This week’s analysis article from Sam Larner will be focused on the kicking tactics deployed in the recent Challenge Cup final in Bilbao.
There might have been one game on the weekend which stood out above the rest in terms of importance, but as interesting as the Champions Cup final was, it was nothing compared to the drama and free flowing rugby of the Challenge Cup final between Cardiff Blues and Gloucester.
Unfortunately, the game has somewhat been overshadowed by the reaction to some of referee Jerome Garces’ decisions. At the moment there is a growing culture of ‘hot takes’ in rugby punditry. The hot take originates from the US and is a very quick response to an event designed to attract attention and stand out from the crowd, in the US with so many people covering the same sports there’s a need to differentiate yourself from the rest.
This is understandable but doesn’t really help to generate useful insight. As interesting and knowledgeable about the game as many commentators are, they are still spouting opinions that are being formed in the seconds after something happens and before fans get entrenched in the belief that the ref is an idiot/genius it’s probably worth taking a look at the evidence for yourself.
For what it’s worth, my own opinion is that the forward pass, which was given against Gloucester, did go forward but probably out the back of the hand although I wouldn’t be too surprised to see it given either way and the offside kick was not offside, although Jarrod Evans leaning back doesn’t help the illusion that it’s offside.
Anyway, rant over, it’s that last point that we’re looking at today. One of the key tactical points which came from the game were the kicks, by both teams, over the top of, or through, the defence to try and regain possession. We know that with faster line speed there will be space behind the defensive line to land the ball and then it’s down to the luck of the bounce whether or not you reclaim it. However in this game, three of the six tries came directly from kicks.
Let’s start with the first kick of the day which ends up in, then quickly out of the hands of Willis Halaholo. Gloucester are set up as you might expect, with two men deep, one in the full-back role and the other towards the sideline, with one player sweeping in the gap between the deep players and the defensive line. Ideally with a sweeper you want them around the middle of the attacking line. If the sweeper gets pulled out of position, it’s not the end of the world, but if the deep players get drawn away then there’s huge parts of the pitch that can now be exploited. For an example it’s worth remembering Jonny May’s try against Wales where both Gareth Anscombe and Rhys Patchell got drawn away from where they were meant to be and opened up a massive hole for England to exploit. In the situation in the clip, with the sweeper so close to the ruck, there is enough room in the gap to land a kick.
This is a perfect kick from Billy Burns but it also highlights the same issues as above. The kick is so brilliantly placed that it brings up Anscombe, acting as basically a wing here, and leaves a huge gap in behind him. If the kick through stays in field then the worst case is a Gloucester five-metre line-out. As soon as those deep players are forced to contribute in the line it’s not going to be possible to cover all the space in behind.
This example comes from the Blues try, the kick through goes straight into the space where the Gloucester deep player has to close down – if he doesn’t close it down then you have an easy two on one but apply more pressure and you might be able to stop the next kick or even reclaim the ball. Unfortunately it also takes him out of position and when the next kick goes in there’s too much space for anyone else to cover.
This is very similar to the previous example, the ball is kicked through into the space and we have a big gain. The kick is a little short but a longer kick would go straight into the soft spot of the defence, drawing the deeper player towards the defensive line and creating that space behind. So far attacking coaches in rugby over the last however many decades have largely focused on breaking down defensive lines by going side to side and forwards. That worked up to a point but when defences got better they tried to go over them with hanging bombs and long kicks to space, so defences dropped men back, now they’re trying to exploit the gap between the line and the deep players, who knows what we will see next.
This example doesn’t quite fit with the narrative I’ve prevented so far, there isn’t a deep defender in place here so the kick doesn’t draw him out of position. However, it is similar in that the passing attack pulls the wing into the defensive line and that opens up the space in behind. When you are this close to the line, the deep defender largely disappears and will instead be replaced by a wing who hangs back until they are needed in the defensive line. This kick turns an attack which doesn’t have an overlap into a try scoring opportunity for one of three Blues attackers.
This penultimate example is just a wonderful cross-field kick. Gloucester probably have the numbers to exploit this overlap by passing but the second attacker from the sideline is pulling the furthest defender inside and that leaves a space, a very tight space, that Burns has to stick the kick. It is absolutely perfect.
Finally, this clip just shows how often this tactic was used by the Blues. Garyn Smith ended up in this situation twice, and twice stuck the kick in to touch but clearly the intention was to get around the edge of the defence and then stick the kick into the space behind. You would expect the wing to run here on most occasions but the kick was definitely winning on Friday.
The kick over the top of the defensive line isn’t new, but it is a growing trend as defences work out ways to stop attackers scoring. First, the defenders only had to deal with people running at them, then they dropped more people deep to deal with the kicks. That should have made it easier to get on the outside of defences but they improved their line speed to account for the lack of numbers so attackers took advantage of this and started kicking into the space left behind by the speedy defenders, and this is where we are now. It’s unclear what defences can do now, they can’t bring their deep defenders up as that leaves them open to deep kicks and they can’t slow their line speed because they have dropped men back deep, it will be intriguing to see what teams come up with to face this new challenge.
For what it’s worth, my own suggestion would be to look to American football. The quarterbacks were crippled by constant blitzes which left them without enough time to find someone to throw the ball to. That was until someone worked out that if you blitz you leave an unguarded space where you came from which the quarterback can throw to. Defences hit back by blitzing but also dropping other players into the holes left behind the blitzer meaning that QBs could no longer just close their eyes and hurl the ball into the space. If teams continue to kick over the defensive line, you might see teams keeping up the line speed, keeping the deep players but randomly dropping players from the defensive line into the space behind. No longer will fly-halves be able to stick a kick into the gap knowing it will be open.