James Holmes

5 Warfare Concepts That Explain Rugby

Watching rugby allows observers to see the ideas of Clausewitz, Corbett and Sun Tzu in action.

Football is king come fall. Spending part of the season Down Under, however, converted the Naval Diplomat into a low-grade — very low-grade — rugby fan. I now sport the gold and green of the Wallabies, the Australian national rugby-union team, along with the Vanderbilt black and gold and the Georgia red and black.

Rugby should appeal to strategists and tacticians because sportsmen put the ideas of the greats — the Clausewitzes, Sun Tzus, and Corbetts — to work right there on the pitch. Sure, that's true of football as well. But in that case it comes in ten-second-odd, regimented, highly scripted increments. Rugby action seldom stops. A score, a penalty, dismemberment of a player — that's about it. Otherwise the match hurtles along at helter-skelter speed. Five concepts from strategic theory that manifest themselves on rugby fields:

1.      Offense, defense: Clausewitz portrays defense as the stronger form of warfare, offense the more decisive. So too in sport. How the side on the defense can engineer a transition to the offense, and how the side on the offense may suffer a battlefield reverse, is a recurring question for strategists. In rugby, offense/defense transitions seemingly take place every second of game play. A match is like mercury, reversing flow erratically. Must be fun to be a cameraman trying to track the action for TV viewers.

2.      Centers of gravity: Clausewitz depicts the center of gravity as "the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends." In rugby, presumably the player advancing the ball down the field is the center of gravity for the offense while the players who block his way and try to strip the ball comprise the center of gravity for the defense. Thus the strategic center shifts around as the offense tries to bulldoze, outflank, and outrun the defense and the defenders shift around to compensate.

3.      Principle of continuity: Clausewitz urges commanders in effect to clutch their enemies, landing "blow after blow" against the adversary's center of gravity until he says uncle or can no longer fight back. He deplores "any kind of interruption, pause, or suspension of activity" as a necessary evil at best. With few halts to play, each rugby team engages the other continually in hopes of advancing the ball down the field or stopping the opponent and taking the offensive. That's what you call tenacity.

4.      Direction, indirection, misdirection: Sun Tzu would approve of the guile and shiftiness many teams employ. Clausewitz is all about concentrating power at the decisive place and time; Sun Tzu says pursue direct and indirect attacks at the same time, shifting between one axis and the other and back again as the opponent provides openings. Sudden shifts of direction, pitches from one player to another, and kicks downfield would have the great Chinese strategist smiling knowingly.

5.       Elastic cohesion: Corbett pays inordinate attention to methods of arranging fleets on the nautical chart. He preaches the philosophy of "elastic cohesion." Commanders, that is, disperse ships to cover as much space as they can while keeping them close enough that they can mass for battle. All units remain on the defensive away from the main, offensive, effort. Similarly, rugby teams' habit of collapsing on the ball carrier while dispersing defenders elsewhere on the field to guard against breakaways would gladden the English historian's heart.