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Analysis: How the ABs defend

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Analysis: How the All Blacks defend and where all the weak points are

“Should the enemy strengthen his van, he will weaken his rear; should he strengthen his rear, he will weaken his van; should he strengthen his left, he will weaken his right; should he strengthen his right, he will weaken his left. If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The wisdom listed above by the famed Chinese general is as relevant on a rugby field as it ever was on the battlefield. One of the first things a coach may have said in your days as Colts was that you should always be attacking space. An addition added after that was no matter how good a defence is, there will always be space on the rugby field.

We are held by the laws of the game. There are only 15 men allowed on the field, and the field is too wide for us to cover it all. Therefore, in defence we have compromises to make. We have to decide much like Sun Tzu, whether to spread our defence, whether to concentrate it, how we adjust our make-up and pendulum, and how we fold. This is often dependent upon of our own knowledge of how an opponent likes to attack.

The Shoot defence

 New Zealand, like many teams, are incredibly keen to pressure the opposition in defence. One of the ways with which they execute this, is with their shoot defence.

The rush-10 defence, or ‘The Shoot’, is comprised of the first three-four players in the defensive line shooting up out of the line as the 9 passes.

The objective being to place pressure on the first receiver and drive them back. Resulting in a triangle rush, this is a nightmare for 10’s who take the ball static, placing pressure on the playmaker and increasing the likelihood of giving a poor pass and loss of possession.

This has key variations. In play off the 10, you’ll also see New Zealand target the pod outside 10, as you can see here. The point is that the carrier taking contact is susceptible to huge amounts of pressure.

This is incredibly effective due to the number of teams whose pods take the ball static. This results in an easy tackle for New Zealand and a loss in gain line for the opposition.

Strengths

  • Opposition pods off 9 are likely to be caught behind gainline.
  • Speed of shoot portion results in a dominant hit on the carrier.
  • Pressure on first receiver can lead to a knock-on or pass under pressure.
  • Cuts off wide play effectively due to speed of defensive rush.
  • Strong follow-up position for the transition from defence to attack in event of knock-on.

Weaknesses

This can be a very effective tactic, however, there were weaknesses’ that result from the speed of the last shooter. Due to the fourth man sitting back, a natural ‘dog-leg’ forms that is quite susceptible to the pop pass.

Now there usually had to be a fair amount of subtlety and decoy lines behind this to interest the fourth/fifth defender to increase the potency of this point. But even when there wasn’t, it was exploited quite often in this world cup cycle.

On top of this, it is vulnerable to the inside ball, as the pillar sits back whilst the post and key move forward, therefore meaning any run at the fringes can make the gainline, as we will show later.

  1. Natural dog-legs can form within the transition zone of the defensive line.
  2. Vulnerable to the inside ball and pick and go.

Opportunities

 The opportunities in this are found by exploiting the positioning of the last shooter. Due to the speed of the key (the last shooter), separation is often found that is exploitable to the pop pass.

Ireland, England, Argentina, South Africa, and others have all made use of this gap the past years and as can be seen, it has been effective. When refined with screen runners to interest the first ‘drift’ defender, flat play and correct timing, even more so.

Ireland 2016

England 2018

Argentina 2018

Threats

 The threat from a defensive standpoint is quite evident. The pressure the eventual carrier is under is huge, especially with an All Black forward lined up to destroy you.

The risk of losing possession here can be high, and results in a knock-on with the New Zealand defensive line set and at depth to start moving into their attacking game.

  • Risk of knock-on and mistake from the first receiver.
  • With forward momentum, prime jackaling position with support potentially overrunning.
  • Line maintains its depth to switch to attack.
  • Denies any front-foot ball to opposition with tackle completion.

In that instance, it flows into their counter game, with the rest of the line at a depth ready to switch to attack, immediately. This leads nicely into the next section.

The Whip defence

Outside of the shoot, is the whip portion of the defence.

When I call it this, I’m not trying to coin new phrases! The New Zealand defence outside of the shoot follows the motion of a whip in full strike.

The line holds back, with each man coming up one by one, following the ball along the line and in doing so pressuring each attacker. This means as each attacker takes the ball, he meets a defender opposite and a man outside him, restricting the outside break and the possibility of the short pass.

The defence outside of the shoot like the whip has its straight line, that follows up to the boundary set by the last shooter. It then has the fall, or the tip, which comes through as the striking point of the whip, or in this case, the edge of the defensive line.

The licence for this boundary is set by the attacks’ second and third pass.

Up to the second pass, the defensive line will maintain at the depth set by the last shooter, after the second pass, the edge of the defence will push past this boundary to place the wide receivers under pressure.

