Analysis: Newcastle’s attacking shape

Date published: April 18 2018

This week’s analysis article from Sam Larner will be focused on Newcastle’s attacking shape in their recent match against Sale.

Right at the start of this Premiership season I wrote about a game between Sale and Newcastle. Sale had been truly awful at the line-out and the game itself had been woeful. It was the second round of the Premiership and it was an inauspicious start for both the Northern clubs – this was looking like a long season.

Fast forward to last weekend and the teams met again, this time it was a thriller with 65 points scored. Not only was the game impressive, but the situation is very different now, Newcastle find themselves in the play off positions ahead of a monster game against Leicester this Friday. Sale are in seventh but they are a stone’s throw – albeit a fairly hefty throw – from the play-offs as well.

If you just looked at the stats, you would probably struggle to work out which team is which; Newcastle have 49 tries – the fourth lowest of the league and Sale have 59, the fifth best. In try difference, Sale have a very healthy +10 whereas the Falcons are languishing at -3. To put that into some context, only one team have finished in the top six in the league since 2014 with a minus try scored difference – the 2014/15 Leicester Tigers, -2.

Some of this can be explained by Newcastle’s interesting season – they started strongly and then slowed down towards the end of 2017, in terms of try scoring, until a faster finish to the year. Their seven try-scoring bonus points are around mid-pack but they haven’t got a single losing bonus point – you have to go all the way back to 2014/15 to London Welsh to find another side to go through a season without getting a single on of those. When Newcastle lose, they really lose.

Where are we going with this? Well, Newcastle clearly have room to grow even if they make the play offs this year. As long as they score three tries in the next two days they will have improved on last year, so what can we learn from Dave Walder’s Falcons’ attack?

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This should look fairly familiar to anybody who has watched rugby in the last few years. The scrum-half has a pod of three forwards to pass to, they then have a fly-half out the back who has a further pod of three forwards in the middle of the pitch with a linking back option in behind. Completing the look is lock Calum Green, eventual try scorer, hanging out wide and dragging the defence across. At least in this one example this looks like a fairly typical 1-3-3-1 attack, there’s plenty of places online where you can read about the 1-3-3-1 in more depth. Essentially though, this requires forwards who can move the ball – either popping the ball to each other or out the back to the decision maker. Obviously most professional forwards are better at this than the front-row at your local club but this skill level still needs to be improved.

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This clip is from the very next phase – this is very similar to how the Falcons score the first try of the game. The pods have been used up and so the Falcons have to go to the backs. Fly-half Joel Hodgson hits Sinoti Sinoti who slightly crabs across the pitch, trying to crack apart the two outside defenders. AJ MacGinty does well and this is why Green is out there, he’s securing the ball to allow the Falcons to quickly go back across the field.

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The very brief breakdown allows the forwards to rearrange and the Falcons are back in their shape as the play moves back across the pitch. There’s some really nice handling from the flanker Will Welch to put Vereniki Goneva through a hole. The defence holds and the Falcons can now continue the attack the same way with the ruck preventing Sale support getting around.

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A few phases later and we have the try. The key to attacking is to create mismatches and you can either do that by putting a very big guy against a very small guy or a fast guy against a slow guy – as happened to some extent here. However, you can also create that mismatch by forcing a disconnect in the defence. In this example, the two members of the pod hold the inside two defenders and then Sinoti drifts which completely hacks apart the connection between the two inside defenders and the two outside defenders. Green has been waiting patiently on that wing and now he’s one on one with Paolo Odogwu and that’s a match-up the Falcons like.

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This example again is just creating that opportunity for Sinoti to fly. Green is no longer the wide player, he’s been replaced by Gary Graham in the same role. The hard runners on the inside, plus the fact that fly-half Hodgson takes the ball to the line, fix the defenders and it’s another two on two with Sinoti. It’s another big gain for the Falcons.

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Hodgson takes the ball to the line and manages to wiggle out of contact and the feed his pod of forwards. This is where you can see the skill advancements that have taken place in the game, this is a prop to flanker to lock drawing and giving and a one handed offload thrown in for good measure. Gone are the days where the prop’s hands were where attacks went to die. This phase didn’t result in a try, but the very next one did.

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In this final example we can see again the pod of forwards with the option out the back. As we’ve seen this is always a threatening attacking shape but it takes on an added dimension when there’s an overlap. The Sale outside centre, Luke James is in absolutely no man’s land, he wants to drift to cover the backs charging round the corner but Hodgson’s run is holding MacGinty on the inside, James gets caught in two minds and Hodgson hits the nice flat pass to gain significant yardage.

Conclusion

What Newcastle are doing isn’t particularly unique, most games you watch will feature a team playing with some variation of the 1-3-3-1 attack. However, few teams have attacking talents like Goneva or Sinoti on the wing and so the build up becomes a way of getting those guys into a position to exploit their mismatches. That means plenty of hard runners on the inside holding defenders and stressing the defence. Unfortunately these attacking shapes do take time to implement, you need skillful forwards and an array of backs with decision making abilities. Newcastle might not have hit 100% this season but there are constant improvements and with another pre-season to come 2018/19 might be the time where the Falcons really come to life.

by Sam Larner


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