Wallaby Attack Patterns - Green and Gold Rugby

Wallaby Attack Patterns

Wallaby Attack Patterns

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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.

[youtube id=”ZX9HjGsnZAs” width=”600″ height=”350″]

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.

  • KingifDubai

    How can the WB become #1 again. I’m sick of playing catch up to the AB.

    I don’t have the answer and either does RD. How the game will be played in 5 years time is what we should start thinking about to be top dog once again.

    • Blinky Bill of Bellingen

      Dubai King – I’m 100% with you. I want to see the Wallabies set the bench mark instead of reacting to coaching & selections of the Boks & Blacks. I fail to see how simply reacting to these top teams (with their advantages) will do anything except perhaps minimise the damage. We don’t have the depth of NZ of Sth Africa and need to take some bold steps with coaching and be innovative to succeed. Playing conservatively with no attack at 12 or 13 will see us effectively hamstrung & doomed.

  • Nick

    With McCabe and Horne as our centres, we are are in major trouble. Even though Quade may suck at defense, he is gifted at igniting an attack. I would love to see Quade at flyhalf with Berrick/JOC at inside centre and AAC at outside centre. Digby and Drew Mitchell/Dom Shipperley on the wings. Unfortunately, I don’t think it will happen until Robbie Deans is sacked.

  • So are we picking the wrong forwards or are the coaches setting up the wrong patterns? Or both?

    • jimmy

      Mate I think we may actually have the players given the right coaching. The coaching just seems to be terrible. We play dumber football every season under Deans.

  • The effort to continually get back into an attacking alignment, with width, requires incredible fitness at Test level.
    The physicality of the AB’s and SB’s attack sucks so much energy out of us defensively, that we don’t have the juice left to sustain an attack.
    Yes, we’ll be a chance on a quick turnover or a counter attack, but the longer we have the ball, the narrower, slower and less effective we get in attack.

    • Who?

      Sure, the ABs’ physicality does drain the Wallabies. But the clips shown weren’t against the ABs, they were against Wales. In games where the Wallabies had more than their share of possession, and Wales themselves offered very little in attack (I was very disappointed with Priestland, too many aimless/purposeless kicks, often created out of a lack of creativity).

      It’s fair enough to play what’s in front of you, but patterns of play and set plays are written in order to create something in front of you that’s worth playing. They’re created to unlock the defence. If you don’t have them, your only option is to pick a team of X factor players. A backline that includes, say, Cooper, Beale, O’Connor… It’s Robbie’s pattern – he’s the one who most often picked Spencer for the ABs.

  • skip

    this is a brilliant article.

  • vidiot

    Dear God, that’s 19 phases of my life I won’t get back.

    I had been looking back at the Wales series with vague satisfaction, but now I realise I’m in the same zone of oblivious hopefulness I was in before the olympics, thinking we were there or thereabouts.

  • Ath

    It seems to me the Wallabies have been playing a variation of the punch-wide, the ‘punch not so wide’. Forwards pick and go, offloading where possible, with centres in support and wings looking to cut inside for opportunities, instead of the more traditional wide-wide approach whereever possible of past years.

    Against Wales the tactic seemed to me to be don’t play it wide unless we have a crystal opportunity, the Welsh are too dangerous out wide if the ball is turned over quickly.

    On the forwards not getting into pattern, that could be poor training drills yes, but it could also be described by match fatigue in the examples shown.

    If you are playing a less fit team wide-wide makes sense, but it can be risky and of limited benefit against a strong team.

    If I was to really give Deans credit (hey, why not, the guy did manage to win all those super rugby champs, Blackadder hasn’t), it was to skill up the team in that area, building to being able to do punch it up and wide-wide in the TRC.

    And that makes sense to me because otherwise you become too predictable, something I think we were guilty of in the Wales tests. I can’t see many people giving Deans that much credit though. Guess we will find out soon.

    • johnny-boy

      Ath – the primary reason Deans was able to win so many Super titles and Blackadder hasn’t is that the Crusaders no longer have McCaw and Carter at their peak and the Crusaders can no longer just pluck the cream of nz rugby from any province they like. The other provinces now have more funds to be able to hold on to them or attract stars. Deans got found out as a dunce as All Black coach and now he’s being found out in OZ. McCaw chose Henry over Deans even after Henry cocked up the 2007 World Cup mightly. I didn’t realise it at the time (I thought I knew more than McCaw – durr) but it was a daming indictment of Deans. McCaw didnt want a bar of Deans even tho he seemed the obvious choice to take over from Henry. We shouldn’t either. It’s time Australian rugby regained pride in itself.

