Video: Comparing Wallaby Backline Structures Over Time - Green and Gold Rugby

Video: Comparing Wallaby Backline Structures Over Time

Video: Comparing Wallaby Backline Structures Over Time

Last year I gave you the History of the Wallaby Backline video series.  That project actually started out as an exercise to try and compare the structures of Wallaby backlines over time but that idea got overwhelmed by editing more than 100 hours of footage to a workable viewing length.

Now I’ve found the time to return to the original idea.  Comparing the great Wallaby backlines of the past to that of today is obviously difficult.  There are so many differences in how the game is played, with the biggest changes coming with the advent of professional rugby in 1996. 

The first impact of professional rugby was an increase in the skill level as players had more time to devote to the basics of the game and coaches had more time with the players.  That increase in skills in areas such as passing allowed wider, more expansive backline plays to be considered.

The second impact was the vast improvement in defence, largely influenced by the hiring of rugby league defence coaches who brought with them new ideas on structures and improvements in technique.  Again this was only possible as the coaches and players had more time to work on skills.  With backlines facing much better defences, new ways of breaking through the defensive line had to be developed.

I’m all for keeping things simple and often the simplest attacking play, executed really well, is just as effective as a complicated play.  However, as special as it was to watch the likes of Mark Ella running amuck using a simple loop play in the 1980’s, would those types of play work as well today against modern defences? Maybe they would and certainly many of today’s best attacking plays are just extensions of what used to work so well in that era but there’s the dilemma – how can we ever really compare one era to another?

The other issue which makes it difficult to compare eras are changes to the laws of the game. 

The first to consider is the current law regarding how far back players have to stand at scrum time.  Today both the defence and attack have to be back 5 metres from the last feet of the scrum, which opens up some room in which to attack, whereas that restriction wasn’t in place in earlier eras which allowed the defence to start at the last feet of their scrum, significantly reducing the space and time available for the attack.

The second is lifting in the lineout which provides the opportunity to secure clean ball for the halfback and give the backline more room to operate in.  When lifting wasn’t allowed the delivery to the halfback was often scrappy and while the halfback was scrambling around for the ball, the defence was moving forward further reducing the time and space available to attack in.

Following is a short video that shows some clips from three periods in Australian rugby based on who the flyhalf was so we can compare the typical way the backlines attacked. The first is the Mark Ella / Michael Lynagh era.  The second is the Stephen Larkham era and finally Quade Cooper in 2010 even though it’s a little too early to be calling Quade’s involvement an “era”.


Watching those clips it’s noticeable how much further Larkham and Cooper stand away from the halfback in comparison to Ella and Lynagh.  The improved passing skills of halfbacks since the inception of professional rugby would have had some impact on this as will the fact that in the Ella / Lynagh era leather balls were in use, which were much harder to pass and catch.  When Wally Lewis (who was an Australian schoolboy rugby player) used to throw his long spiral passes with the leather ball we were amazed, whereas today those long looping passes look positively slow.

The increased width the flyhalf has today opens up a range of possibilities for backline attack that don’t exist without that width.

The width factor doesn’t just apply to the flyhalf with the centres and the open side winger in the Ella / Lynagh era also starting in a very compressed line so that the passes are short and quick.  Whilst I’ve only included a small number of clips, my recollection from the Ella / Lynagh era is that with a compressed attacking line the defence compressed as well and the majority of the attack was designed to take advantage of the space that was then available outside the #13 channel.  Once David Campese came into the team that would have been even more relevant as he was a player you wanted to get the ball to in wide one on one situations as much as possible.

It’s noticeable that there were far fewer spiral passes than there were with the Larkham and Cooper backlines.  Again the type of ball being used would have played a part in that.

By contrast to the earlier eras the backline players with Larkham and Cooper at flyhalf start attacking phases positioned much wider, partly because they both have such good long passes that can move the ball wide quickly.  The wider structures today mean that the defence also spreads.  As a result there is usually less space outside the #13 channel.  The other feature of modern defences is that a lot of teams use drift defence patterns to force attackers towards the sideline and effectively take away their space to operate in.  Accordingly whilst a lot of backline attacks today start with a wide structure a common feature is the use of runners in motion running different angles with the aim of stopping defenders drifting and opening up space in between defenders.  There are of course plenty of exceptions to that structure but I would say that in general today’s attack structures are much wider than in the Ella / Lynagh era.

