There are things that lawyers like to do to the people they’re questioning that are the similar to the things that rugby coaches like to do to the teams that they’re attacking. The first, naturally, has to do with speed. It’s an attorney’s dream to get a witness on a roll, rapidly fielding questions until they inevitably stumble. Another technique – which has a surprising echo on the rugby field – is to keep asking the same question over and over again until a chink appears.
A lot of lawyers will tell you that a sudden change of tack isn’t always as effective as continually hitting the same button.
SAME-WAY VS CHANGING DIRECTION
When rugby players make decisions on attack they’re either looking to create the conditions for future opportunities or they want to take advantage of opportunities that have already been created. These are two very different mindsets. When a crack opens up, you go for it – the opportunity dictates the decision. But when you’re methodically trying to break down a defence then your decisions (generally) are determined by your end goal, which is to gradually stress the opposition until an opportunity arises.
The principles of “same-way” attack and “changing direction” are part of the doctrine of patient, deliberate rugby attrition in search of gold.
The names say it all. “Same-way” attack is a series of incursions that all flow in the same direction, in other words you would keep hitting to the right after every ruck until you reach the far touchline.
“Changing direction” is exactly that; you hit left after one ruck but then hit to the right after the next. They both have value depending on the situation, but when it comes to stressing out the other guys “same-way”, surprisingly, has the edge. On Saturday the Lions and the Stormers showed us why.
To illustrate we’ve pulled two examples from the game. In the pic below the Lions are going same-way to the right. They’ve been getting quick ball so the Stormers defence is starting to thin as they struggle to wrap from ruck to ruck. The Lions will go right again from here and we can see the telltale sign of a defence in trouble as Kotze has his hand up calling for reinforcements.
In contrast, look at this situation where the Stormers have gone right and are starting to stress the Lions on that side (Janse van Rensburg has his hand up). Instead they change direction and go left, running back into the more set and organised defence.
We hate to second guess the decision because Nic Groom might have had a good reason to do this, or it’s part of the way the Stormers felt they could break the Lions down, but generally, and again, depending on the situation, it can be more effective if you have quick ball to spread the defence in the same direction for a few phases in sequence. To paraphrase Bilbo Baggins, you want the opposition to start feeling like they’re butter scraped over too much bread. Here’s another example of the Stormers making it hard on themselves.
If we can go out on a limb and say that “same-way” combined with quick ball is one of the most effective attritional techniques, then perhaps we can pass judgement on the Stormers and say that they changed direction too often, or at the wrong times. Rugby Analytics has produced a beautiful table that shows just how capricious they were.
71% of the time on 2nd phase the Capetonians would go same-way from a ruck. So far so good. But then on 57% of their 3rd phase plays they would change direction. And again on 80% of their 4th phase plays. Maybe in some cases it wasn’t a problem – perhaps it was slow ball anyway, or the 9 might have seen an opportunity and changed focus – but often the Stormers carriers found themselves heading back into heavy and organised traffic. Traffic that might have started to thin out and scramble if it had been forced to play catch-up.
For their part the Lions played same-way 61% of the time across all phases, but where they really nailed the Stormers was on 2nd and 3rd phase where they went same-side 65% and 67% of the time. When we watch the game we can see how effective this was on quick ball. The Lions try to make you pay while the ball is fresh.
Rugby Analytics‘ season total for all Lions rucks so far shows consistency, as they have played same-way 72% of the time on 2nd phase and 55% of the time on 3rd phase, with a total of 59% of all their plays going to the same side.
A theme we’ve come back to a lot is how many players teams send to the breakdown and how that benefits or impairs them. Broadly speaking, most teams this year, especially New Zealand teams, don’t seem to be sending a lot of men to fight you at your rucks. They’re happy to stand off and spread in defence. This has it’s own weaknesses, which we’ll come back to later, but if you’re on attack and you’re conversely sending a lot of needless bodies in to protect those rucks then you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage because you’re always going to have fewer players to work with when you do try to attack.
We highlighted this last week after the Sharks sent in multiple unnecessary ruck attendees on their own ball, and this week the Stormers fell into the same trap. Rugby Analytics’ ruck table below shows that the Lions stood off Stormers’ rucks 83% of the time with no extra bodies present, yet the Stormers had two, three or even four men at these rucks 92% of the time. Essentially, for the vast majority of the game, when the Stormers had the ball they were outnumbered.
Another interesting titbit from this table is that while the Lions hardly ever contested Stormers rucks, the Stormers did contest Lions rucks. The Stormers had one or two extra spoilers in attendance at 60% of all the Lions’ tackled ball. The Stormers didn’t benefit from a raft of turnovers, but our feeling is that this was more an attempt to slow the Gautengers down. It did work on occasion and when the Lions didn’t get the lightning-quick posession they’re accustomed to they were a lot more ordinary on attack. A Lions/Brumbies match-up would be fascinating as the Australians attack opposition rucks with relish.
