“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one most adaptable to change” – Charles Darwin

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One of the biggest questions in world rugby right now is what New Zealand is going to look like under Ian Foster in 2020.

From my point of view, Foster was ahead of his time ten years ago and will do brilliantly in the top job. Unfortunately, many of the New Zealand public do not seem to agree, with many citing his head coaching role with the Chiefs as the best indicator towards his future performance.

That coach and the coach now are two different beasts. New Zealand rugby is, at its core, simple rugby executed extremely well. The success that New Zealand has enjoyed off the back of this was not possible without Foster.

Today we’re going to look at the evolution of the set-piece attack since Foster’s appointment to New Zealand in 2011. His attack off set-piece is taken from the same Chiefs team the public has quoted as evidence to his unsuitability. However, much like he evolved himself, Foster transformed the All Blacks‘ attack into the finest in world rugby.

We’ll start off by explaining the fundamental dynamic of the Chiefs’ attack off set-piece, and then see how this was adopted and perfected by New Zealand.

The Chiefs’ chalice attack shape

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The New Zealand attack has changed since 2012. However, one factor constant throughout set-piece and open play is the implementation of the ‘chalice’.

At first glance, it naturally allows the attack to unlock a ‘second line’ of attack, but there is far more to this than that.

It is usually run from lineouts or scrum feeds near the 15m line and this simple shape can launch attacks all over the field.

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The skill sets of their players, combined with the simplicity and variety of options they can run within, is one of the reasons they’re so proficient in first phase tries.

Foster’s Chiefs dynamics

Before we demonstrate, there are a few key principles in this attacking shape that need to be explained. 

  1. The attack shape must be disguised at set-piece and able to maintain flexibility in choice of option until the last second.
  2. The ‘M1′ (miss-pass) off scrumhalf, flyhalf and inside centre was common in the Chiefs’ back play and is essential to the success of this concept.
  3. The front two players (front line) can be made up of players other than the centres.
  4. The pullback player changes from flyhalf to back three dependent on side of field and make-up of the front line.
  5. The pullback option usually moves into position from inside of the front line, therefore gaining a man advantage over the defence and the ability to appear at any point.
  6. The chalice can play ‘off-10’, ‘with-10’ where the flyhalf operates as the first receiver within the chalice, or “off-9”.

Even in 2010, we can see how the rest of the backline set up around the chalice. It allows the M1 option in both examples and allows flexibility in target.

Set-piece off-10

Set-piece with-10

Set-piece off-9

We see the M1 from the scrumhalf putting Richard Kahui (13) through with the fullback next to him, and Stephen Donald running the pullback option behind as part of the chalice.

Several years later, the same move with the same setup and field position results in a first phase try against Australia in 2016.

It may seem there are limited numbers of options in this play, but with Foster’s input and the variety in distribution, the options New Zealand can launch from this are huge.

This variety confuses the defence, as analysis will detect half a dozen moves that can be launched from this simple shape. This compromises the decision-making of the defensive captains, and is a key reason the accurately numbered and option-limiting rush defence of England flummoxed them.

New Zealand’s ‘Chalice’ attack

New Zealand have used this attack shape throughout the two World Cup cycles that Foster has been involved in. It has been a pillar of a set-piece attack lauded as the world’s best.

It has evolved under Foster’s tutelage, and we’ll see this has more options than one would expect of such a simple structure. Some are designed to unlock certain weaknesses in opposition backlines, and these options are used accordingly.

England 2012-2014

When England beat New Zealand under Stuart Lancaster, credit was rightly heaped upon the excellent work of Andy Farrell’s defence. However, New Zealand had noted certain areas of his defence which they could target.

In this example, we see the chalice attempt to exploit the centre partnership of Kyle Eastmond and Manu Tuilagi, a very unfamiliar midfield at the time.

We see Ma’a Nonu attempt to draw Freddie Burns and Eastmond, before passing no-look to Cory Jane. The defence doesn’t buy the trap, but it shows another dynamic and a good example of why multiple teams have a minimum of three defenders cover the chalice.

Forward-backs gap

Another target was the ‘forwards-backs’ gap off set-piece.

Chris Robshaw’s speed meant gaps in-between the set-piece and backline could take longer to plug. Whilst a relentless and very good player, Robshaw was eventually replaced with Sam Underhill and Tom Curry due to the speed they could bring.

Here we see Julian Savea cut under Nonu’s ‘drift’ line to target the gap between the halfback pairing and Robshaw.

In 2014, unlike the 2012 lineout, we see England committing all of their pack in the scrum. New Zealand runs the same play, with the intention to target the expected gap between Robshaw and the backline with one of their best runners, Ben Smith.

