Thursday, May 12, 2016

What San Francisco Did Right, Wrong Against San Diego

Photo: Connie Hatfield
By Derek Sagehorn

San Francisco fell short of that elusive first win last Sunday, suffering defeat at the hands of San Diego 46-33. San Francisco’s attack, however, was much improved from their last outing in Ohio. Looking at the match card and tape, the return of Nick Blevins and the pairing of Volney Rouse and Orene Ai’I at flyhalf and inside center, respectively, made the difference. In addition, as we’ll see, David Tameilau has returned to form after injury.

This group of players are front and center in San Francisco’s first significant line break. Here, San Francisco has decent, but not great, possession at a ruck at midfield. The San Diego defense is relatively set as the ball becomes available. Ai’i, however, has spotted a weak point.

Take the jump to read more.

There is a decent gap directly in front of the center. Even better a prop forward and lock are on either side of it. Best of all, Ai’i has self-identified runners, David Tameilau outside and Nick Blevins inside, that he can use to attack the line. Once he has the ball in hand, Ai’i shows an inside pass and Hubert Buydens hesitates just for a moment to check Blevins. This is more than enough space for Ai’i, as he accelerates through the gap. Blevins continues his run and shows up to take a pass off the linebreak. The only critique here is that Ai’i could have held a little longer to draw Tom Bliss.
San Francisco has penetrated San Diego’s defense and has a good opportunity to do even more damage—if they recycle the ball cleanly and quickly.

As we can see here Blevins loses his feet before making contact with a defender. His supporting players need to scramble to secure the ball. Unfortunately Pila Iongi runs behind Blevins but offers no support in the ruck, negating Tameilau’s work to clean out a defender. Michael Reid’s attempt to move the exposed ball away is disrupted by Mikey Te’o’s defense. The ball eventually ends up in a static forward’s hands, who promptly takes a tackle.

Michael Reid gets solid protection from his forwards off this ruck, perhaps too many in fact. But due to the slowness and sloppiness of the previous phase, San Diego has been able to reset its defense on the far side. San Francisco still has runners, however, and can still do some damage. Ai’i passes to Sam Finau standing in the midfield. Finau sees that San Francisco has an overlap and throws a cut out pass to Rouse to press the advantage. This pass doesn’t have enough speed, as a San Diego defender reads the play and forces Rouse to mishandle the catch-pass. A better option would have been for Finau or an outside runner to take the ball forward. San Francisco still would have had the men to resource the ruck and still attack the mismatch on the far side. Pushing the ball wide was an ambitious but risky move requiring execution of a difficult pass. Instead a promising bit of possession after a line break is lost.

Several minutes later, after an inspired but improvised Tom Bliss try, San Francisco gets lineout possession on San Diego’s 22. Coach Paul Keeler and San Francisco having been working on their lineout plays, turning a source of steady possession in these early games into an attacking weapon.

San Francisco opts to throw to the back and receives no serious aerial challenge from San Diego. After bringing the ball down cleanly San Francisco begins to set a maul.

Notice the space between the last San Diego lineout defender and standoff Kurt Morath. Not only is Morath ten meters back, there is plenty of unoccupied space behind the forwards. Cecil Garber is acting as scrumhalf, but has stepped up to defend the maul. Also, notice the deep angles David Tameilau and Patrick Latu are taking, ostensibly to join the maul.

A quick pop from the lineout jumper to Latu draws Cecil Garber in, which leaves plenty of space for a hard-charging Tameilau. The eightman bends his run back away from Morath and towards the unoccupied space. He is eventually stopped just short of the try line. Several phases later, Michael Reid will dive over for San Francisco’s first score. San Francisco’s pack turned a good lineout position into great field position and excellent attacking ball.

The benefit of having two players capable of playing first receiver is clearly demonstrated by Denver’s use of Will Magie and Ata Malifa; both in their game against San Francisco and San Diego. Besides having right and left boots, having two distributors allows a team to play fast. A promising passage that ends with a flyhalf in a pile does not have to lie stagnant. This match, San Francisco opted to use Rouse at 10 and Ai’i at 12. Let’s look at a San Francisco possession around the 33rd minute mark.

