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Can Stephen Larkham’s attack pattern work for Australia and the Brumbies?

Stephen Larkham was a natural on the field - but can he coach? (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)
Expert
15th July, 2016
207
5429 Reads

Since the end of the Test series in June, there has been a question-mark set against the effectiveness of the Wallabies’ attack pattern developed by Stephen Larkham, who also happens to be the Brumbies’ head coach.

Although the Brumbies have suffered some key injuries in their back-line – to wings Henry Speight and Joe Tomane for most of the season, to #12 Matt Toomua for some of it – generally their attack has not functioned as well it might done have considering the quality of their personnel from 9 to 15. At full strength, only one of the Brumbies’ backs (Aidan Toua) is uncapped at Test level.

So what are the key principles of the ‘Larkham pattern’ on offence, and what is required to make it function effectively?

Basic structure
The basic shape used by both the Brumbies and Wallabies features two forward pods in between the 15 metre lines, with one back-rower spread wide into each 15-5m corridor. The two forward pods typically have the two locks plus the third back-rower in one (near-side) pod, with the three front-rowers further into midfield.

These two shots of the basic structure come from games against the Chiefs (round 6) and the Bulls in Round 11 of Super Rugby.

Brumbies attack vs the Chiefs
Brumbies attack vs the Chiefs

In both examples there is a backs’ first receiver (Matt Toomua against the Chiefs, Robbie Coleman against the Bulls) who can pass on to the ‘far’ pod of front-rowers or slip an inside ball to the wing underneath him. The ‘near’ pod of forwards (Rory Arnold, Jordan Smiler and Sam Carter against the Chiefs; Arnold, Carter and Jarrod Butler versus the Bulls) can receive the ball straight off 9. The far-side pod of Scott Sio, Stephen Moore and Ben Alexander are set further into midfield.

The same shape can be seen in the Wallabies matches against England in June.

Larkham's attacking structure. Wallabies vs England June

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In this shot from the first Test in Brisbane, James Horwill, Dean Mumm and Scott Fardy are committed to receiving the pass from 9 with no backs receiver nearby. Tatafu Polota-Nau and Sekope Kepu meanwhile regroup further out into midfield – no doubt they would have been joined by Sio had he not been off the field on a yellow card at the time!

In all three shots, two back-rowers are in either already either in place on the edges or in the process of getting there – Fardy and David Pocock in the Bulls and Chiefs instances, Pocock to the near-side against England.

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What is the philosophy behind the shape?
The idea is to be able to keep the ball and build a long string of phases, with ball-carriers in both the midfield pods supported by two forwards, and an extra loose forward in each 15-5m zone available to secure ball when it goes wide. Therefore Australia retained over 95 per cent of their own breakdown ball against England in June.

Compared to the pattern used by many New Zealand sides, Larkham’s is more attritional and conservative. Until recently, the All Blacks used a system with only one tight forward pod in midfield (Brodie Retallick and the two props) and two pods containing forwards on the edge. The New Zealand pattern is capable of moving the ball more quickly from one side-line to the other, but demands better ball skills – especially from the forwards spread right across the field. Stephen Larkham’s pattern relies more on collision-winning in its two forward pods and is less likely to generate mismatches between forwards and backs, or vice-versa.

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Lessons from the Brumbies
Let’s take a look at how the mechanics work out in practice with the Brumbies.

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All of the examples derive from attacking lineouts, where the offensive pattern is at its clearest and most definite. The clips also occur after a midfield set on first phase, with the two pods split to either side of the first ruck in all three instances.

By way of contrast, both pods align to the same side after the Brumbies use the whole width of the pitch on first phase instead of hitting up in midfield:

Brumbies attack vs Bulls

Brumbies attack vs Bulls

Brumbies attack vs Bulls

The clip package gives accurate shorthand for the main features of the attack pattern:

• Ball security. With two forwards, and auxiliary backs available at every cleanout, none of the Brumbies’ 12 rucks in this sequence is seriously threatened by turnover. Moreover the sequence contains two penalties against the Bulls, which in turn feeds the Brumbies primary attacking weapon – kicks to the corner followed by close-range lineout drives.

• Forwards versus forwards, backs on backs. Of the 11 rucks built from second phase onwards, 10 phases are either forwards against forwards, or backs against backs:

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Forwards on forwards at 38:48, 38:55, 39:54, 40:08, 49:25, 49:43 and 49:50 .
Backs on backs at 39:03 and 49:35 (#13 Tevita Kuridrani versus Bulls #9), Brumbies #11 James Dargaville on Bulls #14 at 40:20.
“Small mismatch” at 40:01 (#9 Tomas Cubelli against #2 Adriaan Strauss of the Bulls)

This is clearly an offence which is going to have work long and hard for its rewards! With most of the contact between forwards-forwards and backs-backs, the mismatches are small – Tevita Kuridrani against the Bulls #9 off the second pass, Tomas Cubelli against Strauss on the edge of the ruck.

• The ‘Warren-ball’ effect. The offence in some respects reminds me of Warren Gatland’s Warrenball attack. That pattern also attracted a majority of forwards/forwards and backs/backs phases, so the onus was firmly on power and size to win the collision. As a result the Welsh back-line grew to enormous proportions, with all four three-quarters (George North, Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies and Alex Cuthbert) weighing between 105-110kgs, and three of them over 1.94m in height. Mismatches were not naturally created in quantity by the nature of the attack pattern, so the power/size differential in backs-backs scenarios was increased instead. Under the laws of normally-sized rugby players, there is no encouragement for the attack when the ball goes wide in a back-on-backs situation at 40:19 of the Bulls game!

