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Analysis: Outsmarting the rush defence

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Analysis: How the All Blacks could outsmart the rush defence

“The shrewd guess, the fertile hypothesis, the courageous lead to a tentative conclusion – these are the most valuable coins of the thinker at work. But in schools, guessing is heavily penalized and is associated somehow with laziness.” – Jerome Bruner

If you have ever assembled a puzzle before, you know there’s a set process to it. You find the edges, and the corners, assemble them all up, after which you fan out the remaining pieces and look for the colours that match with areas what you’ve assembled. Once you have the colour, you then look for the shape and lines within it. Rinse and repeat as you get further in, seeing more and more of the picture form.

As we can start to see the flavour of the picture, it is often far easier to see where all the little pieces can fit together. Before you know it, we’re using elimination rather than observation to find the correct piece and, instead of finding the piece for the picture, we’re looking at the intent of the picture, to find the piece.

It’s all about looking at what fits the finished product, which means today we will be doing a little guesswork.

Today’s article is about trying to guess what New Zealand have up their sleeves to counter the rush defence. I need to re-iterate strongly that this is opinion and guesswork, nothing more and nothing less. We can look at the setups and dynamics New Zealand have introduced in the past and look at how they could be effective in the latter stages of the World Cup.

Continue reading below…

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The Possibilities

Threading the needle

A natural continuation from my prior article, it feels like this is something New Zealand aren’t showing their full hand on.

It could generate a high likelihood of success against so many teams due to the form of rush defence they employ. New Zealand decision making at 10/15 is affected by the picture the defence present outside of the “2 pod” in their new system.

The majority of the guesses come from the use of the wing.

In this case, we can see the shield pod has stopped the defence and, as such, given Barrett time to assess his options.

As we discussed earlier, the shoot defence overextend to cut off the “3 pod”, meaning gaps can appear for Barrett. There is a call that means the closest winger can be brought in to track the 1st receiver – Barrett, in this case. I don’t believe this has been shown in this tournament yet.

It’s exacerbated against England as well to a massive degree.

If Barrett calls the winger to him, this means two men striking at this target, and as we can see above, this is very valid as a target. This could lead to line-breaks with a variety of attacking plays, the tracking option being one which could potentially work.

The reason being is that we’ve seen the winger follow the 10 in before to strike this gap off set piece. This is a textbook example of this gap being exploited:

Jack Goodhue’s line holds/blocks Remi Lamerat. Wesley Fofana rushes up to smash McKenzie, overextending the defence and resulting in Ioane going straight through.

More importantly however, we’ve seen the winger follow the playmaker in open play.

Though the structure is different, with New Zealand’s use of a 2-3-2-1, we can see the shield pods effect in the 3 and what McKenzie and Ioane try to do with it.

If we also take into account where the 1-2-3-1-1 attack starts near the sideline, it’s a perfect position for the winger to “connect” with the 10, and leads me to believe the All Black wingers will be brought in off their wing to attack this gap upon instruction of the 10.

A variety of plays could be used for this, such as the tracker option that was shown in the stills above. However, there’s one that I feel we may see at some point, as it could be perfect for this.

The Brumbies were among the first to use the league tactic of screen runners.

The defenders in this example are fixed by the Brumbies 10, 12 and 11. By running under the 12, David Knox leaves behind his defender, and takes a line that slices through the gap between the defenders lining up 12 and 11.

The way the Brumbies were set meant this hole was not exploitable until Knox reused himself on this line.

Present day stand-offs usually take east-west run’s on plays like this to release their wide men.

The combo of Knox reusing himself with a north-south line against a numbered-up defence meant he could target a gap between defenders that the defence didn’t even consider to be exploitable.

The reason I think New Zealand would use this is because we’ve seen it in training:

Whether they’d use it at this strike point is circumstantial but theoretically, as a move against this point, it could be perfect.

The 3-pod Splitter

As we can see in threading the needle, we can see how the “Triangle” push operates outside of the shield pod. It rushes up to pressure the pod, inadvertently forming the dogleg.

If we have a look here, I think New Zealand have an option to exploit this.

