Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What Worked, What Didn't For San Francisco Against Denver

By Derek Sagehorn

San Francisco lost to Denver on Sunday on the strength of Denver's scrum. But San Francisco had some flashes of brilliance on the day, unfortunately most of the came in the opening quarter of the match. San Francisco and Denver spent the first 20 minutes probing for territory either through kicks or excursions out wide. Denver found some space on their left-hand side of the field on several phases, where a couple of SF front-rowers were lingering from a recently completed scrum. Ata Malifa exploited the mismatch and nearly went through. Several phases later Denver finds itself in a similar position. There is a ruck on the right hand side, and Denver quickly secures possession and moves the ball away to runners.

The first receiver makes one pass and instantly takes all but three San Francisco players out of the play. As you can see above, there are five Denver backs ready to attack those three SF defenders. Luckily those defenders include a few more fleet of foot players this time: Volney Rouse, Nick Blevins and Alec Gletzer.

Take the jump to read more.

Rouse has looked up and realizes that he is out numbered. He sees the far man and decides that he cannot track a 2v1 pass with that much space between attackers. Instead he takes a gamble and cuts down hard on the trigger man, causing him to misplay the ball. Gletzer dutifully collects the ball and takes off down the field.

Unfortunately, as you can see at the end of the GIF, Gletzer has outpaced his support. If he doesn’t stay on his feet he risks losing the ball in the tackle. Thankfully, Blevins ate his Wheaties and legs it out to deliver a perfectly timed cleanout.

A Denver player is immediately over the ball, with hands on it, so Blevins has no choice but to wrap the defenders arms and roll him off of the ruck. The ball is now exposed and the ruck over. Rouse, after making the initial play, works hard to get to the tackle area. Maximo de Achaval has stepped over the previous offsides line to grab the ball, just as Rouse scoops it up. With ball in hand, Rouse steps forward to challenge the next defender and delivers a soft pop to an oncoming Sam Finau.

This is a try created by smart defense and hard work to capitalize on opportunity. San Francisco’s next try—seconds later—is the product of forwards skill and vision. San Francisco has collected the kickoff and moved a few phases across the field. They have won a ruck on the right-hand side, which means all their passes will be coming off of most players’ dominant hand.

A SF first receiver takes the ball running and passes onto Maka Tameilau. The Denver defense is present in numbers but they are not all launching at the same time. Notice the crease that has developed in the middle of the defense.

Perhaps doubting Maka’s ability or inclination to make the pass outside of him, the midfield defender has slowed his charge forward. Usually a big man getting the ball will rumble forward and the midfield defender will have wasted energy getting back onsides. But Maka is confident in his passing ability and delivers a nice ball to the oncoming Siupeli Sakalia, who has spotted the dogleg. Sakalia steps back into the crease and breaks the gainline.

Sakalia wins the contact-area, which allows him to place the ball on his terms. This makes David Tameilau’s job of cleaning the defender out even easier.

Because the ball is quickly available, Maka steps up and plays halfback. This is important because, as you can see from the clip above, most of Denver’s defenders are on the other side of the ruck. The quick ball and pass to move it away precludes Denver from effectively transferring defenders to the weak right-hand side. Thus, there is an overlap, which SF exploits.

Notice the second-to-last pass, where Blevins gets on the outside shoulder of the defender. He uses his body to box out the defender and make a pass; ensuring that the men outside of him have a 2v1. Jack O’Hara, beneficiary of the skill and vision of his inside men, does well to finish the effort.

The Scrum

After the O’Hara try, Denver begins to use their scrum as a weapon. A quick note: as much talk about as there has been about the scrum lately, “as a blight on the modern game” and whatnot, this match was a brutal reminder of how important the contest is to the game. There were a couple of resets, but Denver’s dominance in the scrum was sublime. They stole ball after ball from San Francisco on quick, powerful shunts. Not only were the scrums pretty, they were demoralizing to the hometeam. After defending furiously for minutes, a Denver knock meant that SF would get no reprieve from the onslaught of runners. Competing is that much harder when you cannot play with ball in hand.

On this first Denver try, SF’s pack seems unwieldy at the engagement. Once the angle reverses, we can see how high the loosehead side of the pack is, including the lock and flanker. The Denver tighthead exploits the uneasiness by simply driving forward into the binds between Maka Tameilau and Jacob Finau. The SF front row first stands up and then steps back. The ball is stolen without a hook and Pedrie Wanneburg scores easily.

On this next SF scrum—again underneath its own posts—we get a better view of the loosehead side. SF is still high, but even worse they don’t look ready to push at the time ball is put into the tunnel. The entire pack seems static, even though they should know when the ball is coming. Against a static, locked-out opponent, Ben Tarr forces the issue. The strike is disrupted and Denver takes another tighthead and scores another try off of a pick from the base.

In the second half, San Francisco replaced their loosehead and hooker with Codi Jones and Tom Coolican. The scrum improves, slightly. However, the psychological trauma of the first-half is deeply rooted. On this Denver scrum underneath the posts, Denver gets a slight shove on the tighthead side.

Notice how Sakalia has unbound his shoulder from the scrum in preparation for the eightman pick. Referee Berard could have pinged him here but it is no matter. Sakalia steps to make sure Niku Kruger or Zach Fenoglio do not run. Denver has already scored twice in this manner. But by stepping up, Sakalia makes his ensuing defense that much more difficult.

Kruger moves the ball out to Malifa running on hard. The center takes a step back inside and makes the first man miss. Sakalia, who came forward, now has to work twice as hard to get back and make a covering tackle on Malifa. The center easily sheds the tackle and scores Denver’s final try of the match.

As we saw in the first part, San Francisco has the skills to play fast, dangerous rugby. But they will continue to struggle if they do not fix the problems in the coalface. After the game, Denver Coach Sean O’Leary said “when picking a team, the saying goes, you pick your tighthead first, and your back-up tighthead second.” Denver is lucky enough to have Chris Baumann and the young Ben Tarr at the position. It’s a great foundation to build on.


  1. Great to see this kind of analysis and the use of GIFs. Only critique is that maybe the gifs are cropped a bit short. You are also showing multiple gifs that really amount to one phase of play. Maybe consider adding a gifv at the end of each section that shows the entire sequence.