South Africa 2017

We see wingers operating at first receiver, specifically to line up off set-piece to target this gap.

England 2018

It’s the theory of mismatches. When you think of the agility and power of Rieko Ioane and Nehe Milner-Skudder’s ability and “Skudder” step against forwards, it’s understandable why Foster introduced this.

The ‘Javelin’ attack

A big part of the New Zealand set-piece is the use of the ‘javelin’. The javelin is like the chalice, capable of adapting to many roles dependent on the play.

Simply put, the javelin is the player outside of the chalice, usually filled by the outside centre or fullback dependent on the chalice make-up.

Here the role is filled by Jack Goodhue, whilst Damian McKenzie runs the line in the next example.

It used to be the outside centre that would run the loop pass to exploit the space out wide on second phase ball.

The rush defence to shut this down was so effective that New Zealand introduced the javelin to the outside centre, indicating their preference to strike on first phase ball.

Scotland 2017

This is one of the most ambitious plays in rugby, with the offload an essential part of the move.

We can see here how the New Zealand chalice constricts the Scottish midfield, opening the 13-14 channel for McKenzie.

On top of this, the trio’s off-the-ball work gives Sonny Bill Williams a one-on-one with Finn Russell, allowing Williams the gain line to offload behind the defence.

The offload is given, and McKenzie goes through on the javelin line. His final job is to draw the winger and fullback before putting his support in.

McKenzie’s wide starting position forces Lee Jones to mark him wide. McKenzie starts his line and then changes his angle late, meaning he runs into an increasing gap, giving him an edge on Jones who’s caught ball-watching. This change means Jones is left grasping air.

 

Lions 2017

Against the Lions, we see the same move played with-10 instead of off-9. The off-the-ball work by Beauden Barrett and Israel Dagg provides Ngani Laumape a weak shoulder, allowing him to find the gain line.

Anton Lienert-Brown goes through on the offload, exploiting the same channel as against Scotland. Like McKenzie, he commits the winger and fullback, before putting his support in.

Wales 2017

The 13-14 channel is one New Zealand target a lot, as shown in the off-10 Chalice here.

Their means to target it have grown more sophisticated.

New Zealand arrange the chalice and javelin in the with-10 formation below, so Ioane at this point is covered. However, in perfect demonstration of point five, New Zealand gains a man via the new pullback option in TJ Perenara from the inside.

Perenara taking the pullback pass means Ioane’s role changes, running a slice option off Lienert-Brown’s line to flat-foot Owen Williams in his unfamiliar outside centre berth.

‘Sweep’ attack

The ‘sweep’ is a different shape to the chalice, and a further evolution under Foster.

New Zealand ran the javelin setup against Ireland in 2018 all day. Against the Lions it worked, but against Ireland it didn’t.

Andy Farrell learnt this from the Lions tour of New Zealand, which led to his defensive masterclass in 2018. Ireland’s out-in rush eliminated the gap used by the javelin and stopped the gain line advantage necessary to get the offload away.

We discussed that the attacking shape must be disguised in the principles. This is because New Zealand often hide their attacking intent by starting their line incredibly flat, revealing the attack shape only when the ball is out.

The setup above, resulted in a chalice interplay, however as you’ll see against Ireland in 2019, it could have started a sweep.

This philosophy means teams prepare against the javelin, when the sweep may be the intended play. This ‘playing their cards close’ ethos means the defence only has seconds to organise against dozens of options.

Argentina 2018

Argentina deployed a similar defensive tactic to the Irish rush in 2018.

New Zealand used Waisake Naholo’s lateral movement to get around the winger, with Sam Cane running the same decoy line against Wales. The combo of this option and late pass from Ryan Crotty left the edge of the defensive line compromised, with Naholo using his subsequent pace to make the run that leads to the try.

Ireland 2019

They didn’t show Ireland this in 2018, which paid dividends in 2019.

By running Sevu Reece laterally, they gain the overlap using a combination of speed and the usage of both wings against Ireland’s one. Very similar to the dynamic Chris Boyd has introduced at Northampton Saints.

A lot of this innovation is down to Foster, and his development of the skill sets of this team. Foster has evolved the dynamics of his attack until near all options can’t be shut down, and that willingness to evolve is the key to his future success as a coach. Some coaches have it, and some don’t.

The second an option is defendable, New Zealand introduce one after the other, until the defensive line have too much to cope with from the same shape.

Rush defence is still a problem, but this year, how Brad Mooar and Foster align in terms of their attacking philosophy will be truly fascinating.

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