Rouse is standing off and makes a wide pass to an attacker, who in turn, hits a strike runner. The runner steps back and finds a soft crease to break the mainline.

Rouse has followed his pass and is prepared to play dummy half at the next ruck. Instead he receives and off load in contact. He darts back inside and takes an outside defender with him. Note his strong placement, which allows his support to serve the next phase on a platter to Blevins.

Even though Rouse is on the deck, Ai’i is standing at out-half organizing the next phase. He hears an inside runner in support and spots an eager defender outrunning his inside help. David Tameilau takes an easy pass and plows forward for ten meters. San Diego is pinged for not rolling away and San Francisco elects to kick for the corner.

This time, San Francisco attacks the front of the lineout channel. Again, San Diego does not contest the throw—preparing to stop the drive instead. Tameilau is coming around, again ostensibly to rip the ball and form a driving maul. Jacob Finau is stepping back to support.

As the ball comes down, the jumper holds out the ball for Tameilau. The big man widens his line and takes a handoff. Hooker Tim Barford is caught completely by surprise and can only reach out his hand in a tackle attempt. San Francisco has attacked both the back and front of the lineout channel to excellent effect.

Communication Breakdown

San Diego has a talented, international backline. They have power in Roland Suniula and Ryan Matyas, speed in Zee Ngwenya and elusiveness in Mikey Te’o. If San Francisco had any hope of defending these men, they needed to communicate their defensive roles effectively. Without trust in your inside man and knowledge of who is who’s man, teams will get shredded. As we’ll see, this is difficult. Here, San Diego has a scrum in San Francisco’s half on their own right hand side.

Kurt Morath takes the ball and starts to drag across. In front of him are, Rouse, Ai’i, and Blevins, with Reid covering. Suniula begins to drift outside, while Matyas starts to bend his line back inside. This is a familiar play for many backs, but one that requires careful execution. Morath does well to attack Ai’i’s inside shoulder.

As we see here, Morath’s drift has caused Rouse to over-pursue. There is no need for him to push Ai’i off onto the next man, because no overlap exists. Morath spots this overpursuit and pulls the back to the switch-running Matyas.

Matyas is running at Rouse’s soft, inside shoulder. This is a difficult tackle to make, even more so on a runner like Matyas. Fortunately Rouse has an inside man, Reid, who should be pushing across to make the tackle. Unfortunately, Reid has softened his run and has little chance to deliver a flesh hit on the center.

Reid’s arm tackle allows Matyas to pass out-of-contact to Roland Suniula who makes a fantastic pass to finisher Mikey Te’o. San Francisco’s initial overpursuit was compounded by a soft inside defense. Dangerous backlines like San Diego, given good first-phase ball, will carve up these kinds of efforts.
In addition to breakdowns in defensive communication, San Francisco failed to recognize and communicate the availability of space to each other at times. For example, San Francisco has a scrum midfield in the 47th minute.

Volney Rouse takes a pass and steps back inside to get just past the gainline. After the tackle Rouse pops the ball to an oncoming Reid. Rouse has support to resource a ruck, so the pop pass isn’t a necessity, but rather a decision to play fast. Unfortunately, there isn’t much on offer on the right side.

There are two attackers and four defenders. A run into an overload isn’t on here. Perhaps a kick, but there is little support or chase, and even moreso, communication to make this happen. Rouse’s quick pass surprises Reid who passes quickly to Ai’i. San Francisco is moving quickly to get nowhere in particular. In this attempt to play fast, they have put themselves in a worse position. One of the three halfbacks should have seen this (Reid and Ai’i have the best view) and slowed this phase down. Instead the ball goes to Ai’I who does his best but is isolated and turned over for a San Diego try.

San Francisco can be an exciting team and are starting to click in places. But they need to pump the brakes at times and ensure that their decision is the correct one.

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