Thursday, October 27, 2016

Analysis Of The Selects At The APC

Luciano Rosano
By Derek Sagehorn

The USA Selects finished the Americas Pacific Challenge in Montevideo over two weeks ago with a 1-2 record. The young group of players, most uncapped by the senior side, struggled in defense and scrums through all three games. But glimpses of attacking prowess revealed encouraging development from the Americans with ball-in-hand. Of particular interest in Uruguay was the success of new attacking structures.

Same Way

Many American youth, college and club sides practice an attacking pattern best described as “same way.” This involves teams continuing to attack the same direction in phases from the set-piece until they encounter the touch line. At that point, teams will reverse direction and attack back across the field. Oftentimes, teams will organize the forwards into a literal “pack” that huddles together and goes from ruck to ruck across the field. The aim under this attacking pattern is to overwhelm the far-side of the defensive line by repeated stress. As ball-carriers go forward, the defenders must run backwards around the breakdown to fill in the far-side of the defensive line. If ball-carriers can break the gainline on several consecutive phases holes or overloads will start to appear in the defensive structure. At this point backs will try to break the weary line with a variety of attacking moves.

Take the jump to read more.

As you can see from the above clip the United States has attacked the midfield. As the breakdown is cleared, the Eagles forward pack are all running around the ruck preparing to take a short ball from Mike Petri. The American ball carrier goes forward and recycles for another carry, the same way, by Todd Clever.

The “same way” attack works well for two reasons, first because it is relatively simple for coaches to install.  Representative coaches get little time per year to work with players in assembly, especially in a country as big as the United States. The simplicity of “same way” allows coaches to install a familiar attacking pattern without requiring a steep learning curve in a time-constrained schedule.
Second, “same way” doesn’t ask forwards to do too much. The old canard about rugby union forwards being uncoordinated mullockers has less truth in the professional era. But executing 3 v 2’s is still not a top three task in a lock or tighthead prop job description. “Same way” works best with big, dynamic ball carriers. Wales practices “same way” and gets good results because they have players like Alun-Wyn Jones and Toby Faletau breaking tackles.

But against better organized and fitter defense, “same way” can often be one-dimensional even for a side like Wales. If forwards cannot get go-forward off one pass from the ruck there is little recourse.  The attack flags and valuable possession goes stagnant.  This is especially true of the United States attack in the final quarter of Rugby World Cup 2015 matches. Moreover, the reliance on a pack moving in tandem across the field exposes a “same way” side to counter-attack if the ball is turned over. Let’s look again at that Eagles pack at Scotland.

If Scotland turns over this ball, Scotland has 35 meters of undefended space to attack. The vulnerability of the pack mentality to transition is another downside to the pattern.


The good news is that the Selects are showing new systems that may be a preview for a new Eagles attacking pattern. One of these is a 2-4-2 split, and its use in Connacht’s Guinness Pro 12 championship run has been covered in fine detail by Murray Kinsella. The 2-4-2 split is a hallmark of New Zealand, especially Canterbury, rugby. Kiwi Pat Lam brought the split to the Western Irish province last year. Eagle flyhalf AJ MacGinty excelled in its practice before moving on to Sale Sharks. As a system, the split requires highly skilled forwards and backs to maintain width to create space inside and out.

In this system, forwards maintain channels rather than chasing the ball across the field. In practice, a pair of loose forwards occupy the area between touch line and 15 meter mark, another loosie and hooker the opposite area and the rest of the tight five in the middle between the 15s. As attacking ball moves between these channels, it becomes the job of the assigned forwards to resource the breakdown and support the playmakers. In most cases a playmaker will be a halfback or center. These playmakers have the option of lining up with or behind the forwards in each channel; depending on the space available and intention of the attack.

With the Big Guys

Playmakers can line up with the forwards in each channel and the available backs. In these cases, the playmaker will take the ball flatter towards the line. They can choose to dish inside to a supporting forward or distribute a short ball to an oncoming runner or lift a ball over the top to a player on the edge.

