At the end of the last Six Nations season, I saw a statistic that George Kruis was the leading hitter of attacking rucks in the Six Nations, on a ruck-by-attacking-minute basis.
This seemed somewhat odd but I never gave it further thought nor credence until seeing a claim in opening round of the Six Nations that Maro Itoje had hit 23 attacking rucks. He was certainly one of England’s better players that day, but 23 is Clark Kent stuff.
It was only later that what had been staring me in the face for the last five years hit home. Northern hemisphere sides have totally flipped the core roles of the back five forwards. They are building their packs upside down and as a result have narrowed their game plans and taken almost all risk (and fun) out of the way they play.
We have all been aware of the ever-decreasing circle of attacking stats. Ireland won the Six Nations without scoring a single try from a turnover, Wales won in 2019 while finishing bottom of every attacking stat known to man and the 2020 version of English rugby had more kicks than a Bruce Lee movie.
It is worth comparing the way this inverted system looked against the southern hemisphere styles and whether it is a system that will continue to be prevalent.
Here are the statistics that first got my attention. These are an average of attacking rucks hit based on average attacking minutes in the 2020 Six Nations.
|Francois Cros||France||Back row|
Compare this to the Super Rugby snapshot stats (pre-COVID and directives) from last year, which I sourced from the Super Rugby site.
|Hoskins Sotutu||Number eight||Blues|
|Isi Naisarani||Number eight||Rebels|
It is not a difficult task to identify the massive difference between the two sets.
The southern hemisphere comp attacking rucks are dominated by loose forwards, but the northern hemisphere is dominated by tight forwards, predominantly locks.
The most prescriptive of sides play the narrowest of game plans and thus use the slower bigger men to hit offensive rucks. This is simple geography.
Comparing Test match stats to the tier below isn’t pure, but would anyone argue Test matches are not a reflection of their supporting competitions?
For completeness, I looked at an All Blacks Test from 2020 with the outcomes largely as expected.
Note: Sam Cane is a freak show of an openside flanker (I will come back to why this term and position has effectively died in Home Nations rugby) and the sooner we get to see him go up against Charles Ollivon, the better.
My other observations are that New Zealand really trust their outside backs to be first to the offensive clean out when required, the presentation of the ball is long and immediate, which means your first cleaners have to be there sharpish, and there is little redundant activity at ruck time – players make decisions on joining or passing a ruck early.
The below table, taken from this year’s Sydney Bledisloe game, uses my definitions of hitting rucks.
Impact means a player’s attendance is critical to securing the ball. Assist means a player is not the primary protagonist but their presence assures ball. Attend means their presence makes no difference to the outcomes of the ruck.
|Patrick Tuipulotu||Sam Whitelock||Shannon Frizell||Sam Cane||Hoskins Sotutu||Backs|
This is very different from the Six Nations outcomes but consistent with the Super Rugby numbers with the addition of the reliance of the midfield backs at wider breakdown time.
In his aforementioned performance, Itoje scored under my method two impacts, two assists and 19 attends. That’s a whole lot of wasted effort simply to support a system.
What has happened to the Home Nations loose forward?
Surely there is not a single bigger misnomer in international rugby than the expression ‘dual openside flankers’.
The first table shows they are not hitting offensive rucks as a Six Nations collective. They feature more at defensive rucks but England’s Sam Underhill and Tom Curry both finish below the average of attending both offensive and defensive rucks. Flankers have become narrow tacklers and spoilers.
Where has the guile and expansive play of the openside flanker gone? There is no link play, and their attacking threat has all but been extinguished.
Where are the men with the offensive threat of a Neil Back? He was an absolute pest of a man at the breakdown and the tackle and had a 24 per cent try-scoring strike rate.
I thought Billy Vunipola would be the man here to counter this argument, albeit from number eight, but he comes in at 14 per cent. That is good versus local peers, but not so good more broadly.
True both-sides-of-the-ball loose forwards like Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Michael Hooper and even Sam Cane rack up strike rates in the high teens. Ardie Savea is north of that.
For final confirmation of this dismal trend, look no further than the talismans of the new breed of dual openside flankers. Josh Navidi and Sam Underhill are fine players but do not have a single whitewash cross between them in 47 Tests.
That is not a coincidence, that is an outcome.
The roles of the forwards have been allowed to change by a phase of refereeing, after the 2015 World Cup, that thought blowing fewer penalties would make the game flow.
It didn’t. It reduced the game to a series of NFL-like segments, reducing fatigue and allowing bigger, slower players to compete with more skilful athletes over a longer period and coaches simply doubled down on it. Why would you not?
To paraphrase Warren Buffet, the tide has now gone out and not being able to slow the ball down is showing up those that have been swimming naked.
England fans are bemoaning their side’s apparent new lack of discipline, when in fact they are simply playing the way they always have under coach Eddie Jones.
What has changed is that referees are beginning to – and I stress, beginning to – actually apply the laws of the game and thus England are now being pinged repeatedly, and I cannot fathom why they are taking so long to adjust. England have conceded more than half their penalties at the breakdown this year. That’s not just bad luck.
France, meanwhile, have restored the threat of offence to their loose forward trio. Gregory Alldritt and Charles Ollivon are the engine room behind this French resurgence. They run at gaps, offload with impunity, link with their nine and ten superbly and have racked up 12 tries in 40 Tests between them.
Last weekend France threw as many offloads as England, Scotland and Wales combined.
Allow me a diversion here to demonstrate the stupidity of referees warning players against infringing rather than penalising them. Let’s all hope Jack Willis’ injury is not too serious, and he is back on the park soon, but at the ruck where he was hurt you clearly hear the referee call “no 21”.
Willis has come in from the side and his shoulders are below his hips. Pick an infringement. Blow the whistle immediately and Jack Willis is safe.
We do not need to outlaw the roll, just referee the breakdown correctly and the roll disappears. Calls for the crocodile roll to be banned address the symptom and not the cause.
The new refereeing paradigm is producing a demonstrably faster game. It is no coincidence that the Home Nation with the quickest loose forward trio, Scotland, has caused England the biggest headaches in recent years, incurring just a single loss in their last four head-to-heads. And France, with their new structure, proved to be more of a handful for England with both their first XV and selection teams playing this way during 2020.
The go-slow code has been broken.
Coaches Gregor Townsend and Fabian Galthie are charging off along the new path, one the Rugby Championship sides never really diverted from. Wayne Pivac’s XV have shown recently that they know that the winds have changed and seek width to include their quick outsides.
The English and Irish teams may still be on the minibus on this one.
It is time to turn your forward packs back up the right way, get your loose forwards back to being an attacking threat once more or risk being left behind in the coming wave.