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What the World Cup told us about the future of attacking rugby

By Conor Wilson
Siya Kolisi, the South Africa captain, celebrates with team mates after their victory during the Rugby World Cup 2019 final. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Military tactics are like unto water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards, as in war, the way is to avoid what is strong, and strike at what is weak – Sun Tzu, The Art of War


 As the game gets further and further into the professional era, the game inadvertently becomes more and more scrutinised, with technological advancements in data and analysis taking precedence in team strategy.

Such was the way with baseball and the MLB in the early 2000’s. As players’ salaries and signing fees went higher and higher, the need to judge and analytically assess the quality and potential of emerging players was further and further refined.

The key difference in their analysis was that nearly all the franchises aside from the Oakland A’s were using the old values on how to select players; how they look in a baseball uniform, how fast they can sprint, how many home runs they get and how fast they could pitch.

These were for scouts; visible, quantifiable qualities that they based their living on, and as such were upheld and protected by nearly all major baseball institutions. Meanwhile in Oakland, with their third-from-the-bottom budget, smarter management and use of sabermetrics, they went about a different approach.

The A’s bought players that barely made the drafts, that other MLB clubs would sooner go bust then bring on. Yet, these players won Oakland more games than near any other MLB franchise over the course of GM Billy Beane’s tenure.

Oakland used their poverty as camouflage. They wanted these rejects, more than the strong-jawed blue-eyed boys they couldn’t afford.


Why? Their analysis was based on data-driven unseen values like the number of walks, “runs created” and on-base percentage. Values and statistical formulas espoused by Bill James, a night-time security guard who whilst an innovator of the game had never actually played it.

Their willingness to embrace these new ideas gave the A’s a far more accurate value to the worth of a baseball player than any scout could, and as such, they smashed richer opponents who were at a loss to explain how they did it. What they were oblivious to, was that they were stuck in the medieval ages, whilst the A’s had embraced the statistics and trends that technology had provided them.

“A small team of A+ players can run circles around a giant team of C players” – Steve Jobs

This made Oakland the best team in baseball when everyone thought they were the worst.


Back to Rugby

Eddie Jones has stated that rugby defences are now so well organised and so effective, that the game is becoming more akin to a hybrid of “NFL and soccer” where the first three phases are all about power and precision, before going into a kick chase game.

This is because defensive coaches have done so much analysis on opposition attacking threats, that multi-phase defences and tackle technique are so well designed and well-drilled to combat sequences in play. It’s easier to defend against the ball than to have it.

The first three phases where sequence plays and moves are drilled to a minutiae detail are all designed to create the one-on-one or overlap to unlock a defence. Much like the attacking plays within the NFL.

The ball can then be kicked away, with a team valuing territory over possession.

Steve Hansen’s attestation that the umbrella defence cutting off the outside backs is what caused the problems in atatck with New Zealand. Hence their attack couldn’t fire the way it has in the past.

“I think there’s a bias towards the defence, that’s definitely happened, and then because of that everyone thinks we are closer than we probably really are. But someone’s going to crack that defensive nut, because history tells us it will happen. And when it does, then it will open up the floodgates for the attacking game to come strong again. Then everyone will be saying there’s a bias towards attacking, and they’ll go away and work harder on what they’re going to do on defence”. – Steve Hansen

This bodes the question, what trends are we going to see going forward that will combat this highly organised and structured style of defence?

New Zealand’s nutcracker involved the “threading the needle” concept which we touched on in New Zealand’s 1-2-3-1-1 article, with it proving highly successful against the rush that some teams put up.

This shows the best teams are looking for this evolution, to nullify the rush defence as an effective tool. New Zealand used the skillsets and speeds of their playmakers for this next step, other teams will have others.

Not all trends we will discuss are technical, and one is more a philosophy and mindset than a tactic.

For me, a positive philosophy or mindset, has far more potential and worth to a team, than analysis can ever have, and why the focus should always be on developing that in yourself, before worrying about the opposition.

