The debate over restricting playing time for All Blacks in Super Rugby has gone to another level after it was criticised by leading coaches Warren Gatland and Tony Brown.
The Rush 10 Triangle defence is formed of a three-to-four-man shoot portion that rushes up to pressure the first receiver, to make a tackle on him behind the gain line if it can be done.
This urge to smash the receiver and get front-foot defensive momentum is a key element of why the shoot-drift gap is so exploitable.
The drift portion outside the shoot holds back, dependent on the alignment of the opposition. Whilst the disconnect between these two portions is one of the biggest areas to manipulate, this begs the question: what happens when you get outside the first receiver?
Understanding the dynamics of the drift portion and its implications is key to understanding how this area can be targeted.
Weakness: The whip inside spacings
Methods: The counter trey, long inside pass, blind-open runners, re-use of inside options
“Should the enemy strengthen his van, he will weaken his rear; should he strengthen his rear, he will weaken his van; should he strengthen his left, he will weaken his right; should he strengthen his right, he will weaken his left. If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War.
The drift portion are still held back after the initial triangle rush, awaiting the outside call. Dependent on the make-up and numbers of their line, they can do one of three things: hold their depth and drift, push up in a line and hold, or implement the whip.
The whip is the All Blacks rush defence. England under John Mitchell have adopted a very similar style in their defence as well. It follows an identical whip-like motion, gradually coming up man by man from the inside out rather than as a solid entity.
The two-pass vs three-pass dynamic
The benefits of the whip are numerous – it allows the ball to be followed and pressured as it goes down the line.
If the ball is turned over in contact, the All Black in question will have a ready-made attacking line at the right depth outside him for their counter. Indeed, with Ireland, the sequence takes too long and gets shut down.
The last shooter shoots to pressure the first receiver – the speed of the rush is what opens the shoot-drift gap.
This shooter, however, sets the boundary line of where the drift portion within two passes of the first receiver can rush up to.
This is their default. The drift portion within two passes off 10 will come up man by man to follow the ball as it moves across, but only as far forward as this boundary, and at a far more composed speed.
By doing this while following the ball, they ensure that by the time any carrier reaches the gain line, he meets a defender opposite him, and one outside him in a near straight alignment.
This ensures the carrier is pressured, the outside break is covered and any short receiver is also covered and pressured to not receive the pass due to the one-out defender.
The composed speed of the whip and set boundary line also means no significant triangles appear for the carrier that can be exploited like the shoot-drift, due to the carrier always meeting a straight line in front of him.
The only time they break the last shooter boundary within two passes is if there’s an immediate try-scoring overlap on that they need to shut down.
If the ball is passed long with numbers wide, the drift portion outside the ball has held their depth at such a level that they have time to adjust. As can be seen above, Ireland are in a twos play outside the first three pod. The layers of attack are flat enough for catch and pass on a full-field wide play.
But this hits three-pass territory.
The default within two passes is that the whip defence only comes up to the boundary set by the last shooter. This is only broken to close try-scoring overlaps.
At three passes, however, the boundary is void on all levels. If the attack reach three passes, they are nearing an overlap. As such, the drift portion at the end of the whip runs past the boundary with more urgency to cut off these options, meaning the wide players receive the pass under serious pressure and are either snuffed out or concede a turnover from which NZ can muster their counter attack.
In the Irish GIF, Fekitoa as the 13 – like ALB against the Lions – is the first man allowed to push up past the boundary.
The yellow line indicates the default drift portion boundary within two passes.
At three passes, the boundary is void, allowing the end of the whip (red) to rush past this boundary to cut off the wide channels.
This system offers the illusion of space out wide, which is where the All Blacks want to funnel the attack, as to place pressure for the quick pass and possible turnover with a full open side available.
This is improved by the inside defence, which once the ball has passed them, starts drifting immediately. This means the wide defenders always know reinforcements are coming, the wide channels are reinforced, and the defence will be numbered up and waiting on the next phase.
Behind the line, the bite point of the line where player after player moves up acts as an indicator for the 15 or 10 to track. This ensures grubbers through are well marshalled by the rapid Beauden Barrett or Damian McKenzie, and if it gets too wide or the attacking 10 goes for a cross-field or chip kick, Ben Smith’s excellent positioning comes to bear.
Off set piece, also, it is hard to breach midfield. In particular off the scrum, you have Sam Cane and Kieran Read who follow the play behind the line in order to ensure that if a break is made, they are in a position where the carrier can be isolated and effect the turnover.
It is a very effective system, which requires constant communication to work, and makes getting wide very dangerous as an attacking team.
The constant drift of the inside defence once the ball has passed them means that the attacking outside line has to be very flat after the midfield decoy to make ground out wide. Too flat, however, and it can be snuffed out by the end of the whip on three passes, which nearly happens here by ALB.
This is a great example of the three-pass dynamic.
We can see ALB run past the original boundary line to try to snuff out the wide channels by tackling Daly, but what must be admired about NZ is that they anticipate the break.
Between 59:16 and 59:18, numbers 22, 17, 5, 7 and 2 aren’t moving laterally – they’re angled towards their own try line. They have heard the outside call from 13 of danger out wide, and as such, they are making up ground as early as possible. This allows Cane to be there to potentially slow the ball.
When the play is snuffed out by Barrett, if they’d gone strictly laterally, Cane wouldn’t have got there in time and the option to slow it down is lost. They are conceding ground willingly to ensure a try is not run in – the lesser of two evils.
Again, another example of funnelling the attack wide, which ends with Barrett’s excellent positional work as well as the inside support snuffing it out.
How to beat this?
The system is incredibly effective. It depends on superb fitness, communication and work rate, as shown above.
But no defence covers them all. There’s only 15 men on the field. Hence, a team has to be efficient.
