Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Analyzing The Eagles-Maori All Blacks Match

Photo: Connie Hatfield
By Derek Sagehorn

Expectations and reality diverge frequently. The conventional wisdom heading into Friday’s Eagles and New Zealand Maori All Blacks match was that the visitors would dispatch the hosts handily. Duly, the Maoris beat the Eagles 54-7. Few would have expected, however, that one of the best sides in the Southern Hemisphere to do so through tactical kicking and the driving maul.

The Maori All Blacks, drawing their ranks from Super Rugby and ITM Cup, would be fairly expected to run frequently from deep in their own half. In the first quarter Friday Damian McKenzie and Ihaia West pinned the Americans back in their own half with superb kick and chase. Their opposites Mikey Te’o and Will Holder were frequently out of position covering kicks. Although each Eagle had moments of brilliance, the speed of Maori All Blacks play pressured the pair into several instances of poor decision-making and skill execution.

Poor kicking from hand by the Eagles giftwrapped the Maori All Blacks great possession and field position. Rather than spread the ball wide, the Maori All Blacks succeeded in scoring tries from the lineout and driving maul.

Take the jump to read more.

Playing with Ball in Hand

Based on the summer tests and USA Selects Americas Pacific Challenge campaign, coach John Mitchell has been emphasizing the importance of attacking structures. As discussed before, the Eagles have previously been one dimensional in attack. We saw that in Uruguay, coaches Mitchell and Ray Egan have been teaching players to hold their width to create attacking opportunities. Over the weekend we saw the corollary: the importance of holding depth in attack.

Holding your depth in attack, be it first or second-receiver, allows players more time to add velocity to their run as well as time to process the defense in front of them. It is a hard work for attackers to continually back pedal to best-position themselves to add depth and speed to the attack; even moreso against a team like the Maori All Blacks.

In the early minutes of the game, the Americans demonstrated some of this attacking potential during a movement in Maori All Blacks 22. An American runner has gotten over the gainline. Notice below, the movement of Will Holder and other players to position themselves. This is the hard work off-the-ball to get depth and width.

Will Holder has communicated with the surrounding players, including Matai Leuta. The big wing has offered himself in attack. Rather than start early, he waits until Will Holder has ball in hand to start his run. His looping run behind the breakdown has obscured his availability as a ball-carrier from the defenders.

Notice the crease that has developed from Holder running forward and the presence of big runners in tight. Holder has spotted the crease and has heard that Leuta is available. He pulls the ball back and finds the wing in stride and space.

Holder demonstrates the importance of depth as the first-receiver as well several minutes later. After am Eagle forward rumbles forward, watch Holder switch field to the blind side to add pace to the strike. His depth and velocity allow him to burst through the line. Unfortunately he throws an ill-advised inside pass to his halfback. Completing such a pass would have put the Americans in a great, try-sniffing position but its completion is low-probability.

Kicking chess match

The Maori All Blacks are perfectly capable of organizing three men and countering kicks from deep in their own half. But they were happy to force the Eagles into conceding territory and possession through smart tactical kicking and kick-chase.

Here, the Americans have tried to cross the gainline to no avail. Holder decides to clear the lines with a touch-finder outside of his own 22. It’s a difficult kick and it is well-covered by Akira Ioane and Damian McKenzie. The fullback has numbers to his left but sees no deep coverage by the Americans. He puts a ball in the corner with a low, fast kick.

Holder and Te’o are caught out of position and must scramble back to cover. The ball stops a meter from the touch line and Holder is forced to kick from his right at a narrow angle—ensuring that he will be unable to find touch with much distance.

Notice also the black whirr of a jersey at the end. That is McKenzie chasing his own kick and forcing Holder to execute a suboptimal kick from hand. That kind of pressure forces the Americans to give the Maori All Blacks possession within their own half.

The Americans struggled to kick from hand much of the day. Here we have the Maori All Blacks clearing their own lines from deep within their own 22. Usually defenses expect this kind of kick and have three (or more) defenders covering the field in thirds. The Americans, perhaps out-of-position, perhaps expecting the Maori All Blacks to run from underneath their goalposts, only have Holder and Te’o covering the whole backfield. The clearance kick splits the two defenders and lands over their heads.

Te’o recovers the ball, looks left (where his natural right foot will have better distance) sees how far away the touch line is and re-orients himself to the right. Because there is a dedicated kick-chase, he is forced to rush his kick and the ball goes out on the full. Lineout to Maori All Blacks in the Eagles half.

