It was a weekend of myth-busting in the Gallagher Premiership.
Northampton Saints got the ball rolling with their 31-28 victory over Exeter Chiefs at Franklin’s Gardens. Saints coughed up 16 penalties compared to Exeter’s relative paltry offering of seven, whilst the hosts’ 34% possession and 30% territory was a long way off the marks of 66% and 70% that the Chiefs boasted respectively. Northampton only just managed to get above a 50% success rate on their own scrum, losing five of the 11 they had.
And yet, they won the game.
A day later and Harlequins bested Wasps at Twickenham with just 40% possession and 33% territory. Sale Sharks downed Gloucester at Kingsholm, despite having only 34% possession and 36% territory, as well as conceding 15 penalties to Gloucester’s 11. On Sunday, Bristol Bears also overcame deficits in possession and territory, albeit not as substantial as the three previous matches, to record a much-needed victory over Newcastle Falcons.
Only Saracens and Bath recorded wins this weekend in the Premiership whilst boasting possession and territory advantages, at a time of the year when those two attributes are so loudly proclaimed as key to victory.
It will come as no surprise to keen watchers of the sport over the last few years, where the importance of where and how often you have the ball has diminished, and what you do with the ball when you do have it, having been made more important than ever.
No one is suggesting teams should actively look to hold the ball less, and if you go into a game and are offered significant possession and territorial advantages, you would be mad to turn it down, but there is growing evidence that it is not as decisive as it once was.
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Rugby, as a sport, tends to follow pretty narrow guidelines.
There are ways that things have been done and over the years they have become gospel. If you suggest there are alternative ways to play or to win, it can raise an eyebrow or two. New Zealand rugby, both at the international and club levels, are the great innovators of the game and though that is something which stems from the fact it is a national sport in that country, other nations, including England, seem less keen to experiment and evolve.
That is a sweeping statement and not a fair blanket to throw over the whole of English rugby, but there is a box and, in general, English rugby thinks within it. There are some who think outside of it and enjoy productive careers in the professional game, but equally, there are a lot who have a different mindset to the sport and end up sitting on the fringes.
Compare rugby, for a second, to some of its competing sports.
In the NFL this season, the convention has been one of high-flying offences, built around slick passing games that rely heavily on concepts from the spread offence that is so established at the collegiate level. The Baltimore Ravens, who booked a playoff spot on Sunday night, bucked that trend, investing heavily in their defence, which takes risks with minimal coverage and exotic blitz packages, and a running game that has broken records for yards over the final eight-game stretch that have lasted for over 40 years.
When the league zigged, they zagged, and by zagging they have given themselves an x-factor that other teams struggle to deal with, because they have no experience of stopping it.
Similarly, in the NBA a few years back, the Golden State Warriors looked at the ultra-competitive Western Conference and the three-headed monster of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the East, and realised they had to break the mould. They became a volume three-point-shooting side and they started to win. It was a tactic built around the key skills of their incumbent players, like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, and it has since propelled them to become arguably one of the greatest dynasties in the league’s history, as well as a great lure in recruitment of new talent. Something worth thinking about if you don’t currently have the abundance of riches in your squad that Saracens and Exeter do.
Both sports are similar to rugby to the extent that there are certain limitations within picking your starting line-up. There are physical and technical requirements that have to be met and ‘set-piece’ areas of the game that have to be navigated. The same is true of football, although with the kind of tactical flexibility you can have through different formations and roles on the pitch, it is perhaps not quite as valid a comparison.
So, the question is, does rugby maximise its ability to flex its tactical muscle?
There are certainly examples of it being done in English rugby.
The advent of professionalism and adoption of rugby league-style blitz defences was one, and Saracens’ more recent proclivity for leaving people out of the breakdown and keeping as many people on their feet and in the defensive line has definitely added a new element to it.
With the diminishing of the scrum as a match-winning facet of the game and the ever-increasing value of the lineout, Exeter Chiefs made real bounds as a team when they developed the best driving maul in the competition and from that base of strength, they were able to develop other areas of their game. The excellent defensive lineout work of Courtney Lawes (72) and Jamie Gibson (62) should not be ignored in Exeter’s loss this past weekend. They took away Exeter’s biggest strength and profited as a result.
In a game where the players are faster, bigger and better conditioned than ever before, how do you create space? The pitches haven’t got bigger as the players have and there is no doubt that space is the greatest premium on a rugby pitch.
One way is to keep phases alive and stretch defences by not allowing them to reset and gather themselves. You only need to look at the positive influence Pat Lam has had in the northern hemisphere to see the value of it, whilst Chris Boyd’s Northampton did well in that regard against Exeter and Johan Ackermann’s Gloucester, despite coming unstuck against Sale, have also profited from not allowing the ball to die this season.