Another point from those clips is that Ella and Lynagh’s first reaction most of the time was to catch and pass immediately, then loop in behind in support.  Ella once said that “If I touch the ball once anything can happen; if I touch the ball twice my team will probably score and if I touch the ball three times I’ll probably score”.  Regardless of backline structures used today those words are still extremely relevant and any young inside backs should take note and work hard on that aspect of their game.  There also seemed to be a lot of plays that involved a loop to receive the ball back which worked brilliantly on many occasions.  It’s pleasing to see loops being used  a little more in modern back play.

You’ll also notice how flat the backline was compared to modern day backlines. The narrow, flat structure with quick short passing was associated by most people with Randwick.  In the 15 year period from 1978 to 1992 Randwick won 11 Sydney club premierships.  They were coached by Bob Dwyer to six premierships and produced backline players such as the Ella brothers and David Campese. They were clearly the dominant club side in Australia at the time so it was natural that their style of play would have a major influence on how the Wallabies played.

Of course many of the same principles in backline attack that applied in the Ella / Lynagh era still apply today and are still used but the structures in the game have changed.

It will be interesting to see how the current young Wallaby backline continues to develop and whether Quade Cooper ends up having his own era (provided of course he stays in rugby).

  • GLRooster

    Interesting watching – certainly a lot more compressed in the old days.

    I was watching an old test between Aus and SA on Fox a little while ago – must have been in the early 80s because there were a whole bunch of apartheid protesters in the stadium. It was fascinating to watch how the different the game was then – very compressed in the backline and lots of little passes trying to get the one man on the outside. They seemed reluctant to get tackled and then into a ruck situation – perhaps the prevalence of rucking in those days made it an unwise hobby to be in a ruck – especially for those tiny little backs?

    I remember reading Michael O’Connor lament the use of the spiral pass – he still believes that “old-fashioned short chain passing gives the attacking side more options.”

    “I’ve proven this time and again in coaching drills that simple soft passing, moving the ball crisply through the hands, is faster than using spirals where you have to catch the ball, assuming you do catch it, because a spiral is more difficult to catch, bring it into your body and reposition your hands in the correct place to throw another spiral.”

    Here’s a link to the article if anyone is interested in reading.

  • Scarfman

    I’m drooling over those passes of Bernie’s.

    • Mart

      Go to 3min 43secs

      Now thats a Bernie pass to drool over!

      • Robson

        indeed it is; plus all the other remarkable phases of play being exhibited. Reminded me yet again why I have supported Australian rugby all these years.

        • suckerforred

          Cause being a kiwi it is in you DNA to support the All Blacks. Welcome to the good side.

      • GLRooster

        What a player.

        I loved the way he used to just ghost through holes in the defence that wouldn’t have existed for lesser men.

  • Joe Mac

    Thanks Scotty, good read.

    What is also evident is the increased range of first receiver options in todays era making the attack a lot harder to neutralise.

  • Nipper

    Jeez, Austin – you’ve been busy! Once again, great work!

    I love watching some of the clips of Bernie Larkham taking a flat pass from Gregan to the line with runners running off him, and him putting them into holes. Then the next move, he could put a 20yd pass right on the money to Mortlock. Genius to watch (although it always looked like he was just about to be broken to pieces!).

    I find it hard to compare the old Ella-era games/players/skills, as the game and skills are SO different. But even comparing the Larkham era to the Quade era, I was surprised to see Larkham’s (and his teammates) passes look slow and loopy, compared to the current players’.

    What a difference even a few years makes!

    • ozabroad

      Different kind of backline

  • Rob

    Great article and well analysed. I was helping a school in my home town a few years ago that was coached by an old Saffer and without knowing what he’d told the backs, I made a comment to one of the midfielders (whom I’d coached at club) that they were too narrow and a bit deep, pointing out that one drifting defender could cover 10-12-13. As they adjusted the old Saffer told them to go back to the way he’d told them and not wanting to step on his toes, I kept my mouth shut. A short time later, I’d dug up an old Bledisloe from the 80s and realised where his thinking came from! (I didn’t start playing until the late 90s, I should add.) I imagine it could still have a place if the handling was very quick and you had a Campese like player on the wing, but it’s all very uni-directional and a well-coordinated drift would either push them out of bounds or catch someone coming back against the grain.

