This season the Southern Hemisphere has seen an increase in the number of teams running variations of switch plays – the Highlanders, the Sharks, the Reds in Super Rugby and now the Tasman Makos in Mitre 10 are deploying these with success.
One of these variations, the ‘Mousetrap’, has become the trendiest trick play of 2018.
The Switch Concept
A switch strike is usually a two-phase setup, using a settling first phase (usually a simple crash runner) to set up the ‘axis’ or ‘pivot’ ruck in the middle of the field from which the side can ‘swing’ play back with a quick switch, often with elaborate second-phase play.
Off a short 5-man lineout, the blind side following the first phase crash is usually going to hold a number of those tight five forwards resetting the defensive line.
Mismatches can be made be moving play straight back towards the touchline, using backs against the heavy-footed big men.
Having a shifty halfback that always requires attention helps – both Ireland with Conor Murray and the Highlanders with Aaron Smith run a lot of switch plays to utilise the delivery speed and superior passing skills of the halfback to exploit short side defence.
Here the Highlanders expose the Stormers reloading defence after Rob Thompson takes a crash ball in the midfield. Aaron Smith switches play back and the Highlanders run a pre-planned move with Ben Smith looping around to link with Waisake Naholo.
Tasman Makos are using these plays in Mitre 10 Cup, here using a wrap around to free up speedsters Will Jordan and Solomon Alaimalo down the short side.
The ‘Mousetrap’ is a variation of the switch play Tasman used above, this time using the halfback wrap-around as bait.
They will target the A-B ruck channel with a power runner, often a centre, looking to explode through vulnerable ruck defence with an inside ball from the forward performing the wrap-around pass.
The halfback’s wrap-around motion is the ‘cheese’, baiting the B defender to chase him, opening up the lane for the centre. The centre’s angle coming from the other side is usually undetected by those in and around the ruck.
The halfback will hopefully pull the B defender wide, while another player, the ‘Blockman’ has a dubious role to play in nullifying the A defender.
Both the Highlanders and Tasman use a prop who wedges off the A defender by engaging in a block for as long as possible. The ‘Blockman’ appears to be a lazy cleaner coming from the lineout, arriving at the ruck late and standing in an offside position but plays a deliberate role in interfering with the opposition for the next phase, impeding players from filling space.
The big body looks to inhibit the A defender as long as possible without being sighted by the referee. On Rob Thompson’s try, you can see the Highlanders ‘Blockman’ Dan Lienert-Brown making contact beyond the ruck to stop the player from filling the ‘A’ space before releasing him as the play begins.
Tasman’s prop Tyrell Lomax (3) positions in the same place on this ‘Mousetrap’, but with no ruck defence set by Southland he doesn’t need to do anything on this occasion.
In the first two switch plays used as examples above you will see the Prop perform this role, even though they didn’t run the Mousetrap.
If you watch Aaron Smith’s try against the Stormers again you will see reserve prop Aki Seiuli (17) fill the blocker role, tussling with a Stormers forward well after the ball has gone right, as well as reserve centre Matt Faddes (23) anticipating his ‘Mousetrap’ line, which in the end just becomes an inside support line.
The ‘Mousetrap’ is just one of a few options the side has from the midfield crash, and the defined role of certain positions like the Prop indicate that whatever play is actually run could be chosen on the fly, depending on how the defensive line sets up.
If the defence over commits coming around the corner, the wide switch strikes could be on. If they fail to space correctly around the ruck, the Mousetrap might be used.
Tasman’s hooker Andrew Makalio played a key role in both switch plays they ran, showing a high level of ball playing ability. If this indeed, a read-and-react option play, his execution is seriously impressive showing skills few front-rowers possess.
Don’t take the cheese
The first rule of defending the A-B channel – don’t leave the A-B channel.
You are supposed to defend space, not the man, which makes this decision a poor one by Waratahs lock Ned Hanigan (4), who takes the cheese and leaves his side exposed.
It is the same concept as zone vs. man coverage defensive backs use in the NFL. The A-B defenders are zone defenders and must control that area, allowing players to leave the zone horizontally but never vertically through it (you should be in the way in that case).
Hanigan, policing the A-space, chases the halfback and looks to get involved in the contact on Sharks hooker Armand van der Merwe.
The Sharks mousetrap is a little bit less clinical but no less effective as Lukhanyo Am gashes the Tahs for a long-range try. It was a play they frequently used this year to get Am into open space.
The Mousetrap seemed to have a high success rate of creating a line break this year. As it becomes more widely adopted, teams will have to ensure they have solid ruck defence following lineout play or these switch strike plays will continue to reap rewards. When faced with a Blocker, ruck defenders will have to ‘win’ that space before the ball is released, slipping over or under him avoiding getting locked into contact.
With the Northern season kicking off over the weekend, it will be interesting if the play is adopted by teams that like to run switch plays off a base 5-man lineout package and could be a trend to watch.
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