Analysis: How Wasps are unravelling defences

Date published: September 27 2016

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Our resident analyst returns to break down the effectiveness of Wasps attack so far in the Premiership this season.

Ask any old guy, propped up against the bar at the local rugby club, to describe the perfect centre pairing and he will invariably describe a large, crash ball 12, and a skillful 13.

That age old wisdom is no longer accurate and arguably, no team in the Premiership embodies this more than the Wasps, who spread the first receiver job around liberally to keep the defence stretched across the pitch. When Wasps played Northampton on Saturday their four first-receiver-option axis of Rob Miller, Jimmy Gopperth, Elliot Daly and Danny Cipriani combined for 39 passes.

To put that into context, when New Zealand beat South Africa in the last round of the Rugby Championship their axis made 27 passes despite having 51 percent of possession and 53 percent of territory. Against Northampton, Wasps had 44 percent of possession and 38 percent of territory. Individually, playing outside of his usual fly-half position, Jimmy Gopperth made 81m, the most for any Wasps player and the most for any non-winger in the game.

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To explain how, and why, this system works, lets have a look at the above example. Three members of the axis are highlighted in orange, Gopperth is the one missing. This attacking set-up has four clear options which can be achieved with one pass, two in the case of the Wade line on the near side.

However, the ball playing ability of both Daly and Cipriani means that the defence has to cover off a huge number of permutations to these four options. Because Wasps can spread the ball more easily the defence has to react and also stretch out, allowing the forwards to break the gain line with more ease.

In this example, Danny Cipriani is the player prowling behind the pod of forwards, looking to release the ball wide.  The first receiver is Rob Miller and his ability to take the pass and add more width to it means that Sam Jones is running at, and then over Harry Mallinder, rather than a tight forward. Because of the risk of the ‘backdoor’ pass to either Cipriani or Gopperth, the Saints defence can’t all hone in on Jones and so their one on one tackling is placed under severe pressure.

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Having a number of ball players in your team doesn’t just mean that you have numerous options on each play, it also means that you should always have one player who can fit in with ease at first receiver on every play. In the above case this is Daly and he is running against a defence in disarray. He has two options here and, to some extent, they’re dictated by the key defender, Louis Picamoles in red. The Frenchman is caught between pushing out and covering Wade and staying inside to cover the short passes.

Without a player of Daly’s ability, the pass to Wade in stride isn’t really an option, but thanks to Daly it is, and this constant threat of width is what pressurises the Saints defence. Wade ends up having the ball stolen from him 10 yards out from the line but he’s gained significant yardage.

By now, the advantage of width that comes from the Wasps’ 10-12-13-15 axis should be clear, but the other advantage is deception. When the ball is in the middle of the field, but the fly-half is lined up to one side, the defence will usually cheat towards that side. If three of your ball carriers are on one side then that just convinces the defence even more that you will be attacking in that direction. However, Miller stays on the near side, and the Saints defence rushes up once they realize there’s an overlap. Mallinder miscounts and fails to account for Miller who feeds the ball out wide. Wasps don’t score a try – the game was filled with butchered chances – but they do gain significant ground once again.

In the final example we can see that although their greatest threat is out wide, they’re not averse to driving straight through the middle. Kyle Eastmond, who replaced Cipriani shortly after half-time, hits the crash ball to put Wasps over the gain line and on the front foot. Daly is the first man in to clear out which should leave them underpowered going round the corner on the next phase but they still have Gopperth and Miller waiting in the wings.

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If we compare Wasps to Bristol, a team at the opposite end of the table who have lost their playmaking centre to injury, we can see just how different they play and just how impressive Wasps are.

First, the lack of any alternate options beyond Tusi Pisi means that Thomas Waldrom can blitz up out of the line, safe in the knowledge that no one can exploit the space left behind. Second, Pisi is lined up quite deep and Thretton Palamo, second red circle, has no space behind the pod of forwards and no real width. Jordan Williams, outside of him, is so close that Exeter can defend them all with no issues. In short, this goes a long way to explaining why the West Country team made 8 fewer line breaks, 39 fewer passes, 199 fewer metres, and were forced into 14 more kicks from hand than Wasps.

Conclusion

Getting over the gain line is as crucial now as it ever was, but with players getting bigger in all positions there’s now fewer physical mismatches. This requires a velvet glove rather than an iron fist approach to break down defences. By prioritising fleet of hand and foot over power, the Wasps attack stretches the defence across the entire pitch, allowing the ball carrying forwards to go head to head with outside backs or individual forwards.

Outside backs and forwards who also have the mental exercise of trying to account for all the possible attacking permutations. Just imagine the attack once Kurtley Beale and Willie le Roux arrive.

by Sam Larner

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