Analysis: Rugby Trends, Part One

Date published: December 20 2017

This week our analyst takes a look at how Rugby moves in trends, though these are sometimes imperceptible as you’re watching a game.

To prove this, watch the first ten or so minutes of the famous 1999 World Cup semi-final between New Zealand and France. Ignore the slightly grainy picture, the baggy kits, the lack of a ref mic, no coaches running on and no scrum resets, but focus instead on the tactics of each team.

Because the rucking rules for defenders are much laxer, the attacking teams massively over commit. If you’re committing five attackers to a ruck now, something has gone wrong; in this game it’s regularly all eight forwards lumbering around the pitch from ruck to ruck, all the attacking being done by the backs. That pulls all the forwards into one place – the breakdown – and means that any attacking play takes place in acres of space.

Modern rugby games have forwards sprinkled all over the pitch, for example Dane Coles consistently crops up at the farthest reaches to tumble over for a try. There’s also the requirement for defenders to get five metres back from a scrum, creating the extra space for attacking moves. There’s absolutely loads of kicking as well. The amount of kicking nowadays is almost certainly less but it’s also different; teams kick to contest and rarely chip and chase; in the 1999 semi-final it was all kicking to touch and chipping through.

So, those were just some of the trends of rugby that you would have seen in 1999 – it’s all change though. What are the trends of today? In part one on Wednesday, and part two next week, we will speak to some of the great minds in rugby today to understand where the sport is right now and where we will be in the next few seasons.

Backs in the line-out
Chosen by Matthew Egan, he is the first team performance analyst for Bath and has previously worked with the England senior men’s team and Leicester Tigers.

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Introduction: You may have noticed that teams are increasingly putting backs at the front of line-outs. In the England example above, the scrum- half is at the front and Owen Farrell, but more typically anyone who can distribute is put where you would normally expect to find the scrum-half.

This isn’t always the case: teams have done any number of different combinations including putting wingers at the front of the line-out or forwards in position to receive the tap down. There’s then usually two options; option one, the scrum-half loops around and the second player drifts out towards the back of the line-out, as in the example above; or option two, the scrum-half stays where they are and the ball is tapped to the player in the typical scrum-half position.

From the Expert: “There are a few things which change the mentalities of defenders when there is a forward in the scrum-half position; one is pitch position and two is who the forward is, finally there is what the analysis suggests.

“Throughout the years, when there has been a forward in the scrum-half position, teams have often mauled, especially in their own 22 or half. That doesn’t mean that forwards have never had the skill set to play from this position but we are now seeing back row forwards who can take the ball from the line-out and run into the disconnect between the line-out and the defending backs, then take contact or distribute.

“With this skill set it means that the defence tightens up and if the forward can attract defenders and deliver an accurate pass, it will open up space in the midfield and wide channels.”


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In this clip, the Stade blindside flanker Sekou Macalou is lined up at the scrum-half position but instead of taking the ball off the top and attacking the space between the back of the line-out and the defending fly-half, or peeling off and taking a pass to attack that space, he starts a long looping run towards the Stade fly-half and emerges in midfield in acres of space to set up the second try.

By sticking a scrum-half at the front of the line-out, you tie an extra defender into one spot but when you run the blindside flanker into the midfield you immediately create an overload somewhere else – in this case, between the two centres.

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This was also happening at the back end of last year. In this clip from the Irish victory over New Zealand in Chicago, the All Blacks have put Sam Cane in the traditional scrum-half position and Aaron Smith at the front. When Liam Squire pulls the ball out of the half formed ruck, he can either fling it to Cane who has moved to the back of the line-out, or pull it back to Smith. Both the maul set up and the threat of Cane running at the back of the line-out prevents Ireland from moving out into the midfield and the Kiwis break through there.

From the Expert: “I think teams are going to continue using this tactic more often. It asks questions of the defence and can ultimately help get your decision makers on the ball in key areas.

“Jonathan Joseph’s try in the Six Nations (above) is a great example of this; England placed the nine at the front and had Owen Farrell as the +1 (person in the usual scrum-half position).

“Using this tactic it placed George Ford and Farrell, two of the best decision makers in the team, in the correct position to execute the play which ultimately ended in the try.”

How can teams defend this? “The best way to stop a line-out attack is to stop it at source and steal it. If you put your scrum-half at the tail of the line-out, to close down the space the +1 has at the back of the lineout, it suggests that you’re not going to be able to compete there giving the attackers the opportunity to win clean ball at the tail, which is a really good attacking platform.

“Some teams will try and have a tactic where the defending scrum half will fly up at the back of the lineout to put pressure on the scrum half’s pass. For this to be effective you would allow them to win the front of the lineout as this makes the pass longer and gives your nine more time to eat up the ground.”