A good example of this comes from the Selects match against Canada. Here, the Selects have a breakdown near the center of the field. Ben Cima has slotted in with the loose forwards and wing. A tight five forward is inside.

Due to the presence of the inside forward, the Canadians expect an inside ball to the front rower inside of Cima and tighten their spacing.

Spotting the narrow defense, Cima lifts a cut out pass to Cecil Garber. The loose forward has patiently held his width and depth, which allows him to catch the ball with space and pace.

Behind the Big Guys

Playmakers can also align themselves behind the forwards in the respective channels. This typically occurs on the open-side of the field. The available forward in the channel will typically align as to take a crash ball off the ruck. The crash ball is certainly an option as well.

But the first receiver can also elect to distribute to a teammate running inside or outside from depth. Check out a Connacht forward charge forward while his teammate runs an unders line.

This aspect of the 2-4-2 requires tight five forwards to be comfortable with the catch-pass in the face of an oncoming defensive line. Those skills are tougher to find within the front-row, but Joe Taufete’e did an admirable job in the first receiver roll for the Selects in large part due to his ability to link with playmakers.

Due to the threat of a crashball from the first-receiver or an oncoming forward, defenses will begin to taper their drift and front up on these forwards. When this happens, first-receivers must link with playmakers to exploit the space out wide. Joe Taufete’e does well to pull his pass back here to find an oncoming runner in Bryce Campbell.

The playmaker must come from deep to exploit the space created by a slowed defensive line. If they do, many opportunities await.

Holding Width

There is a natural tendency for players to ball watch, in attack or defense, and inch towards the locus of the rugby football. In the 2-4-2, it is essential that the loose forwards on the opposite side of the action hold their width. This ensures that attacking options are available for playmakers coming from deep and that defensive lines are stretched. First we see Joe Taufete’e once again acting as first-receiver. The captain receives the ball but identifies the space out wide and pulls the ball back.

If we freeze the frame we can see that hooker has drawn in the first three defenders but not those outside of him. This has created a dog leg in the defensive line that the Selects can exploit.

Once Taufete’e has pulled the ball back, it’s on. There is no inside help for the defenders so they cannot go into a full drift. The Selects simply draw and pass to execute the overload. Below, you can see Malon Al Jiboori reap the rewards of holding his width.

If loose forwards hold their width in attack within the 2-4-2, other opportunities present themselves. Below, after taking a tight five crash in midfield, Ben Cima has options. The defensive line has stretched to cover the loose forwards on the end. This presents space in the middle: Cima takes a soft outside gap and offloads to Martin Iosefo inside. The mere presence of Jiboori and his loose partner outside created the space for the movement.

Likewise, the width can force defenses to expose other parts of the field. Here, the Selects have a ruck in the center field just beyond the five meter mark. Because Pat Blair and Cecil Garber have held their width in the far channel, the defensive wing has stepped up to cover them. This leaves the defense exposed to a soft grubber to the corner, which Cima identifies and executes for the Ahmad Harajly score.

Another upside of the 2-4-2 is that it has less downside risk in the case of a turnover. Because resources are spread across the field, not in a tight pack, they are well-positioned to create a defensive line. Obviously based on the results of the tournament, it is clear that the Selects are not completely comfortable with the pattern. Rather than reset after a line break, at times players opted to throw low-percentage offloads. The technical skills of forwards to link through passing also failed at times. But when the Selects stuck to their pattern scoring opportunities were created and often converted.

According to Selects coach Ray Egan, Eagles coach John Mitchell worked with the team in Miami prior to the tournament. Working together, the coaches installed these new patterns in the hopes that experience with them will allow a smoother transition to the senior side. Per Egan, for many domestic players, these patterns were entirely new. It certainly showed at times during the tournament but the experience will prove invaluable to young players. Hopefully, the practice of using more skill-based patterns like 2-4-2 will percolate to the wider high performance pool and representative sides like High School All-Americans, USA u20s and Collegiate All-Americans.

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