    The way it’s played now may have eliminated that space around the corner on the open side, but it’s definitely opened space between defenders and allows for all sorts of changes in angle.

    I can see O’Connor’s point about the spin pass, but you can’t deny Bernie’s / Quade’s ability to use it to great affect. I get annoyed when my players elect to spin a ball that would have been better off ‘pushed’ – not only easier to catch, but I find that a ball spun over a short distance often is slower.

    • Nipper

      Agree totally on the mis-use of the spin pass. Drives me nuts when my players use a spin pass to a runner coming at full pace less than 2m away. Not exactly sympathetic! Need the right pass for the right situation.

  • Steve

    great idea for an article, but don’t like how it ignores the completely different offside rules around scrums (5m back as opposed to last man’s feet) which makes a difference of 10m (5m each side) and completely alters the amount of pressure on the first-five.

    It’s this rule change, rather than different playing styles, that most explains the difference is tactics. More pressure means shorter passes (with the option of wrapping). It’s that simple.

    I would really like to see a similar analysis but comparing 4 attacking first-fives all from the modern era (say Johnny Wilkinson, Cooper, Carter, O’Gara).

    • GLRooster

      Perhaps you didn’t read the article? It didn’t ignore the different offside rules – in fact you will find the 6th and 7th paras say:

      “The other issue which makes it difficult to compare eras are changes to the laws of the game.

      The first to consider is the current law regarding how far back players have to stand at scrum time. Today both the defence and attack have to be back 5 metres from the last feet of the scrum, which opens up some room in which to attack, whereas that restriction wasn’t in place in earlier eras which allowed the defence to start at the last feet of their scrum, significantly reducing the space and time available for the attack.”

      • Steve

        I’ll be honest – I didn’t read the article, just watched the video. Still think it would have made more sense to compare like with like.

        Lineouts – good comparison as they haven’t changed
        Rucks – good comparison as the off-side line hasn’t changed
        Scrums – bad comparison.

        Also, should take field position into consideration. Longditude and latitude as it affects what decisions 10’s make.

        Having made these comments, complete respect for the author for compiling the footage and analysis. Loving the brainy analysis – so much better than Kaf’s Crayons/stencils/chalkboard.

        Keep it up.

  • Pedro

    I think you can’t underestimate the change in the balls since the professional era. Chucking long passes with those old leather balls after they’d soaked up a puddle or two would be nearly impossible. Plus the balance wouldn’t have been as perfect thereby making a perfect spiral a more difficult option.

    I also think that if back lines employed those narrow, through the hands style of play today the defense would rush up and players would get tackled during the pass, or briefly after not allow them to loop. Maybe in the olden days players were more afraid of getting called for early/late tackles because now days there is much more commitment from the defense in those situations. Of course course staying narrow also allows for much easier obstructional play by the defense which is everywhere in the modern game.

  • yourmatesam

    Great video Scotty, really top stuff mate!

  • Skippy

    Great article. I think you’ll also find however that Ella and co played closer to the scrum half with the intention of drawing the opposition back rowers onto them thus assisting with creating space outside. By drawing the backrowers onto him and keeping the 10/12 ‘honest’ the drift defence (which wasn’t developed to the level it is in todays game) could be overcome and by using quick hands, by the time Campese would get the ball on the outside space had been created. The poorer standard of tackling often allowed backs to stand in tackles (the standard of defence/tackling skill level was not as high as today) and get passes away to support players ‘looping’ around. More often than not the speed of Ella and co in ‘looping’ was quicker than the defence could close down the space.

  • the absolute reason for the change in distance between passer and recipient is the ball.

    Old leather ball; depending on the conditions, could weigh twice as much as a conventional plastic ball. Also modern balls have small ‘grip nipples’ (easy tiger) which afford much better purchase on a spiral pass that a polished leather ball. interestingly though, the spiral kick (torpedo) has all but disappeared with the modern ball…I’ve tried many a time and whilst I could get great distance ‘once upon a time’ at Norths (Syd), I just can’t get the ball to spin like a leather ball…anywho…punchline is that a polished, heavy leather ball = tricky and heavy !

