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Analysis: How kick-offs are game-changers

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Analysis: Restart as you mean to go on - how kick-off strategies can create game-changing momentum

They say that you always remember your favourite teacher, and it’s true. My favourite teacher was Mr. Yates, an English teacher at my Primary school.

A kindly and sympathetic man, I learned to remain awake in his classes and listen attentively for the droplets of wisdom. One of the phrases that cut the deepest groove was: “Start as you mean to go on”.

While Mr. Yates initially intended this advice to relate to the construction of the essays and stories he asked us to write, I soon learned that “the theory of good beginnings” had a much wider value.

Playing sport at school, I found myself gravitating to positions where I could influence proceedings from the beginning – as an opening batsman in cricket, and as a goalkeeper in soccer. My energy level was noticeably different when I felt that what I did mattered from the very start, and the results were very much better.

In rugby, there is special energy attached to situations where the game is either being started, or restarted.

(Continue reading below…)

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Why? Firstly, because the majority of restarts occur after you have scored points yourself – via a try, or a penalty or drop goal. Soccer studies have shown that there can be a 13 per cent higher probability of the team that just conceded a goal getting on to the scoresheet shortly afterward, compared to the side who just scored.

This stat can be explained by the momentary mental relaxation that tends to occur after a team scores a goal. You have “done it”, you’ve achieved your aim, and for short period there is the sense of involuntary, temporary withdrawal from the fight.

This withdrawal period represents an ideal chance for your opponent to strike back. Multiply the incidence of goals in soccer by the much higher number of scoring opportunities available in rugby and this kind of statistic becomes significant.

The second reason for the importance of restarts is that they are in essence gilt-edged turnover attack opportunities. Attacks from a change of possession tend to be more successful because the defence is disorganized by the unexpected loss of the ball.

If you can put up a high, contestable kick from a kick-off, you can potentially win the ball back in the opponent’s half of the field, typically on or near the 22-metre line. Then you have earned yourself two or three phases of “free” attack against a defence still looking to rediscover its shape.

Only a few years ago in the UK, restarts were automatically kicked long, then cleared into touch by the receiving team. The game only started from the ensuing lineout!

For the top teams, it is all very different now. Much more attention is being paid to new beginnings and the value of thinking through restarts fully.

There was no more lucid example of this awareness than in the recent English Gallagher Premiership final between Saracens and Exeter Chiefs. The game started as it meant to go on, right from the opening whistle:

Exeter kick-off but instead of just kicking the ball away and awaiting the return, they identified a potential weakness in the Saracens receiving formation.

The red area illustrates a definite gap of about 15 metres between the line of Saracens forwards and the backs patrolling inside the 22-metre zone. Exeter’s idea is to kick into this no man’s land and create uncertainty in the receiving corps – should George Kruis and his lifter retreat in order to take the ball, or the back behind him (No13 Alex Lozowski) advance under it?

In the end, the decision is never fully made. The ball is too long for Kruis to collect comfortably, and Lozowski is not in a position to clear up the loose ball. The Chiefs wing, Alex Cuthbert, picks up the turnover and is finally brought down only a few metres from the Saracens line.

It only took another two phases and 18 seconds for Exeter scrum-half Nic White to snipe away from the side of a ruck and score a try.

Saracens’ response was not to kick off for safety and look to settle the game down into equilibrium, but instead to strike back immediately in that short window of relaxation after a score.

This is the same restart theory as the Chiefs, but with a slightly different emphasis. The kick-off is shorter than in the first example, but the idea is still to infiltrate the areas between the first line of forwards and the second line of backs.

Maro Itoje has inserted himself in the space between the Chiefs’ forward-receiving pod and the first back moving forward on to the ball (Jack Nowell in the blue headgear). Itoje’s presence blocks out Nowell completely and ensures that any scraps of loose possession will be hoovered up by the Saracens support.

Only two phases later, Saracens were able to exploit the disorganised state of the defence to create a line break.

After a quick ruck ball, the Exeter defence had no time to rush upfield but must move sideways across towards touch. Saracens’ two play-makers in the backs (Owen Farrell and Alex Goode) linked up to run at the space outside Exeter’s slowest back-row forward (Dave Ewers) to confirm the break.

Saracens occupied this field position for long enough to make a score from a close-range lineout on the fourth-minute mark. It is a good moment to reassess what they achieved by using a contestable restart:

  • They drew a penalty immediately (no release by Chiefs at the first ruck);
  • They attracted a yellow card on Exeter’s Henry Slade for the illegal knockdown of a potential scoring pass;
  • They enjoyed one minute 45 seconds of possession inside the Exeter red zone, finished off by a converted try worth seven points;
  • They reversed the momentum generated by the opening try without delay.

It is a pretty good return for one kick-off and under two minutes of ball retention!

Exeter’s reply 10 minutes later was also built off the back of a kick-off reclaim.

It is the same theme we have seen before but on this occasion, the kick-off goes to the left rather than the right. The restart is in the “joint” between Itoje and the unfortunate Lozowski, with Itoje knocking the ball straight into the hands of Exeter back row Matt Kvesic.

Kvesic has advanced beyond the kick (just like Itoje himself in the previous instance) in order to pick up the crumbs that fall from the table.

Exeter held on to this position deep inside the Saracens red zone for a massive four and a half minutes before they scored a try to get their noses ahead for the second time in the match. But the momentum change began with “restarting as they meant to go on”.

In the context of the importance of kick-offs to the result of the game as a whole, it was entirely appropriate that the most critical momentum swing of all also coincided with a reclaimed restart.

Compared to the Saracens formation on previous kick-offs, the Exeter forward-receiving line is set far deeper towards their own 22 and this opens up the zone near the 40-metre line to attack.

Farrell’s kick is perfectly placed for right wing Liam Williams to knock the ball back. Ten seconds later, Saracens created a break in the Exeter defence by once again linking their two best distributors of the ball (Farrell and Goode) together at first and second receiver.

On this occasion, Cuthbert has moved up too far and Goode finds the space outside him with an excellent floated pass to Sean Maitland on the left. A few moments later Farrell cross-kicked back to the right touchline for Williams to win an aerial contest for the second time in the movement and score the try.

Saracens were 27-16 down at the time and the score was crucial in bringing them back into the game. They never looked back, outscoring the Chiefs 21 points to seven in the final quarter to bring an epic contest to a successful close.

The Greek philosopher Plato once said: “The beginning is the most important part of the work. ” His principle certainly applies concretely to the game of rugby as it is played today.

As the Premiership final between Exeter and Saracens amply demonstrated, aggressive “beginnings” (in the form of restarts from halfway) were central to the bewildering changes of momentum throughout the match. Four of the tries derived from kick-offs either directly or from field position established by a winning reclaim.

Both sides made the effort to assess where the spaces in the defensive formation were likely to occur and exploited them with accurate kicks and chasers ahead of the point of receipt.

Kick-offs often catch the opponent at his weakest, when he has temporarily relaxed his vigilance after scoring. They can give you the finest kind of turnover ball against a defence trying to find its shape and reorganize deep in its own red zone.

The probability is that if you can occupy this position for long enough, you will not only accrue seven pointers but attract penalties and yellow cards from an opponent desperate to protect his goal line.

The days of simply “kicking and clapping” and waiting for the first lineout to launch an attack are long gone. Now you can attack right from the opening whistle and repeat the formula with every new beginning from halfway. My old English teacher was right after all: start and restart as you mean to go on and do it throughout the game.

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Analysis: Restart as you mean to go on - how kick-off strategies can create game-changing momentum