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The FICA method: A tactical opinion on countering the two-minute close-out

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29th July, 2019
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In sport, it is universally accepted that when you’re a neutral, you’ll rally behind the underdog. 

When we think of Japan and South Africa in 2015, the crowd cheered as loudly as if England had won the World Cup final. Shane Williams himself lost his cool in commentary and openly celebrated the final Blossoms try, such was the euphoria that this moment brought.

It was seeing David beating Goliath. You wouldn’t dare to comprehend such an achievement.

When I think of the ultimate underdog story, I think of a film series started on a shoestring budget that had as much chance as succeeding as the character it championed. As much an underdog as the titular character, outgunned by the money of Hollywood, but tenacious, gritty and inspirational. The result being a multi-million-dollar film franchise winning multiple Academy Awards and cementing an iconic status in film history.

I’m talking of course. About Rocky.

My uncle once told me a story about seeing Rocky II at the cinema. I was laying on the carpet, watching it in the living room for the first time as an eight-year-old youngster. Before you knew it, I was watching the final round.

Rocky and Apollo were both on the canvas exhausted, struggling to get up to make the count. The crowd were screaming for Rocky to get up, his old loan shark boss was manic, roaring at him to make the count. Mickey had his head on the canvas, banging his hands on it, begging for him to make it.

And I was on my feet, tensely poised in some kind of slight squat pose, fists clenched and screaming too. I was desperate for this underdog to get up and win – to beat this cocky, arrogant bad guy who had vilified and organised a humiliation campaign to get him in the ring.

It happened. Apollo collapsed, and Rocky just made the count. I was jumping on the sofa, euphoric. My uncle – who’d been standing in the doorway watching – walked in laughing, told me to get down and then told me how when he saw it for the first time at the cinema. Much like me, the audience at the count were all near standing on their feet, screaming at Rocky to get up as if they could change the outcome.

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Such is the passion evoked when the underdog gets a sniff.

Apollo had the fight won. On points, there was only one winner, but he was prideful. He wanted to carry on boxing – to knock Rocky out, to finish him, to put it beyond doubt that he was the better fighter.

He underestimated Rocky, thinking he was going to do it. Duke, on the other hand – Apollo’s trainer – was smarter. From the very first movie, upon seeing Rocky in the meat-house on the TV, he had known that Rocky and his style was dangerous for Apollo.

He begged Apollo to not chase him in this tired state, realising that Apollo’s ‘float like a butterfly’ style would not knock out Rocky while they were both exhausted in this filthy, gritty, street-brawler type fight, perfectly suited for Rocky’s fighting style.

via Gfycat

Even with Apollo heavily on the offensive, he was pleading with him to back off. He knew Rocky wasn’t going down in this fight, and he knew what was coming.

These smarts and clarity of thinking provide the perfect metaphor behind the two-minute close-out.

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If you are leading as a rugby team by less than a score and you have the ball, in the last minute or two, you implement the two-minute close-out. We have all seen this if we watch rugby.

It’s an infuriating one-pass-off-9 play where a carrier catches the ball, runs forward a metre and goes to ground, with two support players already clinging to him to prevent any contest on the ball.

Two-minute close-out example 1.

Two-minute close-out example 2.

This is the rugby version of what Duke was screaming at Apollo to do. The game was won. He wanted him to play it smart.

This infuriates me whenever I play against it. If done smartly, the opposition cleaners just have to stay on their feet and go through the gate, and this makes your team more and more frustrated. You come in through the side, hands in the ruck, you do anything to get the ball. This leads to a penalty that can often put the game beyond any doubt.

The standard SOP to counter this seems to be an attempt to hold the player up to form a maul and turnover possession. This does have a place, as what teams will do in response is put their cleaners in incredibly close proximity to the carrier to the point that they are latching on. This is so he is grounded immediately or has protection from being surrounded in the choke tackle.

The FICA method is dependent on this proximity.

