try to play cynically but rather create more of these half-chances which means they are playing on the edge of the rules more often. Cos that's what a half-chance is. I think the refs are reluctant to blow the whistle or hand out cards because while a player may end up on the wrong side of a ruck, when the movment started they were actually legally competing for the ball and trying to make the most of that half-chance.

On the other hand, the AB's also have very dominant runners and attackers who frequently break the first tackle or can stand in the tackle looking to off-load. Obviously, that puts the defense on the back foot with little to chance of turning that ball over.

Not to say that the All Blacks are angels by any means but I don't think they are as negative as some people would like to suggest. The penalties they concede aren't from cynical play but from genuine opportunites - hence the ref is less likely to send someone off.

I'm sure plenty of people will disagree but I think if you re-read Bruce's post, it's easy to see the All Blacks playing exactly that style.
 

naza

Alan Cameron (40)
however, I believe some of your arguments are based on false assumptions.
How many of Uni players in the GF are "semi professional" The whole backline are full time professionals,as are the majority of the pigs.

Rather focussing on the Final game of the year, when stocked with F/T professionals. A fairer analysis of this style of play would be on how they fared throughout the season.From memory they finished 4th or 5th.

Agreed 110%. Original post is absolutely ludicrous. You have professionals competing against mostly amateurs. And then more professionals coming off the bench.

There is nothing innovative or "revolutionary" about it. Their so called structures were not on show when the team was filled with reserve graders and colts. Uni were horribly exposed earlier in the season for lacking the athletes to compensate for their profound lack of footballing skills.
 

Blue

Andrew Slack (58)
Interesting but as I was watching my recording the final I though jeez, these guys play like the Bulls.

I see a lot of similarities and if you gave me Bruce's write up with no team name in it and asked me "who plays like this" I would have said the Bulls and the All Blacks.

Which is exactly why I have been pulling my hair out over the Bok coaches who refused to replicate that model at test level. It works and suite our players.
 

Hugh Jarse

Rocky Elsom (76)
Staff member
As well as the intellectual property associated with the Bulls/Darkness/Uni/McQueen model, you need the culture, administration, support crew and players to execute that style.

Without any one of these being present Physical Imposition Rugby will not work. It takes time, committment, passion, and a bit of luck to achieve success with this style.

This style is not without its' vulnerabilities, and success at this style requires compliant opponents who play into the strengths of the Physical Imposition Rugby without developing a counter.
 

Hugh Jarse

Rocky Elsom (76)
Staff member
Innovatory? What is that? Innovato-revolutionary? In the lavatory? Does the inbuilt human need for innovation extend to the word innovative itself?

Are you the pedantic kind of fellow that is going to get up Bruce because he makes a typo in the opening line of his post "2010 Sydney Premiership Clun Grand Final "?

FFS move on will you. If can not establish the meaning of some of the words BR uses from the context of his post, then perhaps you should PM him rather than publicly take the piss.

BR has made his post for our general information not as a background paper for a doctoral thesis presentation to a bunch of academics.
 

Bruce Ross

Ken Catchpole (46)
Innovatory? What is that? Innovato-revolutionary? In the lavatory? Does the inbuilt human need for innovation extend to the word innovative itself?

Thank you, Rob, for endeavouring to instruct me in the complexities of the English language. Actually I would be quite happy to claim "innovatory" as a coinage of mine, but according to the Oxford, Cambridge and Merriam-Webster Dictionaries I am too late.

In matters of pedantry I learnt long ago to double check before correcting someone else for fear of ending up looking a goose.
 

Bruce Ross

Ken Catchpole (46)
Bruce - their focus is on max strength and speed, but surely they must do some aerobic conditioning (even if it is indirect; like fast-paced drills with little rest etc) in order to maintain consistent anaerobic efforts. What is their practice regimen like? I wouldn't be surprised if their gym work comprised of max effort and speed work but what they did on the paddock had a more aerobic component.

Thanks, WB, you may well be right, although I would imagine that over the course of a long season players would achieve sufficient aerobic conditioning just through playing games.
 

Brumbies Guy

John Solomon (38)
Agreed 110%. Original post is absolutely ludicrous. You have professionals competing against mostly amateurs. And then more professionals coming off the bench.

There is nothing innovative or "revolutionary" about it. Their so called structures were not on show when the team was filled with reserve graders and colts. Uni were horribly exposed earlier in the season for lacking the athletes to compensate for their profound lack of footballing skills.

I agree, of course they were physically dominate, and they were dominate in most aspects across the park. But they were Super 14/15 players against a lesser opposition. They were expected to dominate in the same way if say the Wallabies were to play Uni, or Randwick against Paramatta. Uni struggled early/mid season under the same training methodology and were beaten by Randwick twice when they were on a more even playing field.
 

Bruce Ross

Ken Catchpole (46)
Bruce, you clearly know your stuff and all that you say makes a lot of sense. previous posts have suggested that McQueen will be employing similiar tactics with the Rebels next year.
however, I believe some of your arguments are based on false assumptions.
How many of Uni players in the GF are "semi professional" The whole backline are full time professionals,as are the majority of the pigs.

Rather focussing on the Final game of the year, when stocked with F/T professionals. A fairer analysis of this style of play would be on how they fared throughout the season.From memory they finished 4th or 5th.
Randwick fielded teams in the GF in all grades, surely this indicates that their style is more effective?
Or maybe it's just a matter of the best cattle wins in this grade of football?
Having said that, I will certainly be encouraging any young guys to adopt this syle of training

I agree with you, ILTW, that almost the whole of the Uni Grand Final team are full time professionals but what I was referring to was the level of the Sydney Premiership club competition which I think could be accurately described as "semi-professional".

With regard to how Uni fared over the season, my memory was that they were not playing anything remotely like physical imposition rugby in the early rounds, but once they got the band together again they played one disjointed game against Randwick and then spent thirteen weeks getting their act together, culminating in the Grand Final when it all jelled.

With regards to lower grades, it is difficult to achieve the necessary degree of cohesion and control with less skilled players. Having said that I would hope that the Club attempts to implement this style through all their grades next season.
 
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