  • Ath

    I’d describe the Wallabies pattern (attempted pattern?) vs Scotland and Wales being the punch-not so wide. Repeated play up the guts, looking to offload where possible, before looking to exploit gaps off the rucks and mauls with wingers coming in. and only occasionally going wide.

    Predictable, and we weren’t terribly good at it. I also suspect that while poor preparation may be one reason for being poorly coordinated, match fatigue was probably a factor as well, certainly in those examples anyway.

    Now the good news about this, is historically the Wallabies rely on wide-wide. At it’s worst execution it becomes crabbing instead.

    So, take a coach who knows the Crusaders and ABs patterns backwards. He’s tried the Aussie brand (wide-wide) for years only to see them muck games up more often than win, so he says to himself screw that, we are going to get this team better at punching it up. Once I am satisfied they can do that, we’ll alternate in widewide.

    What a plan. Dreaming? Probably but I live in hope.

    • Fin

      More like a not so punch- not so wide pattern. The wallabies have the backs( if they pick them) to ‘play what’s in front of them’ but that only works if the forwards can get them on the front foot.

  • Hooper for 12

    Just saw the Blacks squad. They look unusually weak at lock and also perhaps front row (Franks bros etc were pretty poor in the SXV.). Time for Sharpie & Co to tear them a new one at the set piece, particularly the lineouts.

    also they dont have an established 9, and will miss Smith in defence at 13.

    I’d be playing the sidelines for lineout dominance, and from deep in their half run set piece plays targetting Nonu at 13 in defence. And defend very quickly on Carter forcing their 9s to do most of the field kicking.

  • Hawko

    This is a brilliant piece of rugby analysis that shows exactly what was wrong with our attack during the Wales series. There just was no structure and no plan.

    This is the coach’s task – to instill a structure into the game and to develop plans and plays that will open up the opposition so that tries can be scored.

    Please someone tell me how, after watching that shambles for 19 phases, that there is any coaching worth the name occurring in the Wallaby team preparation. The individual skills coaching had had little effect given the poor skills on offer and there is no structure at all with realignment occurring at glacial pace.

    My own theory is that the reason the Wallabies only trained three days this week is that by the end of those sessions the coaching team had exhausted everything in the playbook and so sent everyone home to play some real rugby in the various cometitions around the country.

  • Gnostic

    Excellent article, thanks Scott.

    This is the fundamental reason I wasn’t happen with the “wins” against the Welsh. It was a race to the bottom and the Welsh got there first.

    What has Deans done in the last 5 years. I will go so far to say that the Wallabies played better Rugby under John Connolly, and he didn’t have the luxury of having game breakers like JOC, Beale, Digby or a decent flyhalf like Cooper, and most of all he was still repairing the damage done to the set piece by the neglect of Jones.

    The fools at the ARU who signed Deans back on should have to explain just what improvements he has made to the Wallabies play in his time. I care not one wit about results, they will take care of themselves if the team plays well.

    In all honesty I can see the Wallabies finishing last in the RC, as I think they will struggle to put the Pumas away at home and are a very big chance to lose their home tests to the ABs and Boks.

    • jimmy

      Totally agree. There are so many tactical errors in our game it’s hard to even move onto the skills and motivational based problems. This bloke has to be one of the worst coaches we have ever had and yet they continue with him. What a joke.

  • JT

    Play up the centre of the field looking for penalties? Barnes’ kicking percentages won the series for the Wallabies, and playing wide would have made his job harder. After so many games against each other, maybe Deans decided tries would always be few and far between.

  • Jimbo81

    “play what’s in front of you” doesn’t work, hasn’t worked for the last five years, and won’t work this year. Sack the coach – he has nothing!

  • Robson

    Thanks Scott, a highly informative article once again, but I will go for (b) don’t use base patterns. As for “collective understanding – shape to the game” etc, etc, bah, humbug, this is rugby we are talking about here not philospy.

    And no wonder Eddie Jones was only marginally more effective than Robbie Deans. If he didn’t want his players to think that’s exactly what he got. Deans on the other hand wants his players to be professors of linguistics!

  • Mart

    Cracking article Scott!

    “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 dependent on what the opposition does.”

    This is so depressing.
    And i think you’ve nailed it.

    It’s a reactive style of play, not proactive.

    Something the Crusaders mastered but once the base patterns were cemented.

    As i said in an earlier post, complex Wallaby backline moves (“smart rugby” something Australian rugby built its reputation on) seem to be a thing of the past.