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I want to discuss alternate ways of countering this. Unfortunately, it’s near impossible to hold the carrier up, as the carrier is already falling to the floor to avoid this. This is especially prevalent in teams like Leinster and Ireland, whose breakdown is superb.

My method is called FICA, which stands for funnel, isolate, compete and anchor.

FICA is made up of a four-player cube set up opposite the opposition forward pod. This set-up is designed to result in a turnover penalty for your team. It is made up of two members of your tight five, preferably the front row, as well as your open-side and No.8.

The positions for this are debatable and dependent on the physical characteristics of your players, but this is designed to provide legal separation between the carrier and his cleaners. This is why the maul is important. You need to trick the opposition into getting their support players nearly pre-latched onto the carrier. Once you have this, FICA can then be used so you can get away with it.

In the defensive line, you line two members of the front row opposite the intended carrier, called funnellers. They are slightly more spaced then the rest of the line, so the carrier is lined up opposite a wider gap in between them. This is the funnel, designed to draw the carrier in.

Lined up directly behind them are your open-side behind the left-hand man, called your jackal, and your eight behind the right-hand man, known as your extractor and anchor.

Once the carrier makes his run, the funnellers in their wider positions move outside to in. This means the left-hand man moves to his two o’clock and the right-hand man moves to his ten o’clock, the extractor moves in behind the right-hand man, and the jackal stays back, waiting.

When the funnellers hit the carrier, they hit at the two o’clock and ten o’clock angle. They don’t hit him head on – they aim their centre mass at a point just behind him as seen in the image below. In their tackle, they elongate their bodies, using their rearmost arm to wrap the carrier, but they keep that arm feather light.

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Two-minute close-out example 3.

This is done for a key objective. Their rearmost shoulders are soft, and their furthermost shoulders are hard.

As they are aiming behind him, this means the two funnellers present an incredibly soft shoulder to the carrier, letting him through under the guise of a missed tackle. Once he’s through, they converge on the point immediately behind him (red circle), driving themselves in between the carrier and support players. This presents hard shoulders and an elongated body to the support, stopping them in place and starting the separation.

The job of the extractor (black circle) is to make sure the carrier makes it through, and makes it through well.

He positions just behind the right-hand man, meaning as the carrier comes through the soft shoulders. He grabs him and drags him through, increasing the distance between him and his halted support players, isolating him firmly at the feet of his jackal, who has stayed back and pounces immediately.

The extractor rushes back, changing his role, and anchors the jackal in.

This is the FICA method, and how a team can best counter the close-out. It provides a separation dynamic between the carrier and support, meaning the jackal can get in with space and time to establish a good position.

He is very quickly supported by the anchor and the funnellers are able to subtly provide a little bit of obstruction to the cleaners while they move around them, which increases the time the jackal has on the ball.

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The cleaners have also been fully halted, which means they don’t have a huge run-up to dislodge the jackal and anchor, making the turnover penalty all the more likely.

It should also be clear to see why you need the cleaners to be very close to the carrier now. Without their proximity, you can’t target them, as you’d be accused of taking the man out or clear obstruction.

This technique merely allows you leverage. You go into tackle the carrier, but due to your angles and soft shoulder intentionally miss, meaning they run and are helped through incredibly soft shoulders, while the funnellers carry on through, presenting a hard shoulder to the cleaners and causing separation.

Technically, the rear arm did wrap him very lightly. Therefore, this all happened under the guise of a missed tackle.

The current technique involves stopping the carrier first, meaning you’re helping the cleaners reach their man quicker. This is lunacy.

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This is something new, entirely theoretical and will require developing, yet it could work. Referees at their core want to see rugby being played right to the end. This wish may end up making them more lenient to the team who does this.

It’s a completely last chance saloon tactic. But against this well-established, hard-to-break, and very frustrating close-out, it might be enough to get you a penalty.

That penalty could have a very big effect.