There was a time in Rugby when the forwards kept the ball tight in attack and when the backs saw an opportunity they called for the ball and moved it wide. The forwards would look up from a breakdown or set piece, see where the ball had gone and then follow it. There were few of the “structures” or “patterns” that are used today – it was certainly rare for a team to plan a multi-phase attack involving both backs and forwards.
That all started to change in the late 1990’s when teams started to use multi-phase plays. Essentially the rationale for these plays was that if everyone in the team knew where the ball was going on the next phase more players would get to the next breakdown meaning it would be easier to retain the ball because in those days the interpretation of the breakdown laws heavily favoured the attacking team.
It’s a fact that in professional rugby most tries are scored within five phases of possession starting so in theory the more times you can retain the ball for five phases the more tries you’ll be in position to score.
The other side of the argument is that the longer you hold the ball the more chance there is that you’ll lose the ball at a breakdown, either by turnover or a penalty. In 2007 the interpretation of the breakdown laws favoured the defending team and attacking structures changed as it was risky to take the ball into too many breakdowns for fear of giving away a penalty.
Some will argue that you can’t play well without some sort of “pattern” or “structure” in attack and there are plenty on the opposite side of that argument who believe good players have the skill and decision making capabilities to work out their own “pattern” on the field based on the opportunities presented in front of them rather than use a play that is pre-planned.
American Football is a heavily structured game – it’s often described as similar to a game of chess. With a stoppage after every play, each play is heavily scripted and coaches call the plays from the sideline. Rugby doesn’t lend itself to that sort of direction by the coaches but “patterns” or “structures” are used by most teams at the professional and higher grade amateur level.
Here’s the view of Eddie Jones, the former Brumbies, Reds and Wallaby coach, on structures and patterns.
The less thinking players have to do on the field the better. You want players to be able to use their skills and if they have to think they struggle to use their skills and that’s why you need to have organisation. You need to have a structure in place that allows players to use their skills. Certainly you want them to be able to take the opportunities that are available but the less they have to think the better it is.
And here’s what David Campese, one of the most gifted attackers ever to play for the Wallabies, thinks.
The modern player is having the game taken away from him. Coaches are telling them how to think, when to think, and what to think.” and “… let the players play the game, don’t turn them into robots.
I think the views of Eddie Jones and David Campese are at either end of the spectrum and I don’t believe that it’s a black or white question. I think there should be a mix of both approaches.
For me, “structure” relates to the shape of your attack. For example do you play flat or deep, do your forwards play off number 9 or number 10? “Patterns” relate to the direction of your attack over multiple phases. Some of the simple and common patterns used by teams all over the world are an “exhaust” which refers to the ball being moved the same way across the field over a series of phases until the space across the field is exhausted or a “21” which means two phases in one direction and then one phase back the other way.
Structure is important no matter which pattern is being used or on what phase. Having a clearly defined shape in attack makes it much easier for players to know their role and to get into position early.
Patterns vary dependant on circumstances. In the early phases of attack patterns are important but it’s hard to keep playing to a pattern for much more than three phases. After that the decision makers in a team should decide what to do or “play what’s in front of you” as Robbie Deans has often said.
If a team is going to play using patterns, then how many patterns should be used? Do you try to use multiple patterns for various field positions or dependant on the type of team you’re playing? If a team takes that approach I’m sure it gets too complicated, even for professional players who have time to practice patterns. If players get confused as to which pattern is being used or what their role in the pattern is, the result can be more detrimental to the team than if they had played without a pattern.
Teams like the All Blacks, Crusaders and Reds use a base pattern that is used in every game with certain elements added or removed dependant on amongst other things the players available for a match, the opposition’s tactics and the weather.
Before the recent series against Wales the Wallabies knew the type of base attacking pattern that Wales used. They knew this because the coaches and the analysts employed by the Wallabies spent a lot of time looking at past matches Wales had played against the Wallabies, against other opposition in the Six Nations and the 2011 Rugby World Cup. It also helped that the Wallabies have played a large number of games against Wales in the last two years.
The Welsh usually build their attack around their big back line. With Roberts, North and Cuthbert in the team they have plenty of size to throw at the opposition. Of course with Roberts out for the 2012 series one of their main threats was missing. Their base attack pattern consists of three stages.
Spread- Wales usually start their plays from a set piece with either:
- A crash ball from Roberts in mid-field followed by a wide play going in the same direction with the aim of getting the ball to one of their wingers on 2nd phase; or
- A wide play with the aim of getting the ball to one of their wingers on 1st phase;
Exhaust – Regardless of which option they use in the first stage, once they run out of space on one side of the field the next phases of their base play involves the forwards taking multiple phases in the same direction all the way back across to the other side of the field;
Reverse – On the next phase the Welsh spread the ball wide back to the other touch line using their backs again. The aim with this phase is to catch some of the opposition forwards not working back to the far side of the field so that the backs can take on slower forward defenders.
