Rugby is more like chess than you might think

January 22, 2012

Chess and Rugby games both start with two sets of eight ‘forwards’. In chess the forwards are called pawns and most of them get taken out of the battle as each game is played

The beautiful parallel came to my attention through the remarks of a commentator on one of the Heineken cup games yesterday [Jan 21st 2012]. Rugby is like a game of chess, he said. I began to look more carefully at the structure of the game I had been watching.

The dynamic structure

You may find what follows easier to understand if you already have some knowledge of both games, but the main point is easier to grasp. I am looking at the dynamic structure of two systems, chess and rugby. Some of the surface characteristics are similar. There is a deeper structure that has even more system similarities.

The forwards are like two sets of eight pawns …

The point was deeper than I first thought. First, consider the configuration of the forces involved. Each game begins with two sets of eight forwards. In chess, the pawns (forwards) advance towards each other, clash, and many are often are taken out of the game. Most rugby games start and end with two sets of eight forwards (pawns). The scrums and line-outs are mini-battles as the two sets struggle for advantage. Chess players are taught that the pawns are the soul of chess. Most forwards say the same.

The lineouts

I played rugby as far away from the forward skirmishes as possible. Their black arts are lost on me. Yesterday the wonderful replay-graphics revealed the deep structure of the lineout battle. It was far from the unitary structure I had imagined. I had ‘read’ lineouts as taking place with the two sets of very tall players rigidly assembled and arranged one against like two sets of chess pawns (only in two files, rather than in two ranks). Lineouts (and scrums) are after all called set-pieces.

The basic idea is that the ball is thrown into the lines of players. Elite jumpers compete to catch the ball, aided by support players who lift the jumper. Yes it is a bit like ballet although few rugby players will see it like that.

The three clusters

The lines of forwards moved more dynamically that I had imagined. Instead of obedient sets of eight, the system morphed itself into three clusters. Each cluster was a sub-system with players from each team. The three clusters are still arranged in a sequence at the front, middle and back of the line-out.

The chess nature of the contest was picked out in the video. Each cluster or sub-system has one of those elite jumpers plus an undefined number of support players. There is wonderful scope for feints and ploys to confuse the opposition. Some are obvious. A jumper will run back or forward, perhaps from one cluster to another, triggering responses in the opposing line.

A game of threes

Rugby players might want to think of the similarity in the structure of forwards in the scrums: the front row, then in the middle, and the back row. Then there are clusters of players across the entire team: the forwards, the half backs and the backs. Rugby is a game of threes.

In principle, in the line-out…

In principle, the team with the advantage of the throw-in should win the line-out ball. Increasingly complex moves of the kind makes the lineouts more interesting and competitive. The game also has rules and structures which permit intense and balanced competition. Systems theorists call that ‘requisite variety’.

Then there are the scrums

I have even less understanding of the dark arts of the scrums. But I now see again the rule of three, and the chess-like nature of the grunting and groaning. Who said that the backs play the music and the forwards are bred for carrying the piano?

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