The Stormers also pressured the Lions with aggressive linespeed, especially in the first half, sometimes taking away their all-important pace and shape on attack. It’s what you need to do against Johan Ackerman’s men and he’ll be aware that it can be an effective way of derailing his team.
Before the game we also mentioned that a weakness of the Lions’ spread defence meant they would be vulnerable to incursions over and next to the rucks. While the Stormers didn’t always take advantage of this they did get a well-worked try by going straight through the middle of the tackle point.
LIONS ATTACKING OPTIONS
For most of the season Rugby Analytics has been tracking the different areas that the Lions strike and on which phases, and it makes for fascinating reading. Most television viewers would describe the Lions as an exciting team who play “wide”, but time and again we come back to these post-match tables that show just how narrow they really are. The red bits on the illustration below show wide plays while the grey bits show narrow plays in the 9-10 channel. What’s even more striking is just how narrow the Lions become as phases progress.
So why do they look so damn good? The secret is firstly how good the Lions are when they attack you in the middle of the park (the blue & yellow bits). Elton Jantjies is incredibly effective here, working flat with multiple threats running off him. Secondly, it’s how they vary the focus of their attack. They’ll hit close, and then hit you wide. Or hit you in the middle, and then hit you close. All of that, combined with their speed of play and directness, is what makes them such an effective running team.
We’ve put the magnifying glass on Elton Jantjies a few times this season purely because he is being punted as the Springboks’ leading candidate at 10. It’s worth looking at him critically in this regard because most fans judge test match potential by the wrong yardsticks.
First, his kicking at goal. Elton currently sits on a 77% success rate, which is not test match standard when you consider how close these games tend to be.
Then, we’ve mentioned his poor tackling before, but it doesn’t seem to be getting better. Statistically he is the worst defender in Super Rugby. We’ve previously highlighted times when the Lions have tried to hide him away in the line. Why do they do this? Because that inside channel is so incredibly vulnerable and important. It’s a paradise for momentum. A dominant carry here and suddenly your whole team needs to sprint backwards to get behind the offside line to try and stop the next raid. Don’t underestimate the knock-on effect of a defensively weak 10, especially in a test where small edges are everything.
Belatedly, there is one criticism of Elton that seems to be becoming less of an issue and that is his kicking out of hand. Test match defenders, defensive priorities and defensive systems are on a much higher level to Super Rugby – that’s just the way it is. In a test there will be times when you’re pinned back, or your attack has no room to move, and that’s when your 10 earns his cheque with an authoritative kicking game. Elton may not be a dominating kicker, but he has gone from gifting tries to the opposition by trying to run from deep to being far more pragmatic and thoughtful about using his boot. Hopefully we’ll see him further develop this aspect of the test flyhalf’s required box of tools.
We don’t need to say more about all the good Elton brings to the Lions but we’re going to because he really is special as the conductor of their attack. He is possibly world rugby’s leading exponent of playing flat on the line but he does something else that’s even more stressful for defenders, and that is his ability to play late.
In this first frame above he takes the ball flat and beats the defence to the “area of influence” near the tackle line. He gets there first so he gets to dictate terms. At this point most 10s would be looking to pass, yet Elton doesn’t. He holds.
It may seem like a tiny difference in this next frame above, but by getting right up into Carr and Mbonambi’s faces he forces them to stay inside. In fact, in those few extra steps Mbonambi has gone from potentially drifting out to biting in on Elton’s direct run. Still frames just don’t do justice to how finely timed this is, how small the tolerances are and what a big effect it can have. With two extra steps Elton has completely changed the complexion of the Stormers’ defence and given the men on his outside a chance.
Before we finish – if we’re going to talk about Elton then we must talk about Faf de Klerk. The speed that Faf brought to the Lions play when he came on was noticeable, but it was the way he played the big moments in this game that was striking.
First, when he spotted the Stormers lingering and tapped and went on his own for a crucial score, and then when he shot up to kill a Stormers raid, singlehandedly ripped the ball from Kobus van Wyk’s hands, played the ball back, and then kicked it away at the ensuing ruck to end the game. These are the kinds of things that world-class players do and it’s electrifying when you see someone take that step up. His actions transcend mere “form”; they’re the signs of someone who is able to take control of the reality around him. Faf forced his will on these situations. By doing so he took the pen and wrote his name on Allister Coetzee’s teamsheet as our premier 9 and as a crucial part of the future Bok machine.