North versus South. Set-piece versus multi-phase. Kicking versus running the ball. Defence versus Offence.
Comparisons between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres are more popular than they have ever been. If anything, they have become both more interesting and more pertinent as Southern Hemisphere methods – via both its players and its coaches – have interpenetrated every serious competition in the North.
The coaches of the three top teams in the 2019 Six Nations tournament hail from either New Zealand or Australia. Even in the English Gallagher Premiership, for so long the bastion of conservatism and the preserve of home-based coaches, five of the 12 head coaches now come from Australia, New Zealand or South Africa.
Only four years ago, there was just one – Aussie Brian Smith at London Irish. By 2016-17 there were three, and now there are five. It is a growing curve.
The impact of the best Southern coaches is seismic. Warren Gatland revolutionized the conditioning and dietary regimes of the Welsh players before he addressed the issue of skill-sets. Over the last two seasons, he has had the courage to change playing styles from power-based to movement-based, and that too has paid dividends.
On the domestic front, ex-Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd has transformed the playing values of the English Premiership’s Northampton Saints in only his first season in charge.
Where Saints were renowned for the power of their scrum and maul under the long-time stewardship of Jim Mallinder and Dorian West, under Boyd they run the ball from all parts of the field.
Where Northampton scored 52 tries in Mallinder’s final season at the club (2016-17), they had upped their total to 73 in 2018-19, with Saints resuming into their traditional role as one of the top four playoff contenders in the competition.
So the dynamic in the North is one of rapid change, with the constant rain of Southern coaching ideas steadily eroding and transforming the sediment of traditional values at set-piece, kicking and defence in the Gallagher Premiership.
Try-scoring in 2013-14 by both the top (Northampton with 72 tries) and the bottom (Newcastle with 23) teams in the league has risen steadily as that process takes place. The top side (Exeter) scored 89 tries in the regular 2018-19 season, while the bottom team (Newcastle) managed 43. Newcastle’s try total last season would have been good enough for them finish above five other teams in the league six years ago. The landscape of the game has changed.
As the example of the Northampton club has amply shown, Southern Hemisphere coaching know-how has the power to transform the attitude and even the skill-sets required to achieve attacking width, ball movement and try-scoring potential in a relatively short time-frame.
That attitude and those skills remain however the basis of the game in the South, even if the gap is closing. The recent Super Rugby game between the Reds from Australia and the Blues from New Zealand was a superb illustration of both.
Both sides took turns in trading blows in the wide 15-5 metre zones throughout the match – and particularly during a spectacular ‘fireworks display’ of offloading in the first half hour.
It is the ability to offload in contact which enables wide attack to function to its fullest potential. Keeping play fluid against the thinnest area of the defence always pays out healthy dividends, if you have the skill-sets to do it.
Let’s begin with two simple examples, one from each side:
To enable the offload, you need to get separation from a defender. This means establishing, and maintaining a space in which you can deliver a pass in contact without any interference. It need not be a big space, but it has to be a definite one.
In the first instance, Blues left wing Tanielu Tele’a first brushes off the attempted tackle of his opposite number Jock Campbell, then he extends the (right) offloading arm to maximum length before delivering the pass:
Taken together, the two actions achieve the desired ‘separation’ and allow the break to be made.
The second example is a mirror-image from the Reds’ side. Centre Samu Kerevi first attacks the outside shoulder of the defender in front of him (number 8 Akira Ioane) in order to take his body past the tackling arm. As soon as he has clear separation from the last defender, he delivers the pass.
When the basic skill-set is firmly in place, you can think about expanding your horizons further, by linking multiple offloads in the same ‘kill zone’ outside the 15m line:
Here is Kerevi again, separating from Blues’ blind-side flanker Dalton Papali’i to get in behind the defensive line. Then the momentum is turbo-charged by left-wing Filip Daugunu, getting his offloading arm well past the tackle of Blues halfback Augustine Pulu:
The right offloading arm of Daugunu is fully extended, so that separation from the tackler comes to mean ‘full shoulder’s width apart’.
At the end of the play, another essential aspect of wide attack is clearly visible. Selected forwards – typically at least two of your back-rowers and the hooker – have to be able to co-operate effectively with the backs in the wide areas. In other words, they have to be able to run with the outside backs, and pass and offload in contact as accurately as the men with the high numbers!
It is this aspect which is evident in the Blues’ next counter-punch, featuring both number 8 Ioane and number 6 Papali’i prominently in the left 15-metre corridor:
Akira Ioane demonstrates the same skill level as an outside back, running towards the seam between the two defenders (Kerevi and Campbell) to get his shoulders past the tackle, then delivering the offload. The skill level required is in fact even higher than in the previous examples, because Ioane is making a left-hand offload out of the back of his hand, rather than the (easier) right-handed underarm pass:
Back-of-the-hand offloads often involve a loss of control and ‘feel’ at the point of delivery, but Ioane’s pass is close to the ideal in both respects. Papali’i completes the sequence with another full extension out to Tele’a on the left.
The fun wasn’t over, however. From the ensuing restart, the Reds came straight back with a terrific offloading sequence of their own:
The ball goes out through Reds’ number 8 Scott Higginbotham to Kerevi, and then Higginbotham doubles around him to become the last attacker on the side-line – just the sort of ‘second touch’ instincts we are looking for in our back-rowers out wide.
Once again there is a double offload once Kerevi gets the initial separation from Blues’ defender, number 13 T.J. Faiane. Kerevi offloads to Jock Campbell, and then Campbell provides an illustration of a refinement of the Ioane back-of-the-hand offload:
Campbell is not only delivering the pass out of the back of the right hand, he is also looking downfield, and hence running in a straight line while doing it. This ‘no-look’ pass has the effect of committing the final defender (full-back Melani Nanai) and fixing him in place for long enough that he cannot shift out on to Higginbotham near touch.
That was not all she wrote. There was still time for the Blues to reply with one more counter-strike, unravelling on the very next sequence of play:
This passage of play spotlights one of the most important strategic impacts of successful wide attack: as soon as the defence begins to spread out its personnel to cover the touch-line, it opens up running lanes for inside running and inside support.
At the beginning of the sequence, it is evident that the Reds have spread their defensive line all the way across to the far 5 metre line, with the last defender angled out towards the widest attacker. This enables Blues’ second five-eighth Ma’a Nonu to use Dalton Papali’i on the right as a decoy, and turn the ball back inside instead.
At the critical moment all of the Reds’ cover defenders are pointing towards the corner-flag, and away from the key inside support runner, number 9 Pulu:
The first 30 minutes of action from the Reds-Blues game contained all of the signature elements which lead to success on wide attacking plays, and from both sides – the desire and technical ability to find seams and achieve separation from defenders, full extensions of the offloading arm in contact; deliveries both underarm and out of the back of the hand made with equal dexterity, by outside backs and back-rowers alike; the understanding of where space will appear as the defence begins to (over-) compensate to the outside. If it is an area which the Northern Hemisphere is making great strides, it is also one in which the South remains the acknowledged Master. Down South, they still have the edge.
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