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The Art of the Intercept Try

Can it be countered? To a degree yes - 'keep the ball in the tight forwards'. But across an 80 minute match, countless occasions may be more fallible to an intercept try--although, the best ones seem to be unplanned. And that is sport in a nutshell. Unpredictable, beautiful but also, incorrigible.

Ask any rugby fan if they can recall an intercept that ‘spoiled’ a probable victory, and they will ring off matches. Stirling Mortlock in Sydney, 2003. Countless times for a number of South African wingers; JP Pietersen, Bryan Habana and Chester Williams, and even Chris Ashton for England. The Art of the Intercept Try is often prevalent that it can tip a match on it’s head.

Flat defensive lines today mean an intercept can be a deadly weapon, so is a tool for many players. And while a coach will never instruct it as a strategy, a keen eye for the ‘right moment’ means the anticipation is always going to be used widely–and across many ball sports in fact: NFL [American Football], Basketball, Football and Rugby League.

Knowing when it is on, premeditating a pass or just simple blind luck are all skills that the opposition must have. And that includes the offended team–Jeff Wilson and Rieko Gear were not innocent of that strategy. And this weekend, Chiefs player James Lowe took two from the Highlanders that would ultimately be the scores difference at the conclusion of the match.

The Art of the Intercept Try

If you refer to it only as luck, then many players ride their luck. James Lowe managed to unfoil a plan by Waisake Naholo (see above), as he saw the Highlanders winger move to the sideline–if his luck was anything, it was controlling the ball, and not dropping it. Lowe read the play on the second occasion perfectly. For the first of his two tries, he viewed the ‘Landers halfback Aaron Smith preparing to pass to his left, and used his speed to grasp the ball. That was smart play. Both examples of the intercept try, as a wingers ‘weapon of choice’.

So intelligence plays a bigger part than shear luck. Last Word On Rugby would offer him congratulations for it, as you might to others who successfully judge a poor pass or anticipate the long ball [aka Stirling Mortlock]. Carlos Spencer will rue that day, but if the truth be known, his pass was almost sign posted – the match cameraman followed his every move on the big screen. In truth, the desperation of that Rugby World Cup semi final was the cause–Mortlock simply pounced on a bad pass.

Stirling Mortlock of Australia intercepts the ball during the Rugby World Cup Semi-Final match between Australia and New Zealand at Telstra Stadium November 15, 2003 in Sydney. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

A player knowing when to attempt the intercept try, is more common than a player simply having a ball passed to him–which does happen. More likely a flanker or midfielder lurking in the line who catches the pass. In that case, the ability to out-sprint cover defense is their sole task. And on those counter attacking moments, the fans heart sinks.

Game-breaking or Heartbreaking?

On Friday night, Lowe made both of his intercepts prior to halftime. Not so much heartbreaking as a last second breakout can be. Highlanders fans accepted the change in scores, and seemed to have faith that the team could recover the two converted tries [HT 9-14]. In the end, their inability to construct attack cost that team the result…..Lowe played his part though.

Gamebreaking? Not as such, as again, the flow of the game still favoured the home side. With 40 minutes remaining, the match had not been influenced heavily. And it is then where fans might think the single scoring action of a try; or in Basketball, a turnover doesn’t make so much of a difference. But that is considering the scoreboard only. There is also the psychological factor.

A game-breaking intercept is where memories of a player like Bryan Habana comes to mind. His intuition is almost as legendary as his ability to ‘turn up at the right time’. Habana can make that bit of difference. He can be a game-breaker, and outcome-changer (see video below).


Many times, it can upset the balance of the match too–especially when the team has put in a mammoth effort to gain territory. During the Sunwolves v Hurricanes Super Rugby game, the Japanese side made a huge move up-field, they looked threatening only for Brad Shields to take the ball 75 meters and score a runaway try. It can be soul-defeating for players–which illustrates the damage inflicted from an intercept try.

A Single, Heartbreaking Action

Heartbreaking are those times where the last minute break can change the outcome of a match. Good examples are the 2003 semi final, or Lachie Turner racing 95 meters for the decisive; and heartbreaking play in a 2010 match where Turner’s intervention was the decisive moment of the Waratahs 39-32 victory over the Blues.

In the same year, George Smith went from ruck-ball winner to intercept king, as he broke the hearts of Stormers fans. In that Cape Town game, Smith was the recipient of the match turning play, where he stole a Brok James pass to run to the line. The easily converted try was the difference, as the Stormers crossed for a try after time had elapsed. Their conversion; from out wide, was off target, and the Brumbies stole the win 17-19.

More examples can be found here.

Thrilling at times, devastating on the other hand. That is the compromised outcome from an intercept try. When scored under the posts, it usually for a full compliment of points (as in James Lowe’s two examples) so the impact on the opposition could be as much as 14 points. And the sense of “how do we redress that?” is a common question from a stunned opposition. ‘Did we deserve that?’ is a secondary guess from fans, as is blaming individuals.

No, because in a team sport, you cannot identify the culprit–it is time where the group focus on the ‘how’ rather than any ‘who/why/which’.

How Can It Be Countered?

If you stood in any rugby club around the world, fans will recall ‘that intercept try’. That time that winger ‘stole the result’ from us. It transverses many regions, countries and different ball sports. The same conjecture is made over the when. It has become a memory, but for the more trained, they will look at ways to negate the intercept try.

‘Keep the ball close’ would be the obvious reaction, but that only considers the actions an offensive team can take. But if you are of the thinking that [intercept try] as an opportunity, it can be an instructed skillset. An ability that is more conscious–while many wingers exhibit this skill, so too do midfield backs. Brian O’Driscoll (see picture below) and Jean de Villiers are two fine examples.

Brian O’Driscoll, races clear of Ronan O’Gara, Munster, on his way to scoring his side’s third try after intercepting a pass from O’Gara. Heineken Cup Semi-Final, Munster v Leinster, Croke Park, (Photo by Sportsfile/Corbis via Getty Images)

So it will always be the estimation between an offensive play, and a defensive ploy. The art of the intercept try is the ability of the individual to make an impact on the result. Either a game-breaker, or as a heartbreaking act. It is indiscernible, unplanned and indefensible. It comes out of the blue, is untrained and un-trainable. A skill across so many ball sports, that is both cruel and kind.

Can it be countered? To a degree yes – ‘keep the ball in the tight forwards’. But across an 80 minute match, countless occasions may be more fallible to an intercept try–although, the best ones seem to be unplanned.

And that is sport in a nutshell. Unpredictable, beautiful but also, incorrigible.


This article was published on Last Word On Rugby, your exclusive site for all Super Rugby, Six Nations and International rugby union.


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