    • Skippy

      No mate it’s not the absolute reason at all. The improved ball of the modern game is irrelevant to how Ella played the game.

      This is from –

      The flat attack

      Playing at five-eighth, Mark Ella was a proficient exponent of a style of attack often referred to as ‘the flat attack’ – a close-quarters game built on constant support. The style is applied in one specific area of play – open-side attack by the backline with the ball in hand. There are several obvious characteristics of this style. Firstly, rather than standing deep, the attacking backs stand flat. The philosophy being that an attacking team cannot put the opposing defence under pressure until it comes under pressure itself. (Dwyer, 1992, p. 24) In the case of an attacking side making a break the opposition cover defence will possibly be deprived of the necessary time to make the defending tackle. Because support play is crucial when utilising the flat alignment, standing flat had its advantages…

      Mark Ella explained these advantages in the book Running Rugby: “When receiving the ball you must be almost abreast of the player passing to you. If you take the ball a few metres behind him, he is automatically out of the game until you move ahead of him. This means several moments are lost before he can run in support, which is a delay no team can afford.” (Ella, 1995, p. 17) Because rugby laws require that players pass the ball backwards, standing flat makes it easier for the ball carrier to run ahead of his support, thus bringing them back into the game….

      Because proponents of the flat alignment are expected to execute their moves near the gain line, where they subject themselves to the sudden pressure of the opposition engaging them, it is also vital that players stand close together, so they do not become separated or isolated from each other. Standing close also increases the opportunity for support, which is vital when players commit themselves to be tackled. In regular circumstances, standing flat often allows the opposition a quick opportunity for an intercept. Standing close together ensures the ball can be moved along quickly as the opposition line rushes towards you, making it less likely for the opposition to intercept the ball. This requires safe handling skills and refined passing ability as it drastically increases the speed at which the game is played. Players are expected to employ “sympathetic passing”, which means passing the ball in a manner that makes it most likely for the player to catch the ball…

      “A five-eighth’s primary function is to draw defence and so open up space for the runners outside him” (Dwyer, p. 55). This conveys how Ella approached playing the five-eighth position…trapping in defenders and unleashing team-mates into space, before running in support of the ball carrier…

      Gareth Edwards writes in 100 Great Rugby Players, “Firstly, he stands closer to his scrum-half than most other stand-off halves I have played with or against, so that he pulls back row forwards on him at an angle which makes it hard for them to change direction, once he has released possession, to harass the midfield” (Edwards, 1987, p. 55). Ella describes the distance from which he stood from the scrum-half in his book Running Rugby, “Generally, I stood about 5 metres from the halfback and about 4 metres behind him. According to the old formula for the right-angled triangle, this means I was no more than 3 metres wide of him” (Ella, 1995, p. 86)….

      Relatively straight running was a distinguishable trait associated with Ella’s game. This was intended to draw defenders towards him at a certain angle and help unleash his team mates into gaps. Ella wrote: “By standing close, the five-eighth ensures that he draws the open-side flanker. Any five-eighth standing close will look like a sitting duck to the flanker, who is therefore keyed up to flatten him. This is just what the five-eighth wants. Provided he runs fairly straight, the flanker will not be able to resist coming at him, and at the appropriate moment, having drawn the flanker, the five-eighth unloads to the inside-centre. The moment this happens the flanker is out of the game, for he now has to turn around and chase. On the other hand, if the five-eighth stands wide or if he does not run fairly straight, the flanker can approach him at an angle. If the five-eighth then unloads, the flanker can continue on the same angle and nail the inside centre.” (Ella, 1995, p. 86)….

