One of the half-true myths of rugby is that Northern Hemisphere teams and Southern Hemisphere teams have different styles of play.
But before we get to that, we have to understand the basic kinds of play: forward play, back line play and kicking. We’ll also get a chance to talk about traditional versus TV playing styles.
Forward play is usually thought of as the traditional rugby style. A team that has strong, heavy, patient forwards will do this well. Forwards work best in packs, like wolves. They chase the ball and control it by moving it forward together — one player holds the ball tight and his teammates form a pack around him. Doing this hides and protects the ball.
If the pack is close to the try line, the forwards will try to push over it to score a try. Otherwise, the pack will move forward slowly in a maul, trying to force opposing players to try and stop it. When opposing players join the maul, they leave their defensive line thinner. At the right moment, the ball carrier will try to pass the ball to a back.
A heavy pack is good at scrum time because it can push back lighter packs more easily.
Teams like England and Argentina have in the past relied on heavy packs and strong forward play. For a time, France also had a good pack.
Forward play has its fans, and when scrums start pushing, you can hear them shouting “Heave! Heave!” from the stands. But it’s not a great crowd-pleaser. Spectators can’t see the ball and the pack doesn’t move very fast or far. Nothing much happens.
When rugby became professional, it was important to please the fans — especially TV watchers. So teams turned to back play.
Good backs can run fast. They can pass and receive the ball in tight positions. They can beat defenders, either by sidestepping or fending them off with their hands. And they can also defend well. Backs need to be able to sense where their teammates are to pass them the ball, but they also need to be able to anticipate where the ball will be. The best backs have a special spark: an ability to spot holes in the defense, to create magic out of nothing, to set the crowd on fire.
Forwards work together to grind the ball ahead. Backs are individuals who love to perform.
Teams like Australia, France, New Zealand and Wales are wellknown for the flair of their backs. Japan has long been admired for its agile backs.
The final piece of the puzzle is tactical kicking. When a team finds it hard to advance, they often will kick forward. Sometimes this style of play can feel like a tennis game, with the ball going back and forth. But a good kicker can place the ball in an empty area and create a chance for a try.
Next year, fans across the world will finally see which national team has been able to put all of these playing styles together into the complete package.
New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team is famous not just for its dominance of world rugby, but also for the performance it does before any test: the haka, or Maori challenge.
The most famous haka they perform, Ka Mate, was written around 1820 by a Maori chief to celebrate life. But when the All Blacks do it on the field, it becomes a savage thing. Players roll their eyes and stick out their tongues. They slap their thighs and arms, singing “Kamate, ka mate! Ka ora, ka ora!” (“It is death, it is death! It is life, it is life!”)
During the haka, opposing teams usually line up, arms linked, facing the All Blacks. Sometimes they walk slowly forward, meeting the haka with their own challenge.
But the biggest effect is perhaps off the field. The haka has become part of Kiwi culture. Maori soldiers performed it in Africa in World War II. Young boys and girls learn it and perform it as they watch rugby games. Maori perform it when greeting diplomats or royalty, usually in traditional costume.
The haka is a part of sports that has become an expression of a country’s culture.