The midfield pod is often the target of the shoot defence, as was seen particularly against South Africa. In response to this, New Zealand often have separation between at least one of their forwards in the pod, with the wide option receiver in behind. Not only that, but this receiver is often very powerful or fast with Sonny Bill Williams, Beauden Barrett, or Anton Leinert-Brown all filling the role.

In addition to filling the wide option role, I believe that this runner can also be a tracker option, much like we referenced in the previous article.

If the defence number on the forwards themselves, the separation within the pod combined against the natural dogleg can make this a very exploitable point. The receiver behind is often so close to this gap, that it makes sense that they can perform this option. If we look above, the wide receiver is on the inside of the gap in both examples, in perfect tracking position.

We know this is an effective tactic, as we’ve seen it before.

Hurricanes 2017

We can see the exact same move here run by the Hurricanes. Using the exact same 10 – “3 pod” – 15 axis to strike it, with Beauden Barrett to the 3 pod to unlock Jordie Barrett.

The structure has been added, and structure is only ever be there to provide players the platform to showcase and enhance their talents.

The reason I feel this structure and option will be used, is because this was performed against the Bulls defence. The defence at the time, coached by John Mitchell, the current England defence coach whom has employed very similar elements with England.

The high pressure, triangle defence employed by England and South Africa, can be manipulated by the pod, the image above is near identical to the Bulls push, with the gap targeted by some of the most powerful backs in the New Zealand arsenal.

We haven’t seen it, but the New Zealand management are too smart not to have noticed this. Not only do they employ a similar rush and have also been victims of this weakness, but the proximity and positioning of the wide receiver to the gap combined with New Zealand’s tracking is too coincidental for me. It ripped apart England’s defensive system at Super Rugby, and I would be surprised if New Zealand hadn’t thought of embracing it at the international scene.

The Switchy McSwitcherson

Named after a back story for another time, this alludes to a potential New Zealand scissors dynamic, that is certainly the most reaching of them in all terms of guesswork.

It all started with the New Zealand vs Australia game hosted in Japan in 2018, when we saw that brilliant first phase try in which New Zealand switched the point of attack to target the blind.

Quite a brilliant try, and something that teams including South Africa, France, and Ireland and potentially plenty of others have in their arsenal. Not to mention this has the look of the old Brumbies play from earlier, with Barrett cutting the tracking line the same as McKenzie.
The switching dynamic from open to blind however, is something that is seeing increased usage off set-piece.

We then saw something against England in November last year.

To combat England’s triangle rush in the second half, New Zealand started cutting back inside the point of the triangle. As we discussed in a prior article, the fringe defence often drift immediately after the ball is in the hands of the 10. This means this area can be spaced and we can see this for sure in the England examples.

McKenzie targeted this area multiple times to great effect. He managed a huge gain in the example below, where we can the spacings opened by the drift and created a try scoring opportunity above.

My theory is that New Zealand have come up with a dynamic to exploit this point.

They no longer have McKenzie, and this turned out to be so effective against England, that they created another dynamic to strike here.

It involves the 15/10 behind the 3 pod coming through as a scissors option to the 1st receiver.

For me, it fits. The crab run of the 10 assists the drift as they expect the 3 pod to be the intended target the shield pod is able to sit in the line, forming some semblance of obstruction or mischief to either hold their defenders, or help them along. Then you have one of the world’s fastest and agile fullbacks in Barrett, coming from a hidden position to take the late scissors pass to strike at the weak point as shown earlier.

If this isn’t on and it’s obvious for Barrett to see, there will be space elsewhere. The key for New Zealand is developing and enhancing these accelerated decision-making processes, to be able to take the right option every time as the play unfolds.

These are some tactics, that to me make sense and explain some things New Zealand have done. I thoroughly admit I could be wrong. This is pure and complete guesswork, but whilst rush defences have shut New Zealand down, they also reveal weaknesses. I’m like to believe they have developed and thought of ways to combat these weaknesses.

The knockout stages begin this weekend, where teams will start revealing their hand. If they can pull some of these off, their opponents will be left grasping air.

They’re designed to put all the considerable skills and talent of the All Blacks to use against the very weaknesses inadvertently created by other teams to stop them.

The irony is not lost on this writer, as these teams will not know what hits them.

Ireland forwards coach Simon Easterby has a few ideas how to stop the All Blacks:

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Analysis: How the All Blacks could outsmart the rush defence