The Runner Sports

The Art Of The Rugby Fend: A Guide To Combative Ball Carrying

When executed by an opponent it conveys a most loathsome crime, when applied by a teammate or favorite player it elevates the status of the game to one made up of raw physics and brutal contact. Few things illustrate the appeal of rugby and the athleticism of the players more than watching a defender’s sudden elevation and inversion after encountering a well-placed fend as can be seen here.

Although they come in all shapes and sizes, a fend typically refers to a style of offensive running in which the ball carrier used the arm to keep defenders away. As a player, I’ve been both on the delivering and receiving end of such play and am well-acquainted with the impact it has on a game. Likewise, the fend, if used properly, has a multitude of applications ranging from swatting a would-be mugger out of the way with impunity, or keeping a competitive sibling from beating you to the bathroom in the morning. With that in mind, I humbly present this guide to fans of rugby worldwide and any would be practitioners at the youth, collegiate, or men’s club levels.

What It Is:

Known in the States as a stiff-arm, the fend has also been referred to as a Hand Off, and comes in two variations of the Don’t Argue and, the usually more violent option, the Big Don’t Argue.  A fend is that audacious display of combative running that turns the individual ball-carrier into one part battering ram, one part human club, with the goal of dispatching any would-be defenders on your way across the gain line. With one hand keeping the defender literally at arm’s reach, the fend will likewise maintain a safe distance between your opponent and their ultimate goal, possession of the rugby ball.

How To Do It:

Now, open play in any rugby match should be viewed with the understanding that a player will find himself/herself in any number of lively situations. That said, the fend will be most useful as a ball carrier when an opponent is encountered and it is clear that contact is imminent. The fend may be employed by any of the 15 players on the pitch, as shoving your way past throngs of defenders is not reserved for members of the backline only.

The biggest asset a fend practitioner has is the element of the surprise. In most cases, the last thing a defender expects in the heat of battle is the ball carrier to initiate contact. Thus, this is the exact approach a ball carrier should take. If you wait until a defender expects contact, the physics are no longer in your favor. But, if you take the initiative and deliver a well-placed, powerful shove, you may just achieve the desired result of sending your opponent careening into the stands as popularized by New Zealand legend Jonah Lomu.

After initiating contact, the next step is to determine where to deliver the shove. Luckily here, you have options. Reliable locations include, but are hardly limited to, your opponent’s face, neck, upper chest, and either shoulder. Practitioners should keep in mind that an effective fend to the face can look remarkably like a straight punch as can be seen utilized here by USA Eagle Danny Barrett. Behavior resembling this is not looked upon too favorably by many rugby match officials. Use wisely.

Once you have decided upon an appropriate location, deliver the Fend with as much gusto as possible. Power is key. The goal is twofold. First, you’d obviously like to keep a defender as far away from the ball as possible. Second, in using the element of surprise in delivering your Fend, you may very well knock your opponent off-balance, giving ample time to speed your way to the try zone. As seen in this fend by Crusader Robbie Fruean, it is even possible to get your opponent airborne.

In Addition…

An addendum for first-time practitioners. If completed correctly, a well-executed fend can often shock the ball-carrier just as much as the defender, and it is a common mistake for a first timer to want to pause to appreciate their handiwork. Despite the obvious temptation to survey the swath of destruction you just left behind, it can be expected that other defenders are closing in fast. As soon as the fend has been effectively implemented, ignore the temptation and instead consider more productive plans such as how to offload to a teammate or what your try celebration will look like.

Famous Practitioners: 

Recent rugby history is ripe with great Fends. For expert examples of combative ball carrying, look no further than Jonah Lomu, Sean O’Brien, Jonathan Davies, Julien Savea, Cory Jane, anyone with the last name Tuilagi and Robbie Fruean. Although not an exhaustive list, these practitioners offer some mouth-watering examples of how fends can illustrate the beautiful physics of rugby.

Eric Sweigert

Eric Sweigert

Currently a teacher-athlete up in Northern California, I was first introduced to rugby in college (go Aggies) and haven't looked back. Nowadays you can find me teaching American History and writing about a sport that provided many good memories and more than enough stitches.
Eric Sweigert