The 1-3-3-1 Attacking Structure
Chosen by AB Zondagh, the skills coach of the Sharks franchise in South Africa and backs and attack coach at age grade and Currie Cup levels.

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Introduction: After a turnover or other period of unstructured play the forwards will be lined up all over the pitch and the attacking system that they are using will not be immediately apparent. However, after a couple of phases, the attacking structure will begin to become clear and the more attention you pay to the set-up the clearer it will be.

If you are playing a low standard of rugby or watching your kids play, they are likely to be using either a 0-8-0 or 0-4-4-0 structure. That basically means that the forwards go from ruck to ruck and when the ball is spread wide the backs will be leaned on to join the breakdown and keep hold of the ball – the 0-4-4-0 is basically the same but two pods are used in the centre with the backs again attacking wide.

From the Expert: “The 2-4-2 system reared its head about a decade or so ago and was made famous by the Crusaders in the early years of the Super rugby competition. This structure is simple in its design; the numbers refer to the deployment of a team’s forwards across the width of the field in general play. Usually the more skillful and faster forwards are found on the edges, mixing it up with the backline players.

“The 2–4–2 shape meant that the heavier players moved themselves towards the middle of the field and were there to create go forward by physically brawling their way through the defence. Every player in the team would essentially be able to attack within a designated area of the field and only look after their ball when they attacked with it.

“The theory here is simple; if we are organised like this, we do our job within our silo and we save ourselves running around the field like headless chickens… GREAT!? No – not so great, unfortunately although players now have more of an idea of when to attack and when to take width or when to ruck, they lost their interconnectivity.

“Instead of 15 players attacking and reacting to one another, they now operated in these pods. Things such as line breaks, ruck turnovers and counter attack of kicks were difficult aspects of the game – as the chaos and uncertainty of player positions made it difficult for coaches to coach, or players to understand how to get back into their position once again.”


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In the above example, France have worked the ball right to the far side of the pitch (as shown in the first clip) and are now coming back towards the camera. Because of their 1-3-3-1 set-up, they have a first pod of forwards, the two props and second row, and then a second pod of hooker and second row. The entire back row was tied into the breakdown on the far side of the pitch but the French still have plenty of willing runners because their forwards are spread across the pitch, rather than bunched together.

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You can’t really talk about wide attacking forwards without mentioning Dane Coles. The All Black hooker is one of the best in the World in the wide channels. Coles can handle the ball as well as any back and is also very quick. In this example, he uses his pace to force a two on one and create space for his wing who cuts inside. The try is eventually assisted by the second row, Luke Romano, who acts as the link man on the far side of the pitch.

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In the final example, the other obvious benefit of having a forward on the wing is that they are breakdown specialists. When Australia move the ball wide there’s a risk that they lose it or it’s slowed down, but that’s not the case when Michael Hooper is stuck out there. He secures the ball quickly and it’s then able to be recycled back across the pitch.

The screenshot above shows examples of how the Sharks, New Zealand, Scotland and Australia have lined up in their 1-3-3-1 structures over the past season. As you can see, none of the teams are putting their props in the wide positions but more and more are using hookers on the fringes. In the end, the make up of the two ‘1’ positions is determined by who you have available. If you have a soft handed flyer like Justin Tipuric, you’re unlikely to make him do the heavy lifting inside, equally if your hooker has granite like strength but also granite like hands, he’s not the one you want finishing off overlaps out wide.

From the Expert: “Over time teams developed and most teams would be able to get back into their full attack shape within one or two phases after any unstructured or turnover piece of play. Some teams started to evolve this shape, allowing players to leave the structure of the 2-4-2; either folding around the corner or looking to become an inside running option off 9/10, whilst others allowed star players the freedom to move around as they please.

“Then came the implementation of the 1–3–3–1 structure. This shape was originally created to allow a team to punch forward physically more than once, compared to the previous 2-4-2 shape. Now teams had the option of punching with 3 – and then having another crack at it around the corner.

“Some teams have become au fait with both of these structures and have started using different shapes in different areas of the field. I think we will see more of this in the future, as teams will use the 2-4-2 shape the closer they are to their own try-line, and then transition into 1-3-3-1 as they get closer to the opposition’s try line and defences become more compact – using better line speed. Playing off nine with hard running forwards is a simple tactic to sit down a rush defence – thus the 1-3-3-1 is the go-to shape against teams that get off the line quickly.

“In conclusion I hope that this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of attacking shapes. It is mundane to watch nearly every team play the same game. We need to be more creative as coaches – think outside of the box, try something different, anything different to try and get the up on our opposition.”

The trends of the year will return next week to look at our other expert’s choices.

By Sam Larner