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Analysis: Aaron Smith and Morgan Parra find creative scrum-half solutions

Both nines have produced triple skip passes to cut defences apart in recent weeks.

Updated 9.50pm

ONE OF THE greatest challenges involved in attacking inside the opposition 22 is that it’s often difficult to make more than one pass during a single attacking phase.

With the defence not having to worry about the wide open spaces of the backfield, they can fill their frontline with more bodies and come forward with stifling linespeed.

Aaron Smith celebrates Malakai Fekitoa's Aaron Smith is showing signs of getting back to his best. Source: Photosport/Joe Allison/INPHO

So, getting to the wide channels can be hard to do inside the opposition 22. There are options like using a ‘second wave’ in attack, where the ball is pulled behind decoy runners to a deeper-lying player, but then the risk of being tackled behind the gainline increases.

Once a team is within sniffing distance of the tryline, it can be difficult to take those kind of risks for fear of lifting the pressure. That’s why we see teams sending one-out runner after one-out runner at the defence.

But, if the defence is only going to allow the attacking team to make one pass at times, the question should be this – how much value can the attack get from a single pass?

Aaron Smith has not had the greatest seven months of his career since being suspended by New Zealand last October, but he is showing promising signs of returning to his best in recent weeks.

Smith’s passing is the best in the world. The power, accuracy, speed, understanding, and intelligence of his passing game puts other scrum-halves to shame. And Smith is a man who very often provides the greatest possible value with a single pass.

The 28-year-old was excellent in the Highlanders’ win over the Stormers last weekend and among his personal highlights reel was this triple skip pass.

Smith

Now, it’s worth pointing out that putting the ball through the hands and drawing defenders in that manner is very often the best way to attack, but the value of Smith’s skip pass in this instance is obvious.

Close to their tryline, the Stormers are keen to bring linespeed in order to get in the Highlanders’ faces and tackle them behind the gainline.

The Stormers have four players in position to defend on the left side of their defensive ruck, while the Highlanders have five attackers. It’s a one-man advantage for the attacking team, but the Stormers are confident that their linespeed can cancel that out.

1

Above, we can see that Stormers centre EW Viljoen is looking to get up aggressively on Highlanders out-half Marty Banks, who is set up to act as first receiver with a forward on his inside and one on his outside.

Viljoen is planning to smash Banks ball-and-all, stopping the possibility of a second pass from the Highlanders.

Just outside Viljoen is Stormers wing Dillyn Lleyds, who advances to deal with Highlanders lock Tom Franklin, shutting down the danger of a tip-on pass from Banks or the skip pass from Smith.

2

But as we can see above, the ball has already zipped past Franklin and all the way into the hands of Waisake Naholo [14].

Lleyds only picks up the flight of the pass very late and he is already closing on Franklin when he’s forced to turn outwards in a despairing effort to get to Naholo.

SP Marais is the defender on the outside edge for the Stormers and he is suddenly in a two-on-one situation against Naholo and Gareth Evans.

22

Hoping that Lleyds can recover and get to Naholo to tackle the imposing wing, Marais unconvincingly half-commits to turning in for the hit and Naholo surges through on his clever running line.

Defensively, the Stormers will have been frustrated not to shut Naholo down here, but our focus is on the pass from Smith.

The Kiwi scrum-half takes two steps off the base of the ruck after scooping the ball up, allowing him to generate power for his pass but also ensuring that the Stormers defenders are drawn upfield towards the Highlanders players closest to the ruck.

The choice of pass from Smith, essentially skipping three team-mates, is a surprise to the defence and that is the real key here – an attacking player throwing something at the defence that they just don’t expect.

Naholo’s running line is essential, of course, but he knows his scrum-half can hit him on that line when other scrum-halves might not be able to do so.

There is some risk attached with the possibility for an intercept, but that is only a small one due to the velocity Smith gets on his pass. The ball isn’t hanging up in the air for a long time, asking to be picked off. Instead, it whistles past the defenders before they can react appropriately.

Smith’s pass was reminiscent of what we saw twice from Clermont’s Morgan Parra against Leinster in the Champions Cup quarter-finals.

Again, this was about a scrum-half taking advantage of an unsuspecting defence by skipping attacking options.

Parra 1

The pass above is slightly higher from Parra and over a longer distance, but the basic premise is similar.

As we can see below, Leinster have four defenders on their left side of the ruck.

P1

Clermont have four attacking players to their right of the ruck, and Parra is also a threat himself if he picks and snipes.

As with the Stormers, Leinster would have felt they were well set up to defend this attack, particularly with the ruck lasting around 10 seconds.

Garry Ringrose is on the edge of the Leinster defence and he is square up the pitch, ready to accelerate forward and shut down the Clermont attack, presuming that it will come through the three-man pod of attackers to Parra’s right.

Parra 1

But the target of Parra’s pass is David Strettle, holding the width out on the touchline.

The Clermont scrum-half takes those same two steps we saw from Smith, winding up his pass and drawing the defence forward, before releasing it with power out to Strettle and beyond Leinster’s frontline.

Parra 111

The trajectory is different here from Parra, but the clip above underlines to us just how unaware Leinster are caught by the triple skip pass. They simply do not expect it.

Having beaten Ringrose on the outside and drawn Isa Nacewa up into the line, Strettle chips ahead accurately and Peceli Yato scorches after the ball to dot down.

Damningly for Leinster, but impressively from Parra, the same thing happened again soon after as the Clermont scrum-half conjured another brilliant pass to beat the defence.

Parra 2

The situation is similar to the first one, although this time it begins closer to the Leinster tryline.

Again, Leinster have four defenders to the left of the ruck against four Clermont attackers and Parra the possible sniper.

2222

Again, Leinster are set to defend against the forward-carrying pod to Parra’s right.

And again, the Leinster defender on the edge is square and gets caught turning in as Parra makes a brilliant triple skip pass, Dan Leavy the man in this instance.

22222

Clearly, there are defensive shortcomings at play here as Ringrose and Leavy put themselves in difficult situations – Eddie O’Sullivan analysed this on The42 Rugby Show last week – but we’re more interested in the quality of the attacking play.

Parra’s pass in the second instance is lower and faster, skipping across the front of the Leinster defenders, but the same objective of catching them off guard is achieved.

Parra 222

Smith is the best passer in the world but Parra shows his enduring class in these examples against Leinster and it makes us wonder why other scrum-halves don’t have this tool in their armoury.

With defences often so effective at shutting down the attack inside and close to the 22, possessing the ability to surprise them is crucial.

Skip passes beyond multiple attackers aren’t always going to be the answer, and may be damaging in some cases, but Smith and Parra should be applauded for finding creative solutions to a familiar problem.

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