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How teams are creatively using the 50:22 kicking law in rugby

Munster, Bristol, and the Dragons delivered some smart examples last weekend.

Munster pulled off an excellent 50:22 against Scarlets.
Munster pulled off an excellent 50:22 against Scarlets.

THE LAUNCH OF a new set of global law trials ahead of this 2021/22 season was always likely to ensure a few interesting talking points as teams and referees got to grips with them, and we’re already seeing the effects.

The 50:22 kicking law means that if a team kicks from inside their own half and the ball bounces before crossing the touchline in the opposition 22, the kicking team gets the throw-in at the ensuing lineout. Teams can’t pass back into their own half before kicking.

As we discussed in a pre-season edition of Rugby Insiders for members of The42, scrums close to the halfway line are one key area in which the 50:22 can have a big effect, so it has been no surprise to see teams getting creative there.

Munster provided an excellent example early on in last weekend’s win over Scarlets in the United Rugby Championship.

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Ben Healy’s powerful kicking skill is obviously important here but it’s a very clever play from Munster to preserve space for him to target.

They start with centres Dan Goggin and Liam Coombes in a stack behind the scrum, as highlighted in red below.

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Scarlets have a huge amount of ground to cover here in terms of both running and kicking threats, with the positioning of Goggin and Coombes only adding to the uncertainty.

This angle also allows shows us how Scarlets have set up defensively. They have opted for one-and-a-half in the backfield as fullback Johnny McNicholl starts in the centre of the pitch and left wing Steff Evans is the ‘half’ – not fully part of the frontline, but not fully in the backfield either.

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Note also how scrum-half Gareth Davies is positioned behind the scrum – rather than alongside opposite number Neil Cronin – as he hopes to cover onto whichever side Munster attack.

Munster initially swing to their left as Cronin picks and scoots, with Goggin also accelerating in that direction, but the scrum-half insteads drops the ball off to out-half Healy coming back underneath them.

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Munster’s initial movement left has a big effect on the Scarlets defence.

As indicated below, scrum-half Davies, fullback McNicholl and out-half Sam Costelow all react to the threat on their right-hand side.

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Out of shot wide on Munster’s left is wing Shane Daly, so clearly Scarlets are worried about the ball being passed to him or kicked in behind.

Instead, the ball is redirected to Healy and suddenly the threat is back on Scarlets’ left-hand side.

Coombes hasn’t shifted to Munster’s left along with Cronin and Goggin, so he now comes into play as a running threat off Healy, along with Matt Gallagher and Calvin Nash.

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As soon as the ball is dropped off to Healy, Scarlets understand the threat of the 50:22 but the fact that Healy has passing options to his right means the Welsh side have to respect that threat too.

With Davies gone and Costelow recovering back to the Scarlets’ left side, Evans still has to worry about the running threat and he can’t drop off further into the backfield too early.

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Evans is still retreating as Healy fires his superb long kick into the space behind the Scarlets wing, while fullback McNicholl hasn’t been able to get across after initially being lured over to Munster’s left-hand side.

It’s a slick, sharp play from Munster and they turn the 50:22 kick into seven points as Jack O’Sullivan breaks off Cronin’s pass on fourth phase of the resulting lineout attack.

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This example underlines how influential a 50:22 kick can be, with Munster taking an early lead away from home. 

This kind of scrum close to the halfway line is going to be a key battleground with the 50:22 and we saw another interesting example of that in the wildly entertaining Gallagher Premiership clash between Harlequins and Bristol last Friday.

We can see how both sides set up below.

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Bristol have two players out of shot in the backfield, concerned as they are about a 50:22 kick, but scrum-half Harry Randall is not positioned in behind the scrum and instead lines up alongside opposite number Danny Care for the feed.

Quins have four backs on their left-hand side, meaning that’s perhaps the more obvious place to go even if Randall can defend there, but again there is misdirection involved.

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The initial fake to Quins’ right-hand side means Randall is taken out of play as a defender, while Bristol centre Sam Bedlow also buys the misdirection.

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With Bedlow then scrambling to recover, his center partner Piers O’Conor is left exposed and a skip pass from André Esterhuizen allows Quins fullback Tyrone Green to burst forward before sending wing Cadan Murley hurtling up into the 22.

Note also the brilliant support line of out-half Marcus Smith coming from the right-hand side of the scrum.

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It’s a smart play from Quins as the threat of a 50:22 plays on Bristol’s mind and sees them holding two players in the backfield off the scrum.

Away from the set-piece, it has been intriguing to see some teams positioning two backfield defenders closer to the touchlines in order to prevent any possible 50:22s.

This is, in turn, creating space elsewhere. Take for example this kick by Leinster’s Ross Byrne against the Dragons in the URC two weekends ago.

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The two Dragons backfield defenders have to turn and retreat to the ball after Byrne finds the space they have left in the middle of the pitch.

With Rob Russell applying chase pressure, the Dragons have to react hastily and Leinster manage to pin them into their 22. A rushed clearance kick gives Leinster a lineout just outside the Dragons’ 22 – a fine attacking platform and a strong outcome from Byrne’s kick.

A week earlier during Leinster’s URC win over the Bulls, we saw this clever kick from Johnny Sexton as he found space just behind the defence, with the two backfield defenders positioned deep for a longer kick or a 50:22 attempt.

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The Harlequins v Bristol game last Friday did also feature a successful 50:22 kick that showed Bristol’s creativity in this department.

After their possession has been slowed up, Bristol initially shape to set up for a contestable box kick, as we can see below.

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But it’s a dummy from Bristol as Randall instead swivels to find out-half Callum Sheedy, who measures a beautiful 50:22 kick down the left.

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Once again, misdirection is key here as Harlequins are unable to react after initially moving to cover the box kick on the other side of the pitch.

As we can see below, Green is deep in the left-hand side of the backfield, while Smith has shifted towards that side of the pitch too. 

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After Randall’s pass, Quins right wing Louis Lynagh initially has to worry about Bristol passing the ball out to their left-hand side and closes up before then having to turn and retreat when Sheedy kicks.

It’s a superb kick from the Bristol out-half and his team win a penalty on the ensuing lineout attack, allowing Sheedy to kick three points from the tee.

As we discussed in our Rugby Insiders piece a few weeks ago, we’re also likely to see quite a few 50:22 kicks on turnover possession – when the defence obviously hasn’t had time to get their backfield covered.

The Dragons delivered an example in that regard last weekend in their URC win over Connacht, as out-half Sam Davies brilliantly picked out the space after a breakdown turnover.

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We can see that Connacht right wing Ben O’Donnell has dropped off into the right-hand side of the backfield – with Tiernan O’Halloran doing the same out of shot on the left – but the Australian is beaten to the touchline by Davies’ brilliant left-footed kick.

From the resulting Dragons lineout, the Welsh side force their way over for a crucial try through prop Mesake Doge.

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This sequence – turnover, 50:22 kick, try – underlines just how influential this law can be.

The intention behind the law trial is to force defences to have more players covering backfield space and therefore reduce linespeed in the frontline defence, in turn creating more space for the attacking team.

It will be fascinating to continue to track the trends this season across the game but it’s already clear that the 50:22 is being harnessed to great effect by the smartest teams.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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