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Analysis: How the threat of red cards could be favouring teams who offload

Eoin Toolan examines the All Blacks’ support play to explain their effectiveness in offloading.

THE 2019 RUGBY World Cup has now seen six red cards issued following Josh Larsen’s dismissal in Canada’s defeat to South Africa in Kobe last night.

Referee Luke Pearce sent Larsen off for an illegal cleanout at the breakdown, with replays showing the Canadian’s shoulder making contact to the neck of Springbok Thomas Du Toit.

That is now two more red cards than any previous iteration of the competition as World Rugby shows no signs of backing off from the strongly-enforced guidelines that were issued pre-tournament.

england-v-argentina-pool-c-2019-rugby-world-cup-tokyo-stadium Six red cards is a new World Cup record. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Whilst player welfare is at the forefront of the governing body’s thinking, this article will look at the implications around lowering the tackle height from a tactical perspective and how attacks are looking to exploit what is fast becoming a new dynamic between the ball carrier and tackler.

As discussed on The42 Rugby Weekly on Monday, analysing the data from the games so far has highlighted some interesting trends, particularly from an attacking standpoint.

In an effort to illustrate this, I have benchmarked the Six Nations teams, Rugby Championship sides and host country Japan – so, 10 nations in all – against each other in the following metrics: offloads, tries scored, ball carries, rucks and defenders beaten.

Chart

*NB at the time of analysing this data, New Zealand and South Africa were the only two teams to have completed their pool games. With Wales having two more matches to complete at the time of analysing it is unsurprising they do not feature, whilst of the remaining teams, England and Australia are best-placed to influence the rankings in the final round of matches. 

New Zealand and South Africa feature consistently in the key performance metrics above, which is a major reason why they are regarded as the most likely finalists at this stage of the competition.

From the rest of the countries participating in this Rugby World Cup, only Fiji (defenders beaten and offloads) and Namibia (rucks) would have made it into the top five in one or more of the categories.

Indeed, Namibia have had the most rucks at the World Cup to date with 324 breakdowns in their three pool games.

Tellingly, they find themselves ranked second-last for defenders beaten (34) and points scored (34), and also fourth from bottom in offloads (13) and tries scored (3). This suggests that a high ruck count is not an indication of an effective attacking performance in this competition. Interestingly, the top four ranked teams in this area do not feature in any other category.

Japan could potentially be the outlier given their performances in the competition so far, however they have also taken twice as many (10) goal kicks than any other team, which has delivered 30 points for their attack.

Ruck-to-offload ratio

The main discussion point from the above data is the correlation between offloads and rucks and how the most profitable attacking teams are performing in this area.

Statistically, Italy have the lowest ruck-to-offload ratio at 4.2 rucks to every offload thrown (40/175), although this statistic is influenced by the fact they have the worst ruck success at 93% with thirteen turnovers conceded.

Of more interest is the team with the next lowest ruck-to-offload ratio in New Zealand at 4.4 (53/235). The All Blacks have clearly shown a willingness to push the offload in contact which is reflected by the fact they are ranked number one in this area.

Incredibly, the reigning champions have made 71 clean linebreaks in the pool stage which, to put in context, is only nine fewer than their total for the entire 2015 Rugby World Cup.

Their ability to shift the point of contact through their footwork and lateral support lines has been a key component to a large number of those incisions. The other critical factor to the high volume of offloads is the tackler’s inability or, more intriguingly, potential hesitance to target the ball in the tackle.

The implications of a primary or assist tackler slipping too high with either his shoulder or arm in an attempt to stop the ball and making direct contact to the head is now a possible red card. Stringent management of the tackle height by referees has now potentially given the ball carrier more opportunity to promote the ball through contact.

Before analysing the technical details around some of New Zealand’s offloads, it is also interesting to note that the team with the next best ruck-to-offload ratio is South Africa at 6.5 (33/216).

I noted in an article prior to the World Cup that if the Springboks were to win the competition, they would need to add another dimension to their attack and capitalize on the dominance that their mammoth ball carriers can provide.

They have definitely displayed more of a willingness to move the point of contact with RG Snyman and Damian de Allende generating the highest volume of offloads for the team that have scored the most tries in the competition so far.

From an Irish perspective, at 13.1 rucks to every offload (21/275) their ratio is more than three times that of the All Blacks in what is a contrasting statistic between the two sides.

New Zealand’s support play

New Zealand’s support play signifies an intent to promote the offload from the ball carrier. They have a lateral-based support focus where the players immediately on either side of the ball carrier are first in position to receive the pass, secondly to latch onto an offload, and thirdly to resource the breakdown.

This hierarchy of support is critical to the success of their offloading game and is predicated by an understanding from the support players of the environment for the ball carrier and whether a tip-on pass or offload is a viable option. 

By being lateral-support focused, it potentially compromises the quality of the breakdown if the player wrongly anticipates a pass or offload and then has to angle in at 90 degrees before squaring into the breakdown. The safer, more common approach is an almost vertical position behind the ball carrier, where the pass or offload option becomes redundant but the angle into the breakdown is far more efficient.

Below, we see a good illustration of New Zealand’s lateral support structure in their comprehensive win over Namibia.

Picture 1

In this instance, Matt Todd is the ball carrier and he has Anton Lienert-Brown as his immediate support on the outside followed by Ben Smith and George Bridge. Reserve scrum-half Brad Webber is his only inside support and not a realistic breakdown option.

