The Lab is an explorative look at left-field rugby strategies dreamed up by @bensmithrugby. Many of these may not work in practice but the idea is to think creatively and create something new to think about.
A lucrative set-piece attack always has intricate play design, multiple moving parts, attention to detail and players who have mastered the intricacies of their interlinking roles.
The best back lines can unlock defences in one move, changing a game in an instant with a first phase strike.
Set-piece philosophy varies team-by-team and by field position, many prefer the simplest of crash plays to restart phase play, whilst some will attack wide from the same spot.
Taking a fresh look at set-piece play, could we build a set-piece scrum attack by taking inspiration from the NFL’s ‘Trips Bunch’ formation?
The ‘trips bunch’ concept refers to three receivers bunched in a tight formation to one side prior to the snap.
The receivers start tight and scramble in a variety of different directions. The formation creates alignment troubles – many of the crossing routes used by the bunch make it impossible for defenders to play man-to-man coverage.
If they do play man coverage, the tight proximity between players can cause collisions amongst the defenders once the play begins, creating separation and easy completions for the receivers.
Could we use this concept to schematically create space and manipulate back line defence? There are similar advantages we can achieve by doing so.
A ‘trips bunch’ in rugby will be most effective outside 10, using the 12, 13 and 15 in a tight triangle on a big open side, while using the playmaking skills of a flyhalf to pull the strings. One of the key features is taking your fullback from the wide channel and dropping him into the midfield.
The tight formation of three possible options outside 10 causes alignment issues for the midfield defence straight away.
Do they tighten up to achieve body-on-body alignment?
It is most likely they won’t. If they do, they will leave acres of space to be exploited by the cross-field kick to the open side winger (14), or the blind side winger (11) can pop off the 10’s shoulder through the 10-12 channel.
The pre-play formation causes the same problems in rugby as the NFL, forcing the defence to play zone coverage rather than man, with defenders covering space rather than a particular player, illustrated below.
As the play unfolds, the midfield defenders will have to decide which man to take on the fly, which can lead to confusion, poor decisions, and disconnection between defenders. They will have to read-and-react in a split second correctly, and the more complexity we can add, the harder this will be to do.
Most of the plays run out of this formation will be two pass plays, one from 9 to 10 and one from the 10 to any of his options.
The flyhalf will need to progress through multiple reads at speed and possess the necessary playmaking ability, requiring courage to play flat and late and the nous to throw the right pass.
The ‘trips bunch’ would expand on this type of two-pass play design.
On this example, the 10 has three possible options, a blind winger popping off his outside shoulder and his two centres running crossing lines. He hits his 13 on a fade line, making the correct read and targeting the space for a set-piece try.
With a ‘trips bunch’, he would have even more to process, with the three in the bunch and a fourth possible ‘joker’, the blindside winger, that you could potentially work in anywhere as a late option, but best used in a similar fashion as above.
The presence of the blindside winger keeps the defending 12 interested, if he slides towards the bunch early the 10 has an easy option to play a 2-on-1 with a short pop pass to 11.
This means the prime opportunity to attack is using the bunch against the defending centre-wing partnership.
Moving the fullback into the midfield attack setup is a game-changer. We can now target the defending centre-wing channel with three players all at once, forcing them to make multiple reads. Theoretically, one of the bunch will always be open if the 12 doesn’t slide.
Often when play reaches the fullback in the wide channel, the defence is able to slide out when inside runners don’t commit defenders. This leads to nice gains for the attack but is usually shut down at some point. Here we just use numbers directly in short space to achieve an advantage in search of a big play.
The defenders have to make front-on heads-up reads, but most of them have no pre-play alignment, meaning they will move forward and some degree laterally left or right.
Our backs in the trips formation will need to be expert line runners, with sharp footwork and off-the-mark acceleration. The longer they can hold a tight formation before quickly dispersing, the more effective the play will be.
A dynamic fullback like Will Jordan could wreak havoc in a playbook like this, with his ability to explode onto the ball quickly.
Watch how he goes from a walking start to cut Counties Manukau open with a perfectly timed ‘unders’ line. Two steps and he is into his run, stutter-stepping to avoid overrunning it before hitting full stride shortly after the catch. The ‘bunch’ would need to run lines in a similar fashion.
Here are some line combinations you could use to target the centre and wing channel. The white line is the underneath route and the third read on the play.
Here below is two variations of a ‘splinter’ route combination to target the wing specifically. The 12 runs a simple line to hold the 13 while the two other backs target the wing outside and inside. Who goes over and who goes under can be changed up as desired.
You could also implement multiple crossing lines and try and find a way to get your blind side winger involved as a late delayed option.
Of course, the success would always be determined by the vision and decision-making of the 10, tasked with picking the right option, and how well the backs nail down the timing and cohesion.
Leinster and Ireland already run similar ‘bunch’ formations from set-piece although these typically seem to be from the lineout, where they can involve loose forwards.
However, these plays typically have more than two passes, with Sexton playing an early role but handing the final playmaking duties over to someone else to make the decisive pass.
The ‘trips bunch’ concept here is an option-read system built specifically for the 10 to make the play, with the experimental element of taking your fullback and using him in the midfield to create a numbers advantage.
It would take hours of perfection to take this from ‘the Lab’ onto the training paddock but with a stable of explosive backs, it could be a fruitful adoption of an NFL concept. It would be fascinating to see what combination of lines works best from the bunch and how defences would ultimately react to try and combat the formation.
Have you seen this or used this concept already? Send your feedback to @bensmithrugby on Twitter.
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