The “Attack like water” Mentality

If you’ve ever run a successful scissors line, you’ve used this before.

At the start of this article, Sun Tzu likened the nonpareil military tactics to resemble water, always targeting weaknesses and never strengths. If we liken it with gravity in a water bottle, when the low point becomes the high point, water instantly shifts to target the now low point. Even when it appears to be trailing strengths, it’s always to reach the easiest route through, a point of weakness, and the second weaknesses appear, it strikes.

If a gap appears in a dam, water floods through. It doesn’t stop it doesn’t wait; it instantly targets the hole.

The same principle followed in rugby could make a team unstoppable.

Attacking frameworks can be flexible, with all teams of some variety using different formations.


2-3 Variants


All show an inclination to a particular flavour of play or attacking style, but what they offer more there anything else, is a framework and patterns in play.

Patterns are incredibly important in rugby, and they will never be gotten rid of, as they provide a semblance of organisation in what would elsewise be a chaotic and jumbled mess.

However, a team can be set so firmly in their pattern and process, that they can provide an air of safety and familiarity to the team using them, and to the opposition; exactly the same.

Opportunities like the above are lost due to a breakdown in communication and familiarity with pattern and structure.

Forwards always concentrate in pods in the professional game. Imagine if the openside pod went back to schoolboy level days. Spreading out to form a simple catch and pass line with the backs lined up flat off them.

Ben Youngs’s on a scoot could have led to three England forwards targeting one Bok. Alternatively, two forwards themselves could take out two of the fringe defenders, leaving one for the huge hole and two backs on the outside. By forming the pod, they mark themselves up and lose the space.

Simple schoolboy rugby executed well could have exploited this, sticking to the structure lost it, in more ways than one.

If defences react to the expected patterns used against them as expected, weaknesses and spaces will appear in their defences that won’t be taken. This is where a team needs to be like water. It isn’t enough to have a team flexible around their framework, a team needs to be flexible within their framework.

They can’t be happy sticking to their structure. That’s what defensive structures can counter. As the movements play out, the intended target can become re-enforced. The heavily defended channel can become a weakness, and like water, a rugby team must change its course in the phase to strike it.

In these examples, we can see moments where individual brilliance can prove dividends over following the script.

Whilst this is against lateral movement, which we will look into later. We can see how the open mind to attack like water, results in the gains that are generated here.

Ben Smith’s outside options are cut off and accounted for, as are Damien McKenzie’s’.

Thus, the weakness where they were targeting became a strength, and the numbers to do this has to come from somewhere. Meaning the formerly strengthened area, is now the weakness. This is quite evident in McKenzie’s example.

Like water they switch as the strength shifts, so they are always attacking the weakness, and it showed.

Defences can account for pattern and rigidity. But speed and fluidity are much harder to contain.

The crucial question is whether playmakers responsible for the attack are able to recognise when they’re attacking strengths, and therefore have trained the options, intelligence, and courage to switch from the pattern option, to the “water” option, aware of the point this switch will do the most damage.

If a team can develop this mindset and develop ways of playing to always exploit the reactions of defensive structures to their attack, the confusion sown could be huge. Should they drift to cover, or will that open the inside up? By rushing, are they opening seams to be attacked with flat play and clever alignments?

Broken play will inadvertently become more and more common as the ball is switched and shifted to continually target the weaknesses and keep moving forward.

The skillsets and work to develop this, however, are not found in abundance. Let’s look at some of the things that hypothetically, would be needed to realise this fluidity in attack.

The Accordion effect

In the examples above, we saw the effect of an overly energetic drift. This drift can be quite common, as the standard operating procedure with most teams is to escort the attacking line out to the touchline to force a turn over of possession.

When this happens, the entire line rarely remains connected. In an ideal world, the players should move laterally in a single motion, but they don’t.

It tends to follow what’s known in physics as the “Accordion effect” where spaces appear in the line as a motion starts, much like a line of cars setting off after a stoppage.

The space opened by the Accordion effect could be vulnerable to switch plays as you’ll see in a second.

