Although the rugby season looks to be on hold indefinitely around the world, it’s been a fascinating one so far with plenty to look back at. A seismic world cup, a raft of new international coaches, a drama-filled European domestic season, and some interesting events in Super Rugby make for plenty of tactical trends to analyse while we wait for rugby to return.

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RugbyPass takes a look at a few standout trends from the season so far and considers whether we might see more of them.

Forwards, forwards, forwards

One of the clearest tactical trends this year stemmed from South Africa’s world cup success and their then forwards coach, Matt Proudfoot, who is now with England.

6/2 bench splits? Check. In-field mauls? Check. Dominant scrum? Check.

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South Africa set the standard of a back-to-basics approach, showing that it doesn’t matter how talented your backs are, they will always struggle without a platform from the forwards. England followed suit in the Six Nations, after their humbling defeat in the RWC final, with increasing success. 

They weren’t the only ones on the international scene, however. Scotland have also been developing a game plan that relies more on grunt work from their forwards than the high-risk approach they had been known for under Gregor Townsend so far (although they haven’t gone full South Africa yet and seem unlikely to, given their personnel.

It’s not subtle and it’s not pretty but it is effective if you have the manpower to do it. Versatility is required in the backs — not everyone has Frans Steyn or Henry Slade to cover most of the backline in a pinch.

How much this trend influences or impacts countries where more aesthetically pleasing football skills have long been the preferred approach will be interesting in the future. South Africa vs New Zealand has once more become a humdinger of a game, might England vs Australia follow suit? England vs Wales in the Six Nations was certainly one for the neutral.

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Playmaker 15s

The use of forwards and a 6/2 bench split isn’t the only tactical trend we can see demonstrated in the England national team. The idea of a playmaker 15 was a little controversial during the Rugby World Cup, partly because of the two most high-profile examples (which we’ll come to), but it can be seen around the rugby world.

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Of course, playmaker full-backs are not exactly new but they have tended to be the outstanding option in their position in recent years, such as Stuart Hogg for Scotland. What has been interesting this season is the way teams have opted for a playmaker at 15 despite a) excellent alternatives and b) either noticeable cons to the selection or other reasons for the choice.

Both England and New Zealand, for example, dropped established, traditional fullbacks. Beauden Barrett, of course, started his test career mostly at 15 and New Zealand had been experimenting with Damien Mackenzie in the same role before his injury to give them more flexibility in attack.

But it also seemed that moving Barrett, who had been the best fly half in the world since the last RWC, to the 15 jersey and dropping the outstanding Ben Smith was about getting a more reliable kicker into the side after close games against the Lions and South Africa. 

England had already moved away from Mike Brown and his reliable work in defence and under the high ball in favour of Elliot Daly, an outside centre by trade. Questions were repeatedly asked of Daly’s ability under the high ball, on and off the field, but Eddie Jones valued his vision and kicking in attack more than the potential risk in defence.

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Elsewhere, Australia often prioritised carrying in the centres to add to their lighter pack but asked Kurtley Beale to bring his playmaking to the full back role. Even South Africa, the forward-heavy arch-pragmatists, used Willie leRoux as a playmaker at times. 

The compromise that this selection sometimes demands is particularly interesting because it touches on the broader role of attack and defence in a team’s approach and tactical shifts there.

Attack vs defence

Three of the four RWC semi-finalists had games based on defence and they all suffocated their more attacking quarter-final opponents (England, South Africa, Wales). In this Six Nations, although England continued to use their defence, Wales and France, as well as Ireland and Scotland, seemed to swap approaches.

The work of France’s new defence coach, Shaun Edwards, was evident in both their phase and scramble defence as well as in their more structured approach to games whereas Wales abandoned the defensive platform that served them so well under Warren Gatland and went all out in attack, albeit with rather less immediate success. Elsewhere, Ireland switched to placing a little more emphasis on attack and Scotland certainly worked on their defence.

How this might play out elsewhere is interesting. New Zealand have long had a reliable defence but it was their attack that has stood out. Will they shift their approach going forward to combat South Africa or will they double down on attack as a means of winning games? 

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Australia were determined to run the ball wherever possible rather than kick, to their eventual detriment, in Japan. Will Dave Rennie alter their mentality or will he see going down in flames of glory as more important to fans?

Tactical decisions around attack and defence are not just based on the players available. Wales had excellent attacking options under Gatland but chose to focus on defence, just as Scotland are currently, for example. It’s about risk vs reward and the higher the level of play, the finer the margins are. 

At domestic level, for instance, Toulouse have reverted to their thrilling attacking approach. Northampton Saints and Bristol Bears have also been entertaining Gallagher Premiership fans with their attack-minded games. How much teams like those would have prospered in the knockout stages against more defence-minded teams would have been fascinating to see  — and hopefully something we will still get an answer to.

Double opensides

With the breakdown increasingly significant in attack and defence, the proliferation of jackalers in teams is no surprise. Australia’s “Pooper” duo, which took them all the way to the 2015 final, and Wales’ stellar use of Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric in 2013 to surprise England and claim the Six Nations title, were both high profile twin openside pairings but this policy went to a whole new level in Japan 2019.

Australia again opted for Michael Hooper and David Pocock but, with less ball-carrying in the tight five, Pocock had to play No6 rather than at No8, where he had featured in 2015, reducing his effectiveness as he found himself having to perform a lot of the dirty work of a blindside at the breakdown (previously handled by Scott Fardy) rather than capitalising on it. 

England, who had long resorted to a twin blindside approach in the absence of traditional options for the No 7 jersey, suddenly found themselves with two impressive young options at the same time and, with both fit, went for it. Their success was based on asking Tom Curry to develop the attributes of a blindside in the lineout to maintain the balance across the back row that Australia lacked. 

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Since then, England have moved Curry to the No8 jersey, maintaining balance by asking Courtney Lawes to play on the blindside but keeping a twin jackal threat. This approach was prompted by the absence of Billy Vunipola and, interestingly, reflects the solution Wales took when they lost their own world-class No 8 before the RWC, Taulupe Faletau: asking their versatile back rower, Josh Navidi, to play at the back of the scrum.

New Zealand, already in possession of some of the best lineout operators in world rugby, played Sam Cane and Ardie Savea as twin opensides in Japan, asking Kieran Read to use his vast experience to adjust his game and thereby enable the system to work. 

This was partly necessitated by the absence of a traditional blindside but it was interesting that their worst performance was against England, when they instead opted for a third lock in the No6 position, rather than a second openside. It may be some time before we see it, in the current circumstances but, with Read retired, it seems likely that Savea would have played at No8 for New Zealand this season, alongside Cane on the openside.

Of course, versatility across the back row is fairly common at domestic level (teams like Cardiff Blues and Sale frequently play with three opensides, for instance) but the finer margins at international level means the benefits of two opensides must be balanced against the cost elsewhere to the pack.

Watch: Andy Goode and Jim Hamilton on THAT Joe Marler incident

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