You will get a fairly uniform response to that from the older school of coaches, who will say that you have to win the gain-line. Rugby is all about winning the gain-line and then everything else can flow from there.
And it is, but why does that have to be done only with the pick and go? Or using a forward as a one-out runner from a static start? There are moments in the game when this is unavoidable, and players need the skills to be able to execute these situations, but they are not the only way when you are camped on the opposition try line for example, or when feinting a box-kick from inside your own 22.
It was not that long ago that they said in basketball that you need a monster in the paint to box-out and clean up all the rebounds and that you couldn’t win without one. Smaller, faster starting fives that can spread the court have since flourished and now those paint monsters of old are a dying breed in the NBA.
Look at two players like Zach Mercer (65) and Ben Earl (84). Both young back rowers who have grown up in the professional era and have had that professional-level coaching from school to academy to senior side. They are timing their runs to take the ball at pace, they are shifting the point of contact just before meeting a defender, they are running at space and they are aware of what’s around them and they are unafraid to keep the ball alive.
They are a product of the impressive work that is done at the development level, both at club and internationally, in English rugby, but has the senior level adapted to make best use of the skill sets that are being produced at those U18 and U20 levels? The NFL adopted the spread offence because it was what players were running in college and it gave them a comfort level that allowed them to succeed in the pros.
Surely, that is something rugby wants to embrace, too?
It seems a shame, then, that some of English rugby’s best innovative minds sit, relatively unused.
Ben Ryan enjoyed incredible success in the sevens arena, firstly with England, before achieving something remarkable with Fiji. He is often talked up as a potential England attack coach and though an appetising prospect, he has spoken publicly before about wanting day-to-day involvement and control over a programme.
There is obviously more space in a game of sevens than there is of XVs, but that just means that it’s more hungrily sought-after. Andy Friend, at Connacht, has shown that creating space is a transferable skill, and a skill which XVs should be pursuing with vigour, given the amount of injuries currently in the game.
Then you have the former England U18s coaching staff, who helped nurture some of those skill sets in players like Mercer and Earl, in John Fletcher, Peter Walton and Russell Earnshaw. Walton is now working with the Bristol Bears academy, but both Fletcher and Earnshaw, for the moment, seem to have been lost to elite rugby.
Richard Whiffin, Gloucester’s academy manager, does some fantastic work with the young Cherry and Whites and there’s an intensity and tempo to their game that very few can match. Mark Laycock, Newcastle’s academy manager and senior skills coach, has added really nice touches to Newcastle’s attacking game of late. These are just a handful of names, coaches who appreciate where the game has come from and what it currently is, but pivotally, can also see where it’s going and can help keep teams ahead of the curve. Tom Williams, Joe Shaw, Mark Hopley. The list goes on.
Northern hemisphere rugby has been becoming a more open and attacking entity for a while now, with ball-in-play times up, examples of counter-attacking sealing wins over set-piece dominance and transition rugby becoming a far more en vogue topic.
To go back to the Golden State Warriors example, they took analytics, worked out how good they had to be at shooting the three-pointer to outscore teams primarily shooting the two-pointer and then coached themselves to be that proficient at it. In rugby, seven or five points is more than three and whilst you should always play the situation in front of you – and if that means taking a shot at the sticks, then do it – games are not being won with the same regularity anymore by those old clichés of the game, such as ‘keep the scoreboard ticking over’ or ‘tight fives win matches’.
Having coaches and directors of rugby that can think outside of the box and that can innovate tactically can help keep you cresting the wave, rather than playing catch up.
And it’s not just about attacking rugby, creating space and keeping phases alive, it’s a concept which stretches over to defence and set-piece, too.
The lineout is king now, with the engagement sequence having potentially limited teams’ destructive power at the scrum, not to mention the lesser value of kicking for three points in the modern game, but sport is often cyclical. How can the diminishing returns of the scrum at present be turned into something which could become a match-winning facet again in the years to come? Could a struggling Premiership scrum embrace the bajada technique to negate their shortfalls? Or could they learn from the Marc Dal Maso-coached Japanese scrum of a few years ago, getting the ball in and out in a flash?
With defensive jumpers studying and reading lineouts better than ever before, can misdirection legally be increased at attacking lineouts? On defence, can you steer into the skid of teams wanting to keep the ball alive by tackling low and allowing the offload, because you know you have a man on your outside ready to intercept or meet man and ball at the same time, potentially forcing a knock-on? In essence, can you build traps in your defence to exploit over-eager attacks?
There’s a whole cornucopia of tricks, amendments and innovations to think about on both sides of the ball and for a sport that struggles to draw new fans and be sustainable professionally, there are far worse things to wish for in 2019 than a bit more ingenuity at the senior level.
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