These spaces are weaknesses, and we once had the ability and idea to exploit them. But as professionalism has gone on, a lot of the old “schoolboy” rugby we played and loved has gone missing. The irony is that the old schoolboy rugby scissors call, something rarely seen in professional setups, is the key to the style of play I’m envisioning.

England made use of it here. Due to New Zealand’s placement of Mo’unga in the 13-channel, George Ford crabs over to target him. The drift of the 1st or 2nd receiver will be quite important in this going forward, as it can cause the defence to drift further as well, which in turn exacerbates this problem even more.

In this case, Ford’s targeting of Mo’unga draws Savea out faster than expected to assist in defence, opening the gap for the late switch by Farrell.

We can see the exact moment where the weakness shifted from the wing to the inside option, and like water, the point of the England attack shifted. This is the means to exploit the accordion effect.

Now, in essence, this is just a simple scissors play. It’s good on occasion and used at the right moment can be incredibly effective, but it won’t be enough. Going forward, teams would need something else to jazz it up. Which brings us on to re-use of inside runners.

Re-using the used line

The scissors play is the launch point, from which this tactic would be employed.

When the scissors line is run, the receiver usually carries to the gap with the intention of breaking the line.

Whilst this is still on, it is extended with the next stage. The runner setting up the switch in this play is a distributor.

The men inside him who have ran decoy lines or ruck support have to work their asses off not to get into position for the next phase, but to be support players on the same phase.

This is the closest I have seen to what it could be like. Anton Leinert-Brown’s line would be replaced by the scissors switch, targeting the weakness, with ready-made support set on the inside much like Scott Barrett here.

It’s essentially a funnel attack. You coax the drift to close your wide options down, before running the switch to target the weakness. The scissors option runs against the grain to reach the space, whilst your inside options move over faster than the opposition to run support lines off the scissor’s option.

The support inside can be aligned in two ways.

  1. Pod sets
  2. Line sets

They can align with the carrier as a pod, providing numbers and options to run straight at the weakness, or a catch and pass line.

This is dependent on what the space looks like, and whether the scissors runner is a loose forward or a proficient ball-player, ideally one would like both.

It works one step ahead of what all other teams do. Go wide, form the ruck, and get set for the next phase crash ball. It relies on the players being mentally and physically faster than this. Players who ran decoy lines and who were in the midfield ruck getting back onside quickly. Aligning off the scissor’s runner to provide support options to him to target somewhere no-one expected to be targeted.

Whilst off set-piece, this shows that if the inside men can realign themselves quickly enough, they could switch to the attacking line upon the scissors switch, presenting themselves as catch and pass options to attack a huge amount of space.

This is exactly how it would work in phase play; except you’d usually be targeting holes rather than overlap.

If against the rush and you know you’re not going to get around it, it means you don’t get caught behind the gain line and if against the drift, you know there’ll be space there for the taking. This will require sublime catch and pass to put the carriers into gaps, but it’s that much easier due to the spacings within the line.

 The Influence on the Pendulum

This could also have an effect on the pendulum defence of the opposition. By feinting to go right, they can drag the winger up and 15 across, inadvertently opening space in the backfield to be taken by tactically aware decision-makers and chasers.

This is theoretical, but we have seen how effective the late switch play can be. If we could incorporate re-alignment with classic support play to this option. This could cause a great deal of hesitancy in defensive systems.

With the rush defence proving as effective as it is, and kick-passes having to be perfect to come off, this could be a suitable and more reliable alternative going forward. We will investigate in the next articles means that teams could incorporate to target here, and dynamics that teams might have to revert to, to be successful.

The nutcracker is still out there waiting to be found, and whilst physicality will always be an advantage, a little guile will make the job a lot easier. Especially against physical, powerful teams like South Africa and Wales.

I do not believe the ways to beat them consistently will be found in scripted patterns, but in mobility, speed and endeavour.

Against these teams, greater skillsets and flow like water mindset will be needed, as trying to bash down the door, won’t get you the gains it would against others.

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