On top of this, once the ball has gone past the defender opposite, he immediately joins the drift, closing down the wide channels and preventing gainline being generated off quick ball one pass off 9 on the next phase.

Strengths 

  • Grants the illusion of space out wide, funneling the attack here.
  • Results in likely loss in gainline and pressure for the turnover out wide.
  • Pressure is placed on each receiver as they take the ball.
  • Presents a straight line to each receiver at the line, preventing the outside break.
  • Allows a ready set attacking line at depth in the case of a turnover.
  • As the ball goes past the defender, the defender in question immediately joins the drift, losing space out wide for the attacking team.

 Weaknesses

The weaknesses of this system are very hard to find. Due to the incredible fitness, co-ordination and work rate this demands, there are very few areas one can take advantage. However, as we know, no one defence covers them all, and there are some we can discuss.

  1. The drift off set-piece can result in space on the blind
  2. The distance between the last defender and the pendulum defence is dangerous.
  3. Inside options after the drift has been activated can prove fruitful.

Opportunities

  1. The drift off set-piece can result in space on the blind.

To funnel the attack out wide, the defensive line immediately starts drifting the moment the ball has passed each defender. This work-rate, and urgency to get over results in an unlikeliness to outflank New Zealand, though it can happen. There are ways to target this eagerness, one of which was shown by Joe Schmidt.

This switch play off a lineout is a perfect example of how to target New Zealand’s’ keenness to drift.

  1. The distance between the last defender and the pendulum defender is dangerous.

This is a note that the gap between the pendulum defence (the backfield), and the last defender can be quite significant. Unfortunately, it has to be, as they have to be at a depth to handle the kick through. This is what can be used against them.

To exploit this, you need a very proficient kicking 13 in the mold of Henry Slade for England, James O’Connor for Australia or Garry Ringrose for Ireland, and a fast wing up very flat.

This is a note that the gap between the pendulum defence (the backfield), and the last defender can be quite significant. Unfortunately, it has to be, as they have to be at a depth to handle the kick through. This is what can be used against them.

 

The theory is that it relies on the All Blacks having incorporated ball-watching into their defence a little more. A potential by-product of Ronan O’Gara’s coaching with the Crusaders, the winger could get very flat here without notice from the defensive line.

The 13 would move cut an outside arc to get closer to the edge and execute the grubber near the defensive line. Another asset the 13 would have here is the speed to actually allow this outside break.

This combination along with the kick would mean threading a short but angled grubber through so as the 14 cannot turn and gather in time, the 14 who is also interested in his opposite man.

The 11 would move on a strong out-in line, intercepting the ball and running inside the 10, already at a disadvantage due to his outside arc to take his place in the defensive line. The differences in vectors, combined with the speed of a wing like Jonny May, Cheslin Kolbe or Jacob Stockdale, could result in a very good chance at a try.

We are relying on the defending 14 coming up so that the gap is increased even more. Even so, the kick has to be incredibly precise. But with the right angle, the right kick and a speedy wing, it’s possible.

  1. Inside options after the drift has been activated can prove fruitful.

 The New Zealand system usually assumes a long pass from 9 means a play is going outside the 10 channels. This is often fair, as long passes that cut out three players or more to the 10 or a distributing forward pod have the ability to initiate the wide play.

This means the inside pillars are immediately – with speed – going straight on an in-out line.

Wales 2016

Lions 2017

Australia 2017

They have no use at the fringes of the ruck. They are tracking out as part of the inside drift so they can be useful on the open side and cover the short inside options down the line.

More importantly, the players on the other side of the ruck, can be slow to fold over.

With the lack of the fold around the ruck, this can cause gaps to appear that are vulnerable to the inside pass.

Threats

In the very first GIF in this dynamic, we saw an Irish loss of possession. The pressure that each attacker is put under as they go down the line is huge. On top of this, when the attack moves wide, the likeliness of turnover with the fall of the whip is only heightened.

The wide alignment outside of the decoy midfield setup is often cut off and with the pro-activity of the inside defence to get over, the line at the edge can also push out without fear of leaving the inside exposed.

  • Loss of possession as attack goes down the line constant.
  • Fall of the whip wider and reinforced by the inside, allowing them the go forward to cut off the wide channels at the third pass.
  • Pressure to quick pass at the edge can lead to turnover, directly in the channel where the All Black counter-attacking specialists are found. 

The Fringes

As has been discussed before, New Zealand does not like being attacked through, and around the fringes of the ruck.

