Teams from New Zealand are the best in the world at integrating their forwards into attacks as they develop through phases, and it is one the main ‘secrets’ behind their ability to sustain continuity at high speed in this area.
In his outstanding recent series of videos on coaching the attack from Stanford University in California, Sir Graham Henry outlines how some of those secret processes really work.
In part four of his presentation, Ted examines the options in a three-man forward pod in the middle of the field.
The options can be summarized as follows:
i. A carry by the forward in the middle of the group
ii. A ‘tip’ pass from the middle forward to the man outside him
iii. An inside pass
iv. A ‘rip’ on the over-call by the back standing behind the forward pod
Although this structure can be observed in most teams at professional level, the number of sides who make full use of the potential within it is relatively small.
As Graham Henry puts it, “A lot of teams use this structure, but all they do is carry the ball (into contact via the ‘middle man’)." “The good teams have the skill to get in behind. Make the tip, the rip, the inside ball or carry.”
Some ideal examples of the possibilities contained within the structure occurred during the British & Irish Lions second tour match against the Blues at Eden Park.
The Blues scored a try in the 7th minute which hinged on the ability of their ‘middle man’ in the pod – tight-head prop Charlie Faumuina – to both carry and distribute, and critically to make the right decision about what to and when to do it.
The first use of the Faumuina pod occurred after the Blues had re-gathered a cross-kick on the right side of the field:
There is a shot illustrating the decision-making process just before Faumuina takes the ball up into contact:
At 6:15 Charlie Faumuina does not see space outside him so decides to take the ball up into the midfield defence by point straight ahead of him. At 6:22 (right at the end of the footage), we can see why. The last Lions’ defender (#14 Jack Nowell in the blue hat) is level with his opposite number, Blues #11 Rieko Ioane on the 15 metre line. In addition, the Lions two backfield defenders – Leigh Halfpenny (in the black hat) and Rhys Webb, are split evenly to either side of the ruck set by Faumuina.
However, it is Faumuina’s first decision which sets the ground for the success of the second. The Lions’ defence is compact, Nowell has his shoulders turned infield towards the play, and the two-man backfield is narrow – and these are aspects that can be exploited by the use of variation within that middle pod.
The surface situation looks quite similar to the first example. Faumuina receives the ball with Nowell and Ioane still roughly opposite one another on the 15 metre line and the Lions still operating their narrow two-man backfield.
But as the Blues #10 Stephen Perofeta makes the ‘rip’ over-call to Faumuina, some subtle but important differences become evident:
Nowell has lost eye contact with Ioane and is turning more sharply infield than before, while Halfpenny and Webb are positioned further towards the far side-line than they were in the first example.
These two subtle differences will become major problems for the Lions if Faumuina can make the ‘rip’ delivery to Perofeta, and Perofeta can then hit Ioane in stride with the long pass.
The weight on Faumuina’s ‘rip’ is just right, and when Perofeta goes to make the final pass Jack Nowell’s inward momentum has continued to the point where he is ten metres adrift of Rieko Ioane and facing away from the target. Moreover, Halfpenny and Webb in the Lions backfield are too far away to be able to make a difference in cover defence. In the event, Ioane scores with some metres to spare.
Summary The example from the Blues-Lions game illustrates very clearly what a huge difference the presence of accurate decision-makers and ball-handlers in ‘grunt’ positions (like tight-head prop) can make.
The Blues successfully integrate Charlie Faumuina into their attacking structure by asking him to be able utilise all the options available to him. He must have the power to carry the ball up into the thickest part of the defence, but he must also have the hands and intelligence to be able to connect with the backs (given the over-call) or the forward positioned outside him.
In other words, the score comes from a tight forward with the capacity to think his way through the situations with which he is presented, and with the ball-handling ability to follow through on his decision once it has been made.
It sounds simple, but only the very best teams in the world enjoy it to the degree exhibited in this example. The true excellence is in the attention to detail. As the great Muhammad Ali once said, “It isn’t the mountains ahead to be climbed that wear you out, it’s the pebble in your shoe”.