Much of their ability to excel on the counter is down to the individual attacking excellence of their backs, led by the exciting Castres fullback Brice Dulin. It would be a disservice to the French to put their counter-attacking strength solely down to individuals though; they possess a collective focus on striking swiftly when they first get possession.
That said, Philippe Saint-André’s men do not operate with as much structure as New Zealand [for example] in those turnover scenarios, trusting their instinct and vision to spot the space, rather than working to a set pattern of identifying areas to attack.
So often with Steve Hansen’s side in recent years, we have seen clear signs of a structure in the supposedly ‘structureless’ situation of the transfer of possession.
When fielding a clearing kick on the right touchline for example, we will see the Kiwi centres and/or back row working hard to get back and provide width on the far side of the pitch, with the left wing moving infield to link up with his fullback and right wing.
France are slower to create a similar shape on counter-attack, instead working more freely in identifying and exploiting space. The point is that there is no single ‘ideal’ way of counter-attacking; as long as a team identifies the space on the pitch and exploits it to the maximum, we can call it successful counter-attacking.
But how often do we see that happening in rugby nowadays? Some teams are hesitant to counter-attack, fearing the possibility of an error in such an open area of the game, while others are simply weak in the skills of space-identification.
Many coaches will operate with the basic outline of swiftly shifting the ball to the opposite side of the pitch to where the catch or turnover takes place. While that is certainly an ideal tactic in many situations, adhering to it too slavishly can see teams ignoring opportunities literally in front of them.
Let’s take a look at an example from the recent Hurricanes vs. Brumbies clash in Super Rugby, where the ‘Canes backs create a scything counter-attacking break by evaluating the options in front of them, rather than pursuing the more ’common’ route of attacking away from where the reception of the kick took place.
Following Marty Banks’ quickly taken throw-in, Beauden Barrett shifts the ball into Julian Savea, with the left wing having worked his way infield to link with the out-half [who is acting as a fullback in this instance].
In the screenshot below, we can also see that Conrad Smith [circled] has worked his way back from the front-line defence to offer a little more width. If this was New Zealand, you could be certain that at least one more player would have bust a lung to work back with Smith and provide a further threat wide on the left.
The arrow from Savea indicates where most counter-attacking would ‘normally’ take place, aiming to get at Tevita Kuridrani and exploit the space outside him. However, Savea gets his head up and surveys the options, realises that with only Smith outside him there is little chance of making big gains and then bounces back ‘against the grain’.
The decision is also based upon the fact that the Brumbies chase has slacked off on the inside; the point of moving a counter-attack away from the side of the pitch where the kick or turnover took place is often due to the number of bodies that occupy the space directly in front of the counter-attacker.
But here, Savea spots that the Brumbies have left a pocket of space on the inside edge of their kick chase [indicated by the circle below].
By bouncing back off his outside foot, Savea is doing what the Brumbies really don’t expect of him. They are anticipating the winger counter-attacking along the same grain as the preceding passes, from right-to-left.
That space on the inside edge of the kick chase is one that is not always present, as the shot below taken during the France vs. Italy clash in the Six Nations shows. What we see below is more typical of the kick chase after a clearing kick on the left-hand side of the pitch.
The example above is the more common situation, whereby the space to counter-attack into is on the far side of the pitch to where the kick originated. However, as the Hurricanes counter-attack demonstrates, there are occasions on which the best route for counter-attacking lies directly in front of where the turnover of possession is received.
The key to the success of Savea and Barrett in exploiting that hole is the ‘selling’ of the idea that they are going to attack on the opposite side of the field, with the two passes sent in that direction, as well as Savea’s initial running line being to that side of the pitch.
Bouncing back to the space Savea has spotted on the inside edge can be achieved as simply as he does it – by stepping off his outside foot – or through dummy loop plays, switches, etc. As the French are showing this year, counter-attacking is all about players making instant and informed decisions and then ruthlessly going after the space.
Having a basic structure is certainly an aid in doing so, but there is danger in having pre-agreed rules as to how and where a team will counter-attack. Shifting the ball away from where the turnover of possession occurs can be hugely effective, but it may not always be the ‘right’ call.
What is your take on counter-attacking? Does a structure help a team to identify space more swiftly or can pre-agreed shapes hinder that identification? Is it always best to adhere to a ‘two-pass rule’ for moving the ball away to the opposite side of the pitch? Comments below
Murray Kinsella is a staff writer with TheScore.ie