All this discussion of kicking does not mean the Maori All Blacks did not exploit opportunities with ball-in-hand. Here, Damian McKenzie has slotted into the first receiver position.

He notices the large gap in front him—with Tony Lamborn in space and Titi Lamositele huddled close to the ruck. The Eagles notice this gap too, and forwards are shifting from the breakdown to cover the space.

But because of that initial gap, and perhaps miscommunication, Tony Lamborn has launched ahead of the rest of the defense. Chris Baumann has filled inside of Lamositele but has come up at a different speed. Backs will often look for tight-five players and exploit their relative lack of mobility in attack. Here we have two props next to each other in line, coming up at different speeds. And because of the large gap outside of him, Lamositele is more worried about covering the space vacated by Lamborn than protecting his inside. This is a fractured defensive line, right next to a breakdown. McKenzie backs himself.

He makes a trademark slick offload to Ash Dixon. The hooker goes down ten meters from the try line. But Will Holder has sensed an opportunity for a steal.

This is a great play by Holder to save a try. Unfortunately, the Eagles have no plan for what happens next. Their flyhalf is on the ground. The forwards are aligning themselves on the offsides line preparing for a clearance kick but no one is in the pocket to drive the ball. Nate Augspurger decides to go forward and snipes off the base.

This would have been good time for a few more pick-and-jams by the forwards—with both halfbacks on the floor. Instead someone plays dummyhalf, waiting for Will Holder to get himself off the floor. The flyhalf takes a nominal two steps back (not nearly enough space) and tries to clear the line amidst pressure from the Maori All Blacks. Predictably, he misses touch.

Gifted another opportunity to attack in the Americans half, Maori All Blacks take no time to break the stressed and disorganized American defense again. They score in the corner with quick ball movement as Damian McKenzie, the man that started it all, lifts a pass over the heads of Eagles defenders.

Lineout defense

The Maori All Blacks also used their lineout in an unexpected but efficient manner. At a lineout near the American 22, the Maori All Blacks have spotted a weakness in the Eagles front. Notice below that scrumhalf Augspurger is lined up in the 5 meter channel, traditionally where the hooker defends. James Hilterbrand is lifting in the lineout and Tony Lamborn is in the halfback spot. This is a common defensive arrangement that allows flankers an opportunity to provide cut-back cover from lineout moves.

The Maori All Blacks see this and relish the opportunity to put number 8 Akira Ioane one-on-one with Augspurger. The visitors throw to the middle and set-up for a driving maul.

Notice how the Maori All Blacks lock folds in on Danny Barrett at the front. He has reached out, bound to Barrett’s shoulder and turned him. This gives Ioane a corner as he comes around the back of the lineout, similar to a counter in gridiron.

Once he has the corner Ioane simply needs to square up and draw Augspurger. The scrumhalf, realizing the true facts, uncovers for a half-second as Ioane dummies. Not much will stop the number 8 on the way to the Maori All Blacks’ second score.

This early play influenced how the Eagles played the maul for the rest of the game, as they were loath to commit numbers early. At the end of the first half, James Hilterbrand commits a professional foul to stop the Maori All Blacks on the try line and is promptly binned. The visitors elect for the corner. This time Ash Dixon throws to the back.

As the jumper comes down, the Eagles commit some but not all of their forwards to stopping the drive. Barrett and Augspurger, aware of the possibility of Ioane coming back against the grain, hold their width. Lamborn does the same on the far side. The Maori All Blacks receive initial resistance but recollect and drive again.

Now there is momentum. Barrett senses this and joins in to stop the drive. The Maori All Blacks sense pressure on the left and roll to the open-side. Lamborn continues to hold his width. The visitors are happy to push through and dot down for yet another lineout try.

Although the score line does not reflect it, the Maori All Blacks certainly respected the Eagles as opponents. They identified weaknesses in kicking and coverage from the American backs as well as tentativeness in lineout defense. In turn the Maori created a game plan to exploit these weaknesses, rather than just show up and play a stereotypical wide game. It is up to the Eagles to build on this performance and sharpen those skills against Romania and Tonga.

1 comment:

  1. Also noted a bit of selfishness or lack of vision from Clever when he had Barrett on the edge for a high probability try. Or is this lack of communication?