• Forward angles of running on back-line phases. On backs phases when the ball goes beyond the second forward pod (40:16), two forwards from that pod run ‘unders’ lines to check defensive flow to the far touch-line (Sam Carter and Scott Fardy) while the outside man in pod (Rory Arnold) looks to legitimately impede the drift and create a hole for the backs outside him. It was this role that cost Arnold a penalty for obstruction and the Wallabies a try in the first Test at Brisbane.

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How does this translate into the Wallabies attack pattern also managed by Larkham?

• Success in the first Test at Brisbane. The first couple of sequences come from the Brisbane Test and they illustrate the latent potential of Larkham’s attack structure when things go according to plan.

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– Dominant collisions (forwards on forwards). Australia laid their marker down early by dominating the early exchanges with forwards standing at first receiver. At 7:07, Rory Arnold only has Rob Simmons from his pod in support with David Pocock committed to the previous breakdown, but he bumps off Billy Vunipola to create positive momentum for the Wallabies. The next time Arnold receives the ball ‘in pod’ at 7:22 he also does something constructive, tipping the ball on to Rob Simmons for his fellow second row to make inroads upfield. This set the tone for the first quarter, with Scott Sio bouldering George Kruis back in contact at 7:44, and Arnold again slipping through the tackle of Maro Itoje at 15:01 to give his cleanout an excellent target.

– Exploitation of “small mismatches”. The small mismatches proved effective for Australia during the first sequence, with Bernard Foley attacking Mako Vunipola on the perimeter of the ruck at 7:11 and Nick Phipps playing towards Michael Hooper on the short ball at 7:17. This was a tactic that was very productive for the Wallabies in the third Test at Sydney. On two occasions deep in the England red zone, Phipps sniped off towards the England first defender with Hooper on a short, straight line outside him. In the first instance, new cap Teimana Harrison (to be replaced soon afterwards) was drawn on to Phipps, creating space for Hooper to make the tackle break and offload resulting in a try for Dane Haylett-Petty.

Larkham's attacking structure Australia vs England

Larkham's attacking structure Australia vs England

In the second, Hooper was able to make the try-line himself.

Larkham's attacking structure Wallabies vs England

Larkham's attacking structure Wallabies vs England

With Michael Hooper’s ‘hybrid’ nature as a forward-with-backline-speed, he represents a mismatch with any defender, forward or back, this close to the goal-line.

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– Backs-on-backs phases and the Folau mismatch. Early in the first Test, the Wallabies focused on moving the ball through the second or far pod and into Israel Folau’s hands (7:35, 7:48 and 15:05) – on the second occasion using the same two-man ‘unders’ and one-man ‘overs’ lines we observed with the Brumbies. With his freakish combination of size, power, footwork and deceptive gliding speed, Folau has proven himself a mismatch for any defender in this situation – he is like the ultimate iteration of a Welsh ‘Warrenball’ back! The addition of two mistakes by Luther Burrell in defence at 7:48 and 15:07 widened the mismatch to terminal, with Folau running against a loose-head prop in Mako Vunipola in the first example, and a back-pedalling Owen Farrell in the second. Neither could hope to defend him in the prevailing circumstances.

• Pause for thought – second Test at Melbourne. England’s defensive approach came on in leaps and bounds at Melbourne one week later. With their Six Nations midfield back as a unit and Burrell out of the picture, they defended with far more discipline on the edge.

Larkham's attacking structure for the Wallabies in their match against England

Larkham's attacking structure for the Wallabies in their match against England

Larkham's attacking structure for the Wallabies in their match against England

Larkham's attacking structure for the Wallabies in their match against Englandwidth=

Larkham's attacking structure for the Wallabies in their match against England

Larkham's attacking structure for the Wallabies in their match against England

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Larkham's attacking structure for the Wallabies in their match against England

None of the four power phases up to and including 8:06 breach the England 40m line, and so there isn’t the advantage-line dominance Australia enjoyed at Brisbane. When the ball is distributed through the ‘two-unders, one-overs’ structure out wide at 8:12, there is a rigid English defensive line ready to drift towards touch and snuff out the threat. All the defenders are on the same wavelength as Haylett-Petty is pushed out over the side-line.

• Third Test conclusions. Australia scored two tries off the Michael Hooper inside mismatch, and another two from mismatches on the outside, with Folau beating Jack Nowell in the 13th minute and Taqele Naiyaravoro running over the top of George Ford in the 83rd. The value of twin first receivers with a #10 skill-set was also reinforced by Matt Toomua’s recall to the starting line-up, especially at midfield rucks where attacking play can go in either direction. At 56:58 in the Sydney Test, Toomua and Bernard Foley split to either side of the breakdown and Toomua is able to exploit the mismatch against two English forwards (Jack Clifford and Billy Vunipola) and create the try for Folau. At 7:13 from the Brumbies-Chiefs encounter, Toomua splits late and left with Leali’ifano keeping the D honest on the other side and setting up Robbie Coleman for the clean break.

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Summary
The jury is still out on Stephen Larkham’s attack pattern. On the positive side of the slate, there is ample ball control and the phase-strings can reach well into double figures as a result. Freak athletes like Hooper and Folau give the promise of mismatches on both the inside and outside of the field.

On the negative side, real opportunities can take a long time to develop with most phases either forwards-on-forwards or backs-on-backs. If Australia cannot win the forward first receiver exchanges with their two midfield pods as in the Melbourne Test, the following back-line plays are easily handled by the D as long as it doesn’t make any obvious mistakes.

Looking forward, it is important Australia retain the twin first receiver ‘look’ to maximise opportunities from midfield rucks. I also expect bigger and more powerful athletes (like Taqele Naiyaravoro) to be selected in the three-quarters to yield more definite backs-on-backs mismatches at TRC.