Prior to the incoming June Test series against the French, Steven Hansen spoke of the All Blacks tweaking their attack to deal with the rush defences that are in vogue at the moment, especially with the Northern Hemisphere teams.
Ironically, it was New Zealand who really lead the way with this defensive system on the international stage. The rest of the world has now caught up, with the Lions paving the way for it last year as a template with which to restrict the All Blacks.
That Lions series really was the international catalyst for the rush defence – and the Northern Hemisphere especially took note.
It is no secret that next year’s world cup will be the best defensive cup on record. All the top tier teams will be employing the rush defence in a bid to cut down time, keep play on the inside and cut off the opportunity for the ball to go out wide.
This is really why Steven Hansen was mentioning the tweak to the All Blacks attack prior to the French series – the All Blacks have to tweak how they attack in order to negate this defensive system at next year’s World Cup. While the rest of the world has now caught up defensively, the All Blacks will be experimenting this year to be one step ahead at next year’s World Cup.
The French use the rush defence and were the best defensive team in this year’s Six Nations – that is why this was the best possible series for the All Blacks in which to experiment with their attack.
Before I jump into the article, I want to mention the Argentinians. In 2016 the Argentines gave the All Blacks’ new-found rush defensive system some real headaches.
The basis of the All Blacks’ rush defence system was that they didn’t really commit players to the breakdown – they needed players to fan out into the defensive line in order to make the rush defence work. They would only commit one or two players at the most. One player would always keep his sticky and well-educated fingers on the ball for that extra second in order to slow down the ball, thus allowing the All Blacks’ defenders that extra second to realign in the defensive line.
The Argentines came up with a very simple solution to counter this and I was amazed that Australia and South Africa didn’t replicate it ASAP. They just decided to run straight “up the guts” by picking and driving and running off the scrumhalf. It was so obvious – in their bid to get defenders back into the defensive line and for their defence to span the width of the field, the All Blacks left the fringes of the ruck undermanned.
The Argentines made some big metres through the middle and really gave the All Blacks some headaches in the first halves of those matches. Only their usual ill-discipline, lack of fitness and skills ended up costing them those games – the All Blacks, as expected, ran away with the games in the last 20 minutes or so.
The All Blacks adopted this exact same tactic against the Lions’ much vaunted rush defence a year later.
The attack in close
It is in these close quarters that Steve Hansen and co. have really experimented with their attack against the French.
The All Blacks use the 1-3-3-1 attacking system to get out of their own half (and even a little bit into enemy territory) and to build their attack. But as soon as identify the moment, usually in the opposition half, they transition to their more adventurous 2-4-2 system.
Against the French, the two middle pods of the All Balcks’ 1-3-3-1 attacking system were standing much closer together than usual – almost setting up a 1-6-1. The two middle pods were constantly looking to wrap around one another, either way and at speed, in order the punch around the fringes of the ruck.
There were also a few experimental decoy plays within and between the two pods, designed to create and exploit space around the ruck. This is definitely a step up from the traditional ‘one man hit up (with or without the offload)’ or ‘the latch’ method used by them last year, and the Argentines the year before that.
The end result of this ‘up the guts’ attack against a rush defensive system is that it forces the defending team to send personnel in close – if they don’t, they give up metres through the middle. Once the defenders are forced to come in, the All Blacks then attack out wide. Pretty simple stuff.
The timing of this is also perfect because by the time the 1-3-3-1 is set up and the point is reached where the defending team has to send personnel closer to rucks, the All Blacks are usually already into enemy territory and ready to transition to their 2-4-2 to exploit the space left out wide.
Looking to the World Cup
This method of having the two middle three-man pods standing so close together, and interlinking with each other, creates more safety and options in creating/exploiting space around the rucks.
This safety and variation will be invaluable at next year’s World Cup where pressure games will be won or lost on ball retention while setting up your attack and an ability to break down the rush defence. It is also common sense – tie your new method of breaking down the rush defence in with the structure you are already using to exit your half and set up your attack.
The All Blacks coaching staff would also have come to realise that keeping on running higher in close quarters in an attempt to get the much-desired offload (as they did the last two years) will increasingly come at a cost against improving physical teams – teams that are powerful at tackling up high and wrapping up the attacking runner. These teams include England, Ireland (their likely quarter-final opponents), the South Africans (whom they are pooled with at the World Cup) and now increasingly the Australians (who they may well face in the final again).
There wasn’t too much opportunity during the French series for this ‘close middle pods’ play to keep going at length but the All Blacks have started experimenting and I am sure they will do so for the rest of 2018 in a bid to perfect their method for breaking down the rush defence for next year’s World Cup.
The All Blacks tactical attacking kicking also changed in the series against the French. While Beauden Barret put a few chips, and the odd cross-kick, over the defensive line early on in matches to make the rush defence rethink their speed, the real change was out wider.
They experimented with putting low and grubber kicks through from around the outside centre channel down and towards the sideline with a good set chase by at least two players (usually the speedier wing and fullback).