Lienert-Brown recognises that there is only one Namibia defender between Todd and the touchline, so he remains on a lateral support line as the ball is taken into contact.

At this stage, it must be admitted the quality of the tackle attempts of both right-wing Lesley Kim and reserve scrum-half Darryl De La Harpe leave a lot to be desired as they try to target the ball in the tackle. Todd easily brushes aside the would-be tacklers and offloads to Brown who is in prime position.

Picture 12

Importantly, what the second picture above highlights is that if Todd fails to offload and is brought to ground, all his outside support players would be ahead of the ball and the diminutive Webber would be left to resource the breakdown by himself, with five Namibian defenders in close proximity.

This is the risk-versus-reward nature of the All Blacks’ support play. They back the ball carrier and support players to have the skills and awareness to execute in the moment.

1

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As we can above, Todd delivers to Lienert-Brown and although he is then brought down by a good scrambling tackle from centre Justin Newman, Smith is in the perfect support position to receive the offload and score the try.

Below, we see another good visual of New Zealand’s support structure prior to an offload, this time against South Africa after Aaron Smith has changed the direction of attack and shifted play back down the short side.

Picture 3

Hooker Dane Coles, circled in yellow, is used as a decoy as Smith moves the ball behind him to Ryan Crotty standing at first receiver. Crotty plays a short tip to Bridge who has run an excellent line which causes de Allende to quickly change direction and attempt to scrag the winger to ground.

At the point of contact, Coles, who has a run the decoy line, is ahead of the ball on a positive support line, whilst Richie Mo’unga, also circled in yellow, is outside support in a lateral position. Mo’unga is animated as he spots the gap left between de Allende and last defender Cheslin Kolbe and accelerates in anticipation of the offload.  

Bridge, having won the collision, expertly delivers to his out-half in what could have been a try-scoring play.

2

[Click here if you cannot view the clip above] 

However, as we see above, the reaction speeds of Kolbe are world-class and he is able to bring Mo’unga to ground.

Again, it must be noted if Bridge does not get the offload away, New Zealand would be vulnerable to a turnover at the breakdown as Crotty had been checked by Springbok skipper, Siya Kolisi, after he has passed, while Mo’unga and Coles would both be ahead of the ball.

From the resulting breakdown, as we see below, the All Blacks’ ball skills eventually lead to a half bust from Crotty.

3

[Click here if you cannot view the clip above]

This is an excellent illustration of both the All Blacks’ ability but more importantly their eagerness to move the point of contact to avoid a potentially static ruck on the sideline which would be an optimal position for the Springboks to launch their hard press defence from.

The final example of lateral support is from last night’s game between South Africa and Canada.

As discussed earlier, the Springboks are definitely attempting move variation in their attack and giant lock Snyman is one of their primary exponents of the offload.

In the shot below, Snyman’s lock partner, Franco Mostert [number 5], is in their traditional vertical support position behind the ball carrier where his only option is to resource the breakdown.

Picture 4

However, Francois Louw, circled on the outside, is on a slightly more linear support line and is ready to accelerate into the gap between Canada’s outside tackler Andrew Quattrin and the bearded lock with the headband, Evan Olmstead.

Now, this is a good example of both Canadian defenders tackling low – albeit Snyman is 6’9” – whereas traditionally one tackler would attempt to go high and tag the ball. 

The Springboks lock bursts into contact and, despite Canada’s numerical advantage, manages to get his hands through and offload to the onrushing Louw who has importantly anticipated the play.

As play runs on and Louw takes the ball into contact it is important to explain how the attacking support structure of the breakdown can be compromised following an offload.

Had Snyman taken the ball into contact he would have had perfect inside and outside cleaners in Mostert and Louw. However, once the offload is made now the support structure changes quickly, as we see below.

5

[Click here if you cannot view the clip above] 

Whilst Mostert is still available on the inside clean, the outside Springbok attackers have not reacted to the initial offload and as a result the breakdown is then compromised.

A prescriptive attacking framework where players are setting up for the next phase as an offload happens is counter-productive and highlights the game awareness that all players need to have to successfully execute an attack based on ball movement and continuity.

The best attacks in the world, New Zealand in particular, are most definitely exploiting offload opportunities where tacklers are forced to make low tackles whether it be circumstantial or because of the strengthening implementations of the law.

The repercussions of a red card at the highest level of Test match are enormous, with defeat almost guaranteed, so this is unquestionably going to lower the tackle height of defenders as they look to reduce the margin for error with any contact to the head of the ball carrier.

Importantly, as the data suggests a large percentage of concussions are indeed happening to the tackler, the use of ‘double tackles’ – where one defender goes low on the ball carrier and the other defender goes high to stop the offload – may be diluted.

Employing this tactic can lead to the two tacklers’ heads coming in close proximity to each other if communication around roles is poor and also leaves the ball carrier’s head potentially vulnerable.

From an attack perspective, double tackles nullify any potential offload opportunity.

Picture 6

Below and above, we see a couple of examples of two-man tackles.

Picture 7

Lowering the tackle height is an admirable step in the right direction by World Rugby in terms of player welfare but also for the attacking fabric of a game which has been heavily influenced by oppressive defences for a number of years.

So, here’s to more tries like those from Ireland’s Garry Ringrose against Russia and New Zealand’s TJ Perenara against Namibia – two of my favourites from the tournament to date. Jouez!

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About the author:

Eoin Toolan  / Professional rugby coach and performance analyst

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