      Standing flat demands exceptional ball handling skills, which were a hallmark of Ella’s game. Ella’s dependable hands were lauded by former Scottish rugby international Norman Mair in the Scotsman: ‘Ella has hands so adhesive that when he fumbled a ball against Scotland (in 1984) you would not have been surprised to see those Australians of the appropriate religious persuasion cross themselves’ (Ella & Smith, 1987, p. 54). Concerning the manner in which Ella regularly received the ball from his scrum-half; Ella gave no quarter to the speed at which the ball was delivered to him, regardless of how close he stood, trusting in his ability to safely hold the ball. Ella writes: “Once you have positioned yourself, the next thing is to demand a fast pass from the halfback. The quicker the ball reaches you the better, for every fraction of a second is important to the five-eighth, given that the opposition can be on top of him in less than two seconds. I used to insist on having the ball passed to me like a rocket (Ella, 1995, p. 91).”…

      Ella possessed a distinguishing trait of instantaneously igniting a backline movement. His vision and ability to ‘read the play’ is evidenced by his much-vaunted passing game. Gareth Edwards notes, “He wastes no strides holding the ball he does not want to use, and flips it instantly on its way towards the wide open space down the touchline where danger-men like David Campese prowl” (Edwards, 1987, p. 55). Continuing his appraisal of Ella in The Scotsman, Mair once wrote: “In his deft handling, the ball is often on in a fraction of a second” (Ella & Smith, 1987, p. 54). This, however, does not entail Ella passing the ball as fast as possible. The execution of Ella’s backline ploys were expertly controlled by the timing and speed of his passes. Ella writes: “Quick passes are often a sign that the five-eighth is not reading the play. He (the five-eighth) is throwing a quick pass automatically, believing this is what he ought to be doing, without making an assessment of the play and of the opportunities that might exist at that moment…

      By doing so, he is handing the initiative back to the opposition.” (Ella, 1995, p. 92) By engaging the defence so quickly and suddenly executing a backline movement, Ella was able to place the opposition defences under immediate pressure….

  • When I refer to the modern ball materials as a reason for change, I wasn’t referring to the ‘Ella flat alignment’ theory but the distance and ‘spirality’ of passes.

    The flat alignment theory is quite a separate thing and indeed the way everyone played at the time. It was awesome to watch when it worked. The proximity of the players did reduce dropped balls though (re: heavy, slippery leather) and you may recall (depending on how old you are) that all backs used to coat their hands in boot polish and other substances to grip the ball…no longer necessary! The lighter ball doesn’t travel as straight through the air as the older one. Neither do their ‘dive ball’ modern counterparts which meander through their course in soccer matches…by the by.

    We still have ‘off the hip’ slip passes; remniscent in part of The Ellas’ style but lack the fluidity of their execution and the multiple participants.

  • Skippy

    Of course it goes without saying that the modern ball enables the player to throw it further etc but if the modern ball was available to Ella and co in the 80’s they still would have played the same way they did. Farr jones may have been able to pass the modern ball like genus does now if he had it in the 80s and Ella pass like cooper but Ella would still stand close to Farr jones because the ability to throw the ball far, or not as it was in the 80s is irrelevant because they played in a manner that would still be highly effected today (slight variations). The modern ball had improved width and handling but brought with it a generation of players who ‘lost’ the lessons Ella etc showed about how to play rugby. Cooper and co could do a lot worse than take those lessons on board and tinker with them. Cooper himself often throws a long ball when simple hands were all that was required. Th modern ball changed the way the game was played… It is arguable if it was for the better. On one hand passing width and kicking distance improved. Less wet weather handling errors and more expansive rugby developed. As a negative the core skills of catch draw and pass were lost to the thrills and spectacle of throwing a cut out pass. The Cyril towers/Dwyer/Ella tactics and simplicity of basics were lost or downplayed as structures and patterns of play dominated the game, as defences improved and as mistake minimisation became the name of the game. But funnily enough the moments of brilliance we see today in games, mire often than not conjure up de ja vu because they often come when a player does something out of the Ella playbook like backing up, second touch, looping around, playing flat and drawing defenders onto themselves etc etc

  • Totally agree…I wish they executed the complex moves in a flat, fast and close style. It would bamboozle the opposition for a while.

    On a quite separate note, I also wish the ‘in and away’ employed during the same era, by fullbacks, was re-introduced. I think Wendell and the league-ies started the ‘jink’ which loses all the momentum and speed of someone who receives the ball with a good 20m from the opposition, to build up top pace.

    All thoughts welcome.


Scott is one of our regular contributors from the old days of G&GR. He has experience coaching Premier Grade with two clubs in Brisbane.

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