Even from general play such as after a kick return or from a turnover you’ll see the Welsh use this pattern although in general play the initial “Spread” may not be used. Now that’s not to say that this is the only way the Welsh attack but if you watch a game involving the Welsh you may be surprised how often you see this base pattern.
The Welsh will know that other teams know this base pattern and will come up with strategies to defend it but that base pattern has been in use by Wales for a number of years. Knowing something is going to happen and defending it are two different things – especially if the attacking team get so used to their pattern that they execute it really well on most occasions they use it, particularly if they can add different elements to the base pattern that the opposition are not expecting.
The Crusaders have had the same basic attack pattern for many years that seems to be passed down from one generation of players to the next. In fact they probably have two base patterns – I’ll call them the Wide-Wide pattern and the Punch-Wide pattern.
With the Wide-Wide pattern the ball is moved all the way across field through a series of phases by both backs and forwards. The players on the side of the field that the ball came from re-align and the ball is moved all the way back across to the other side of the field through a series of phases. This continues until a hole opens up in the opposition defensive line, which all the players are trained to take advantage of. The important thing with this pattern is that players maintain width in their attacking structure.
With the Punch-Wide pattern the ball is moved to mid-field where the forwards (sometimes with an inside back) punch the ball forward in the middle of the field over a series of phases (sometimes only one phase). The backs re-align to one side of the field and the remaining forwards with a second playmaker re-align to the other side of the field. Once both sides are re-aligned the ball is moved to whichever side offers the most opportunity. The speed of the alignment here is critical for this pattern to work.
Once again elements can be added to the base pattern or can be removed dependent on the circumstances of the particular match.
The Reds use a same way base pattern where the forwards generally come around the corner of the ruck and take the ball off Will Genia and keep punching the same way phase after phase until Quade Cooper sees an opportunity and calls for the ball.
In 2010 and 2011 the Reds were excellent at maintaining a base pattern while adding elements or removing them each game. The tactical changes they utilised against the Bulls and Stormers in 2011 were still built on the base pattern.
It appears that this type of base pattern suits Quade Cooper’s play. He can afford to allow the forwards to run the base pattern whilst he waits for an opportunity. It appears that when he’s playing for the Reds he’s confident that if he’s not ready for the ball the forwards can test the defence whilst retaining the ball for multiple phases. Once he sees an opportunity we all know he’s one of the best at exploiting them.
With Graham Henry in charge the All Blacks used a very similar base pattern to the Crusaders. Over the last few years I’ve been studying the All Black attacking patterns and in game after game the same patterns keep being used. One of the few games they weren’t used as frequently was when the All Blacks played the Springboks in Port Elizabeth last year with Colin Slade at number 10 as Dan Carter was unavailable. Rather than looking like the well oiled machine that they are, in attack the All Blacks looked a little disorganised and played quite laterally. On the limited number of occasions they used their normal base patterns in that game they looked good again.
Looking at the All Blacks in their series against Ireland this year it’s obvious that a change of head coach hasn’t meant a change in their base attacking pattern. In the video accompanying this article I’ve included an example of the All Blacks using their base patterns against Ireland. As you watch the video look for the way the All Blacks maintain attacking width with players spread across the field ready to take advantage of any holes in Ireland’s defensive line. It’s very clear that all the players are on the same page because they know their base pattern so well.
What about the Wallabies – we’ve all heard Robbie Deans talk about “playing what’s in front of you” but do they have a base pattern? Just before the Wallabies ran on to the field against Ireland in 2008 for their first test with Robbie Deans in charge, Gordon Bray asked Robbie Deans what they’d been focussing on in his first two weeks of coaching the Wallabies. The response was “Collective understandings essentially so that we can bring some shape to our game.”
This is the fifth year with Robbie Deans in charge of the Wallabies and to be honest I can’t tell you what the shape of the Wallabies attack is or whether they have base patterns. The Wallabies are either a) concealing their base patterns well b) don’t use base patterns or c) are still developing their base patterns.
If the Wallabies are concealing their base patterns they may be taking the Jeff Thompson approach who I once heard describe the difficulty batsmen had when facing him as something like “I’m not always sure where the ball’s going so how is the batsman going to work it out”. This may be a brilliant tactic from the Wallabies so that no team can analyse their base patterns and goes into each game not knowing what to expect from the Wallabies.
Alternatively the Wallabies may not use base patterns and are truly “playing what’s in front of them” with an attack plan constructed on the run dependant on what the opposition does.
In the recent series against Wales I once again struggled to find the Wallabies patterns and it appeared that the players did too. As you’ll see in the accompanying video the Wallabies attack shape was quite often very poor and players didn’t seem to know where they should be. The most alarming aspects for me were the lack of width the Wallabies achieved in much of their attack and the time taken to re-align. Whilst this clip only covers one example of the Wallabies attack it’s over 19 phases so shows a fair representation of what was going on and there were many more clips I could show in each of the three tests against Wales.
The difference in organisation between the All Blacks and Wallabies in 2012 in attack is worrying as we approach the first game of The Rugby Championship.
Of course, I may have just missed the Wallabies base attack patterns. If so, please feel free to explain them to me.