    It is so clear that Cooper (a player who thrives off broken unstructured play) does so when he is playing off a cemented game plan. And this seems to be lacking at the international level

  • Linus

    Scott, like the analysis and was a good illustration of the weakness in the WB game plan. That is to get over the gain line before launching any sort of attack. Stop that and they have nothing.

    I was at this game and commented that after the 5-10 minutes (of spreading it wide) that that had delibetately decided to attack in tight, as they were not working to create width. I was surprised at how clear this was (my seat was at the end of the pitch) while it was not as clear on the tvscreen the week before in BrisVegas.

    And that it was the pattern the decision seems to be made at the outcome of the previous ruck. With the attack targeting the fringe. Conceding the the big Welsh backs had us and we weren’t able to create any space in wdie channels.

    Go forward ball would result in the non committing defence to step in to support or move in towards the ruck and with Barnes narrow skills much better looking to turn the ball back into Digby or Vuna in against the pack, then pick and drive to the line

    They never wanted to move the Welsh around the park after the bluff of the first 10.

  • Mart

    Oh man. I just watched the vid. That was depressing and infuriating.

    It was like watching school boy rugby. Or the Waratahs.

    Imagine the All Blacks and Springboks doing their analysis.

    “okay lets take a break on working on our game plan and have a look at what the Wallaby’s are doing and how we are going to defend against them.”

    They watch the Welsh series.

    “ha forget it lets go back to what we were doing don’t bother wasting our time with that.”

    As you said Scott, it could be a genius bluff by the Wallabies!!!!

    or they are just as rudderless as they appear.

    • Robson

      It might be bluff but it is not genius.

      • johnny-boy

        It’s neither bluff nor genius. It’s just plain old incompetence.

  • DrewB

    Talk of bluffing and secret new gameplans were bandied about before the world cup, and we saw nothing. I have no reason to believe anything new will happen this RC.

    • Mart

      What. We saw a secret new game plan in the world cup.

      It was in the Semi final vs the Blacks.

      Play 2 defensive centres and play a game with no structured back line attack at all.

  • James

    Well written as always. I was worried when I read the title, i thought how could this article be longer than one line?

  • boutbloodytime

    I’d really like to see someone like Scott invited to attend an after match Wallabies press conference & have the opportunity to put questions/analysis like this to Robbie Deans…and see if there is an intelligent, succinct response in reply…because after 4+ years of listening to Deans before or after games, I’m going with b) The Wallabies don’t use base patterns…

  • chasmac

    I’d love to know Bob Dwyer’s comments on the video. The lack of realignment over the 18 phases would cop plenty of flack I am sure.
    Great analysis Scott.
    There is much gnashing of teeth on this website about which player should be selected and who should be on the bench. I think there would be far less of that type of frustrated commentary if our coaching was improved.
    Front Row – Alexander cannot get a look in when he gives up so many scrum penalties.
    Second Row – Timani shouldn’t make the 22, he’s not an asset at set piece or around the paddock.
    Back Row – I’d put Dennis, Douglas and Hooper there to complement Pocock and Higgers.
    Genia and then White
    Whilst we are coached to have no gameplan, I don’t think the talents of Cooper are given an environment where he thrives. Liliffanno is probably the same. Have to stick with Barnes who at least has been playing in chaos for 2 years with the Waratahs
    Centres are up in the air depending on No 10.
    Digby, Kurtley and one other for the back 3

  • mikey

    Surely it’s Genia’s job to organise those forwards. I swear all he’s looking to do his run or pass, he needs to take more responsibility i feel.

  • johnny-boy

    Thanks Scott. It’s comforting when one’s intuition that the Wallabies play has just been a bit of a shambles for the last 5 years, relying purely on brilliant talent, is confirmed by such analysis. It says a hell of a lot for the quality of the players we have that we can still win a few games with a dunce of a coach (and the generosity of the Saffas in continuing to employ PD Clown). How would the Wallabies go with some serious coaching and serious selecting ?. The kiwis would be shitting themselves. If Deans isn’t a plant here to cobble the Wallabies he’s doing a bloody good impression of one.

    • Skyblue

      I really doubt it.not with our mirror boys

    • Skyblue

      I really doubt it.not with our mirror boys

    • arah17

      The idea man for the all Blacks “wide, wide” pattern was Wayne Smith. When Canterbury was on top and playing their best rugby, Wayne Smith was there coaching with Deans. I would guess that WS was the brains of the coaching team. Now Smith is with the Chiefs, last years Super Rugby champs. Now I can see another pattern emerging…

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  • jake

    Scott, what happened to the video link? It was a killer instructional video, and I haven’t seen its like anywhere else.


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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