Going wide against the All Blacks is what they want. To add the pressure and to force a turnover.
So how do you beat it?
Hard power runs off nine can create the space you need on the wings, as these runs pull in defenders, meaning upon going wide from midfield you have not only created space on the wings, but the All Blacks have less time to fill it with their drift due to launching your play from midfield.
However, there is a subtle weakness of the whip – a byproduct of the inside drift that can be baited out with the right know-how.
Whereas the power run tactic relies on force, the one targeting this weakness relies on guile.
The system is dependent on its inside drift to move over quickly, especially if the opposition have numbers. If the All Blacks believe the opposition is going wide, the second the ball gets past them, they join the drift. If you are the opposition, you want this to happen in a big way. This call is up to the 13 and 7.
As defensive captains, they’re in charge of activating the whip or the drift and how quick the inside drift is. If they scream with urgency, the inside drift will be quicker. This is one of many reasons why Ryan Crotty is, and Conrad Smith was, so unbelievably important to the All Blacks. With his experience, he is far less likely to panic.
The below all have something in common – the key to the tactic of how to target the All Blacks with guile.
Why were the Irish scissor plays – a basic move – so effective at Soldier Field against the All Blacks?
All were long passes off 9 that cut out at least three players to a distributing first receiver.
All were from rucks with a clear blind and open side.
All were in open-phase play.
The All Blacks are assuming a long pass from 9 means a play is going outside the 10 channel. This is fair, as all first receivers above are proficient distributors. All have the ability to pass out back or initiate a wide play.
This means the inside pillars are immediately – with speed – going straight on an in-out line. They have no use at the fringes of the ruck. They are tracking out as part of the inside drift so they can be useful on the open side, and cover the short inside options down the line.
What is worrying, however, is that in every single one of the above examples, the All Blacks did not move over with these players from the other side of the ruck.
If the play went open, the blind players did not move over to fill this gap, and if the play went blind, the open players did not move over.
This in-out line is run by the fringe defenders on the open, while the blind players stay on their side of the ruck.
This leaves a huge gap – the trickle gap – which takes time to fill.
The exception to this is found in league-based defences, which historically try to fill this gap as soon as possible with players from the blind/open being far more proactive in moving over to fill the gap. However, there are even ways to exploit this proactivity, as we will see later.
The key point is that with a fine running line, a flat take, and a quick player, the trickle is a danger zone.
Fekitoa (13) against Ireland, Crotty (13) against Australia, Kaino (6) against Wales – they are the first players on the other side of the ruck who did not move over to fill the gap created by this in-cut in the above examples.
This does not happen all the time. To say so would be folly. But it happens very often, and usually the players who do move over are slow to do so.
This brings us to the moves used to exploit this.
To increase the chances of breaking this gap, a team must do their work off the ball. The more they do, the more chance they have of successfully exploiting it.
Players in the ruck must draw as many All Blacks into the ruck as possible to make the blind-open transfer of players harder.
Players in ruck must lengthen the ruck so as to restrain players moving over to fill in the gap.
There must be a clear blind and open side.
The opposition must pass at least three All Blacks to a distributing first receiver, who should be flat.
Outside of the first receiver should be a wide play set-up incorporating players who will panic the 13 to call the urgency of the inside drift.
The strike runner must come from depth and from a hidden position.
The Wallaby counter trey
Originally developed from an NFL move, this can be lethal. It makes it seem as if you are striking one area of the field to draw the defence there, and then switch, exploiting the gap with numbers and speed before they realise their mistake.
The best example I’ve seen is by Australia, in perhaps one of my most crushing matches as an England fan.
This isn’t a like-for-like method, as it’s the opposite side of the fringe exploited. However, the principles are similar.
The long pass is replaced by Genia’s track run drawing the open fringe defence (Launchbury and Robshaw) over to the blind. The switch is made and the recipient strike runners in the hidden position rapidly run from the blind-open to exploit the vacated fringe, isolating Ben Youngs.
This is a perfect example of exploiting the league-style need to urgently fill the trickle gap, as described earlier.
The open-side pillar defence is near non-existent because of the earlier movement to fill the trickle gap on the blind, making the strike move on the fringe all the more effective.
The Italian reverse
This tactic is slightly different from the counter trey in that it is designed to target a vacated area via overlap instead of a singular gap.
In the very first GIF in this article, we can see the All Blacks forwards start drifting immediately from the line-out. The above play is therefore perfect to attack NZ on the first phase.
It creates significant mismatches with backs running exclusively at forwards, and the All Blacks’ drift results in space on the blind that makes these mismatches even more potent.
We can see the principles at work. Some versions are designed to target an entire area by overlap, as seen in the Italian option, described in NFL as a reverse. Other versions target a created hole, which due to the target being the trickle gap is far more relatable to the counter trey.
A long pass or run to the open, switch in centre field, pass to a hard runner from the blind of the previous ruck targeting the trickle gap. That’s a rugby counter trey.
If the All Blacks wise up to that with players from the blind being more urgent in filling the trickle gap, that leaves less players back on the blind that can be exploited with the reverse by overlap.
Plans A through to Z.
The long inside ball
This same move in the Wales example would have led to a try. You only have to look at the gap between Perenara and Kaino. This example was done by Australia in 2014 during the Ewen McKenzie era.
This isn’t the longest pass from 9, but we see the intent and ground is made. A long pass activates this inside drift, meaning a short inside ball can’t exploit this – but the long inside ball can.
The principles are identical to what we discussed earlier, and the All Blacks’ lack of folding to fill the gap leads to strife in their ranks and a try.
Again, development of this with the use of power runners – particularly in the back three – could lead to a lot of change here.
Hopefully this Rugby Championship, we’ll find out.