They tend to keep their pillar, post and key spread for the most part, as to maintain cover across the pitch and keep numbers alive for their counter. This can change as will be seen dependent on the opponent in the next article, but as we can see below. The distances between the fringe defenders can vary hugely.

This is down to Aaron Smith’s positioning behind the ruck. Located here as a mix of sweeper and organiser, his job is to orchestrate the fold and spread of the fringes, ensuring it is well organised to combat the one-out runners, dangers of pick and go’s and inside balls that can arise.

Strengths

 This makes it highly adaptable in fixed circumstances, the fringes can remain spread, or can constrict if they’re targeted. Smith is a very capable organiser at this location, and as such the threats are usually dealt with very effectively.

  • Allows New Zealand to spread their fringes and constrict as per the picture the opposition is painting.
  • Maintains the width needed for the eventual counter.
  • Most plays more than one pass out are well handled numbered.

Weaknesses

The downsides to this approach, however, are evident. Smith is essential at organising the fringes, and New Zealand’s standard operating procedure seems to be against bringing wide men in to cover it unnecessarily.

If Smith’s judgement is impaired, he is taken out of the game or comes into the line, the integrity of the pillar defence can be compromised with men being slow to move in.

  1. As dependent on Smith’s decision making, if he’s taken out of the game or forced into the line, space can appear around the ruck with quick identification.
  2. When one side of the ruck is heavily stocked, the other is often not, meaning switches and blind-open runs by the back three could be fruitful.
  3. Susceptible to concentrated attacks with quick ball.
  4. The transition zone can be exploitable with out-in lines off this.

Opportunities

  1. As dependent on Smith’s decision making, if he’s taken out of the game or forced into the line, space can appear around the ruck with quick identification.

 When Smith is bought up into the line, or himself makes a tackle, the fringe numbering process can lose its way. When it comes to bear that Smith is in the line, this can result in space through the ruck where he normally stands, a breakdown in organisation which can lead to a break or targeting Smith himself.

Space through

Smith has to make the tackle with the inside pass. With him committed, the Pumas follow up quickly, going through the gap Smith normally finds himself. In 2019, we see the same gap exploited.

With the open fringe undermanned, Smith catches himself in ‘no man’s land’, in-between pillar, and his natural position. This error results in the try.

Disorganisation

In this case, we see the fringes exploited with quick ball, tying up Smith. This leaves the fringes disorganised, which Australia combine with point four.

This results in the break straight up the guts.

  1. When one side of the ruck is heavily stocked, the other is often not, meaning switches and blind-open runs by the back three could be fruitful.

 This is especially prominent with opportunities close to the wide channels.

But the under and overfold is exacerbated with the spacings of the New Zealand fringes.

Combine this with quick ball and switches, you can have very powerful runners making a lot of ground. Pick and goes are often same way so many times, when the defence is far more vulnerable on the other side. This goes for most teams, not just New Zealand.

Incorporating switches in these scenarios with speed, some deception and a little initiative, could net huge gains.

       3. Susceptible to concentrated attacks with quick ball.

 All of this is moot without quick ball and accurate decision making. If you hit an unprepared enemy, you’ll get more than hitting a prepared one. Even if you’re waiting for your structure, and more so if you know where to target.

One of the tries by the Lions was a prime example. The two Irish half-backs took the knowledge gained from Schmidt and combined it with speed and initiative to strike two weaknesses we’ve shown today in quick succession. Jonny Sexton exploits the shoot with Jamie George and then goes beyond the ruck to cause a little mischief, actively ‘encouraging’ TJ Perenara to drift out with Anton Leinert Brown.

Conor Murray runs the quick pick and go, resulting in a game-changing try, and a carbon copy of CJ Standers try in Chicago.

      4. The transition zone can be exploitable with out-in lines off this.

Again, ball-watching results in the flat pass and the out-in line getting Beale through.

Ireland in their break at the very start also used this. In the France example, quick ball and the out-in line led to a searing break. France had occupied New Zealand’s fringe defence with their pick and go’s and direct carries. Australia’s Nic White and Will Genia had sniped at the fringes all day.

New Zealand were trained to focus on the inside, meaning the slightly wider out-in lines went unnoticed, and due to the defence not coming in, were costly.

Threats

The threats of this exist on turnover. With the spread fringe, a turnover and pass can get outside their 10 and his pod setup, allowing numbers on for the counter. That’s why any team who attacks here in numbers, needs to be confident in their ball retention.

Now, in the next article, we will look into one more dynamic, and more importantly, the things New Zealand have incorporated into their game, to try and stop these opportunities occurring again.

Samu Kerevi unhappy with the officiating call:

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Analysis: How the All Blacks defend and where all the weak points are