When is a strength not a strength? How does one become a weakness? In the preparation for rugby games, the answer to those questions is an essential part of the plan.
The assessment of strengths and weaknesses requires a subtle feel for the enemy. It can be relatively easy to spot weaknesses in an opponent, although he more than likely will also be conscious of them too, and try to repair the damage before the game.
What is far more difficult, but also more rewarding, is the process of identifying the strengths of an enemy, the platforms upon which he bases his entire strategy, and turning them into weaknesses.
While the straightforward exploitation of known weaknesses may lead to modest gains, the undermining of his strengths can quickly lead to a far more major catastrophe for the enemy.
Here are the words of the great Chinese philosopher and military strategist Sun-Tzu on the matter:
“Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted…
“By holding out advantages to him, he [the General/Strategist] can cause the enemy to approach of his own accord; or, by inflicting damage, he can make it impossible for the enemy to draw near…
“March swiftly to places where you are not expected. You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended.
“Hence that general is skilful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend; and he is skilful in defence whose opponent does not know what to attack.”
A known strength can often be undefended on a rugby field because it is so easy to take it for granted. When it comes under challenge, the impacts tend to be multiplied.
It was manifestly apparent that the Brumbies did not expect their lineout throw to be contested as hotly as it was in the Estadio Jose Amalfitani, and the shockwaves of a constant stream of first half lineout turnovers spread out throughout their entire game, causing a chain of errors in one area after another.
Los Jaguares effectively chose the field of battle and arrived fresh for the fight. They moved swiftly to a place where they were not expected and attacked in a department where the Brumbies were not ready for the contest. The result was a dramatic collapse in the Brumbies’ overall will to resist.
They achieved their aim at the old Velez Sarsfield Stadium, and that was appropriate too. It is the main venue for the games of the full national team, but it has been also been the Jaguares’ home since 2016. They produced a performance of Test-match type intensity and concentration on Saturday morning to fit their surroundings, and they did it in front of 31,000 chanting, stamping supporters who replicated the feverish passion of Boca fans at La Bombonera, albeit on a smaller, boutique scale.
Their performance was seeded in the planning before the game, and they knew that the Brumbies needed the lineout to function in order to generate their potent close-range drives from the set-piece. Not for nothing has Ponies hooker Folau Fainga’a become their top scorer with 12 Super Rugby tries this year.
In the first half, the Brumbies miscued on six bits of possession off their own lineout throw, and after only 20 minutes of the game they found themselves 20 points in arrears. The match, as a contest, was over.
If there is one thing the Brumbies are not equipped to do, it is to play catch-up football and run the ball back from positions in their own half of the field, and that is what they were forced to do in the second half.
Plans to pillage the opposition lineout throw generally begin with an analysis of opposition formations, and the tendencies of the individuals who operate them.
The Jaguares evidently found their key to unlock the door from the positioning and movements of number 8 Lachie McCaffrey, especially his alignment in the shorter, five-man variant:
McCaffrey sets up about half a metre behind the rest of the Brumbies’ lineout players. Australian rugby teams have used this technique for a number of years, with the Wallabies having utilised prop Sekope Kepu in the same way in recent times.
The rationale for this set-up is to enable freer movement up and down the line for both McCaffrey and the receiver behind him – in this case, Rory Arnold. However, it has the side-effect of announcing to the opponent that McCaffrey will also be an important part of the lifting package at the lineout
It is clear from the Jaguares’ movements that they are keying off McCaffrey. First, no.5 Tomas Lavanini switches positions with number 8 Javier Ortega Desio, then Desio effectively mirrors McCaffrey as the ball goes towards the tail and the intended receiver Sam Carter. At the critical moment, Desio is slightly ahead of McCaffrey, and that enables second rower Guido Petti to compete effectively with a man more than six centimetres taller than him:
This was a pattern repeated at rather too many five-man lineouts for the Brumbies’ comfort:
In the first example, Jaguares prop Mayco Vivas at the front follows Sun-Tzu’s advice “by holding out advantages to him, causing the enemy to approach of his own accord”. He leaves his movement until the last moment, and does not give away his intention to mirror McCaffrey until it is too late for the Brumbies to change the call. The pressure of the contest enables Desio to steal an underthrown ball:
The Jaguares are baiting the Brumbies, not giving up their key too early in proceedings. “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake,” as Napoleon Bonaparte once said.
In the longer lineout, the process was even simpler:
The Jaguares once again are not showing their hand until the last possible moment, only getting Petti into his backpedal once the ball is in the air, and no changes are possible:
Petti’s pod sets up a few metres shy of the 15-metre line in order to give the impression that McCaffrey will be jumping unopposed. In reality, that was very far from the truth!
It was no coincidence that the Brumbies lineout improved dramatically when they began to throw away from McCaffrey, as either a lifter or a receiver, after 25 minutes of the first period:
In the first instance, the Jaguares are clearly still marking McCaffrey at the back of a longer line, giving up an uncontested win in the middle. In the five-man example, second rower Tomas Lavanini has the task of tracking McCaffrey’s movements. When the Brumbies number 8 turns out to be a decoy, Lavanini is left in no man’s land and there can be no contest in the air.
Unfortunately for the Brumbies, the adjustment took too long to make. It was too little, far too late.
32 points do not reflect the difference in quality between the two sides who played the semi-final at Estadio José Amalfitani. The result of the regular season game (20-15 to the Jags) is probably closer to the truth.
That the Jaguares succeeded so spectacularly in their aims is due to Sun-Tzu’s theory of surprise attack at an undefended target. They arrived literally on the battlefield first, fresher and with the benefit of more preparation time than their enemy.
They moved swiftly to a place they were not expected by attacking a strength of the Brumbies – the lineout – and the impact of undermining that strongpoint turned out to be far more dramatic than the effect of attacking a known weakness.
Out on the field, they held out advantages to their opponent, baiting them by disguising their movements in the lineout until it was too late for the Brumbies to make an adjustment.
The Jaguares caused so much damage at the lineout that they suffered very little collateral pain of their own from the driving maul, which is the basis of so many scores for the men from Canberra. In Sun-Tzu’s words, they made it impossible for the Brumbies to draw near and set up their goal-line drives.
The Brumbies, meanwhile, will probably be kicking themselves for leaving the fortress of their entire game undefended for so long. It took them 25-30 minutes to realise what the Jaguares were doing at lineout time and sort out a coherent response. By the time they did, they were already 20 points down and the game had moved beyond their reach.
It was a disappointing end to an otherwise successful season for the Brumbies, and an object warning about the dangers of relying on strengths to monitor and maintain themselves automatically.
The Ponies collapsed in one area of the game for half an hour, and ultimately it cost them very dearly.
For that very reason however, it should not affect the longer-term Wallabies prospects of at least half of the team too strongly, in terms of starting selection for the forthcoming truncated Rugby Championship.
They have clearly established themselves as the top team in the Australian conference, and they have done it without the services of their best player. For that effort, they deserve to be roundly applauded.