Analysis: Argentinian Offloads and the Fragile Fringe

Date published: September 13 2016

Our resident analyst looks back on where Argentina threatened the All Blacks until it all fell apart in Hamilton.

Argentina fell apart towards the end of their battle with the All Blacks on Saturday, but, for 50 minutes the South Americans held their own and looked like they might cause an upset.

Argentina (43) and New Zealand (54) are the two teams who offload the most in the Rugby Championship this year and they didn’t disappoint on the weekend with a total of 31 offloads, 20 coming from the Argentinians.

Not only do the Argentinians offload a lot, they offload a lot from forwards; there are 11 players with more than four offloads in the tournament, five are Argentinian and three are Argentinian forwards – there’s only one other forward in the list, Kieran Read.

An offloading game at its best prevents the ball from ever hitting the ground and leaves the defenders chasing after it in barely organized chaos. Think Fiji in the Olympic final.

However, although the Argentinian attack does consist of fast offloading out wide to prevent a ruck from forming, their most effective use is off the floor so that whoever follows up can run straight at the fringes of the defence.

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One of the cardinal rules of defending is that before you do anything else you have to set up your fringe defenders; pillars & posts, ones and twos, guard and bodyguard, a’s and b’s etc.

In the first example above, New Zealand have done that to some extent, the players circled in white are the a’s, but Owen Franks, far side, is looking up and not expecting the offload and Matías Orlando skips over the ruck and that sets up the opening try.

The yellow arrow highlights where the prop should be focusing on, but he’s expecting the approaching players to be coming to form the ruck and he switches his attention to the second phase.

This trend continued through the first quarter as Argentina hit the deck and immediately offloaded the ball to run at the ramshackle fringe. In the next example the same thing happens, the fringe defenders are too keen to push out and leave a hole which is exploited and leads to a clean break and almost a try. Brodie Retallick (circled in white) feels he has done his job, but Martín Landajo steps back in and slips through the gap.

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This situation doesn’t come from an offload but the constant speed and limited numbers in the breakdown means that the threat will always seem to be to the outside, and that threat alone is creating plentiful gaps through the middle.

Argentina didn’t just attack the fringes, they were also able to maintain the outside threat which meant that the All Blacks couldn’t simply narrow down their defence. In this situation, going wide set up the option of running straight through the middle.

The South Americans continued to race through the defence in the first half, even though they didn’t score any more tries. Incidentally, despite this quick style of rugby they actually had 55 percent of possession, made 33 more carries, and won 31 more rucks.

With this level of possession you can afford to vary the pace of play and take more risks. Against a team like the All Blacks, possession can be a problem because more possession allows more opportunities for turnovers and breakaway tries. Argentina nullified this threat by offloading.

The next examples show how even when they didn’t break through the line, the offloads off the floor still put themselves onto the front foot and created further opportunities. The constant changing of attacking lines and attacking players mean that defences are rarely in position to make a textbook tackle.

In both examples the ball is moving so quickly that the All Blacks don’t have time to set their defence and they’re just playing off instinct. At the level that they play this will obviously sometimes work, and the attacker will be caught behind the gainline, but if they can offload again it continues to increase the difficulty for the defenders.

In the final examples we’ll look at how the Argentinian offloading game slowed down in the second half but they continued to gain metres ground around the fringes. One thing that you may have picked up is that Aaron Smith often features around the breakdown. Argentina capitalised on the size advantage against him and threw plenty of runners in his direction.

Smith was forced into five tackles, missing two – the joint most missed tackles of any New Zealand player. As you can see, he also made some tackles, which would count as completed, but resulted in significant gains for Argentina.

Obviously, later in the second half the Argentinian resistance would completely crumble under the pressure exerted by the All Blacks. But, thanks to their offloading game they were able to cause confusion within the defence. It’s easy to think that you can’t take any positives after a 57-22 loss, or any other teams can learn things, but coaches will see that there is a weakness in the fringe defence of the World Champions, one that wasn’t corrected for the entirety of the game.

The one benefit is that they will next be facing South Africa, the team who have offloaded least in the tournament – 22 times so far. Argentina will be hoping that New Zealand haven’t found a solution by the time they face them on the October 1.

by Sam Larner