The one weakness of the rush defence is that it leaves space out wide, especially off set pieces. The rush defence needs its defenders to stand closer together so the space between the ruck/set piece and (roughly around) the outside centre is clogged up with defenders, making it very hard to get through. Although, this space out wide is usually fool’s gold and the defending team usually wants the attacking team to try an attack that wide space.
Trying to attack that wide space requires excellent passing skills under immense pressure and the pass that finds its way out wide is usually lobbed, which gives extra seconds for the designated sweeping defenders to cut down the receiving winger once he gets the ball. Often, the designated sweeping defenders just bundle the receiving winger into touch thereby creating a lineout for the defending team.
More often than not, the ‘miracle ball’ out wide is a poor one and it either creates a turnover or puts more pressure on the attacking team. Getting a ball to an isolated winger out wide also means that he is farther away from his support, especially when he has two designated sweeping defenders zooming in on him at speed.
Hansen and co. have identified a way of getting the ball to that outside channel and ultimately pulling off a ‘check mate’ play: (1) execute the above-mentioned low or grubber kick down and toward the touch line with the two set chasing players (2) either let the two chasers contest for and regather the ball or (3) let the defending sweeper player gather the ball and be bundled into touch by the chasers so it becomes an All Black lineout around 30m down the field.
It becomes a win-win situation and another tool (in addition to a cross field kick for Ioane, Smith or Barrett to contest) to utilise when trying to breakdown the rush defence.
Another area of the All Blacks’ attack which keeps improving is the fluidity with which they alternate between their 1-3-3-1 and their 2-4-2. Their players aren’t scared to move between the pods and they aren’t programmed to stick hard and fast to their 1-3-3-1 or 2-4-2 (as with most international teams).
The two players standing on the outside of the respective middle three-man pods move out to the wide pods at will to form the 2-4-2 when it is sensed that it’s time to attack. Even when it is realised that it is not on, they just move back inwards to reform the 1-3-3-1 again and keep setting up their attack.
Even the 2-4-2 gets tweaked, but this is not new. The middle 4-man pod regularly splits into a pod of 3 with the extra player roaming just diagonally behind to provide another option for the passer, or the 3-man pod, to hit.
The inside centre is now used to take the place of the openside flanker in the outside pod while the 1-3-3-1 is being set up. The seven (Sam Cane) tracks across the field as the 1-3-3-1 gets set up and provides extra safety, if needed, at each of the breakdowns. This is a departure from previous years where the 12 was expected to do his fair share of breakdown work, especially while the 1-3-3-1 was being set up.
I guess they realised that you would rather have your breakdown specialist perform this role than the 12. This is also why there has been such an obvious emphasis put on Sam Cane’s playmaking skills recently.
If an unexpected gap does get identified while the 1-3-3-1 is being set up, and the 12 is stuck in the wide channels, Cane has the skillset to at least get the ball to the where the gap is identified.
Once the 1-3-3-1 is set up, the inside centre stays out wide but now takes the left winger’s spot instead. The left winger (Rieko Ioane) moves in field to take the inside centre’s spot (the Hurricanes have been doing this all season with Ben Lam and Ngani Laumape).
This is done to give the most dangerous strike weapon on the park (i.e. Ioane) more opportunity and freedom to get his hands on the ball, or to get the ball passed to him, in unstructured space filled with slower forwards. It also moves him out of the ‘fool’s gold’ wide channel where he will just get closed in and cut down if he gets the ball.
It also means that you leave the 12 to his traditional role of running the ball into contact in the ‘fool’s gold’ wider channels which very quickly gets cut down in time and space by the designated sweeping defenders (Crotty was doing this ably in the absence of Sonny Bill Williams but Ngani Laumape’s barnstorming try down the sideline late in the first Test is why this switch is made).
It also protects your most valuable attacking asset (i.e. Ioane) from having to deal with this direct physicality out wide on a regular basis.
These are the little tweaks that end up making the difference in pressure Test matches, especially at World Cups.
While this article is really about the All Blacks attack, there has also been a noticeable change to the All Blacks defence I outlined in a previous article. Not so much in the system they employ but more in the method of its execution. All their tackles between the ruck and about the third/fourth man out are low… very low.
The first defender’s body shape is very deliberate in going low in this area. While this is probably also done to stop the attacking forwards in their tracks with a traditional low tackle, they are more likely wary of the recent infestation of high tackle (or deemed high tackle) penalties and are trying to cut down on these for the World Cup where penalties will win or lose matches.
Now that the rest of the world has caught up with the rush defence, the All Blacks are already looking at ways to break it down in preparation for next year’s World Cup. They will be using their existing middle three-man pods by standing them much closer together (to almost form a 1-6-1) while safely and creatively attacking around the ruck to suck defenders in.
They will combine this with their cross kicks and new low kicks toward the sideline in order to slowly break down the rush defence before they then open up and transition into their 2-4-2 attack structure. T
his, coupled with their well nurtured counter attack and seamless transition between their two attacking patterns will prove a tough nut to crack. We will no doubt see more attacking experiments from Steven Hansen and co. during the 2018 season.
The old saying goes that defence wins World Cups but I think that at next year’s World Cup, where every team will be looking to employ the same rush defence, it will be All Blacks’ new attack to counter that rush defence that proves to be the difference.