A PERFECTLY-EXECUTED offload is one of the most joyous acts on a rugby pitch, but is concurrently a highly risky tactic.
We saw both elements during last weekend’s RaboDirect Pro12 final between Glasgow Warriors and Leinster, as the Scottish side benefited from the offload, as well as costing themselves field position and points through an apparent misuse of the skill.
Gregor Townsend clearly encourages his side to offload the ball, playing to the strengths of several of his men. It must be said that Glasgow are a team that look like fun to be part of; a successful, effective blend of culture, skill, tactics, mindset and ambition.
Those factors are often expressed through their passing out of contact, even if their nine-game winning run coming into the final of the Pro12 did see the Warriors hold back at times in this regard.
Their clash with Leinster provides an interesting case study around the offload, demonstrating the rewards and risks involved in the skill. This piece is by no means intended as an answer to the question of ‘is offloading worth the risk?’, rather a conversation starter on the topic.
Glasgow’s attacking tactics against Leinster were largely based around targeting Matt O’Connor’s side in narrow channels, around the fringes of rucks or one pass out from the preceding tackle. With Leinster’s defence operating with high line speed and notable width, it appeared that Townsend and his coaching team identified a weakness tighter to the breakdown and they targeted that area with some success.
We see that much in the GIF above, as scrum-half Chris Cusiter snipes on a clever arcing run, before offloading to Josh Strauss. The South African back row passes out of contact in turn, hitting Alex Dunbar well over the gainline and allowing Glasgow’s momentum to continue forward.
Both offloads come after the Glasgow player has ‘won’ their contact situation. The intention to offload is obviously there as a general mindset, but part of the success is that Cusiter and Strauss both deal with the defender and then offload from a strong position, while also having clear sight of the player they are offloading too.
Equally as important is that both players are moving forward, getting behind defenders and offloading beyond the gainline. That means the supporting players are coming on to the ball at pace, adding a huge stress for Leinster’s scrambling defence. While any offload comes with risks of losing possession, these examples have a high percentage of potential success. In the animation below, Cusiter provides another illustration of those traits.
Glasgow’s tactic of funnelling their attack into those narrow channels reaped rewards in the first half, allowing them onto the front foot and therefore providing them with favourable opportunities to offload.
While the Warriors were not as clinical inside Leinster’s 22 as they have been for the majority of the season (something which was repeated in the second half) and did not score a try, they trailed just 14-12 at the break after a positive 40-minute performance.
Injury to Chris Fusaro in the 25th minute added an intriguing offloading element to the game as Fijian international Leone Nakarawa entered the fray with his incredible grip and unquenchable thirst for passing after contact.
Nakarawa’s initial efforts in offloading were successful, as in the example above, with Glasgow again attacking narrow around the fringes, as he demonstrated his uncanny belief in keeping the ball alive out of contact. While the GIF above ends with Glasgow being pinged by Nigel Owens for a forward pass, it does show the gains they made through combining a narrow attack with offloads. Unfortunately, the combination was not as successful in the second half.
The Risk of the Offload
The GIF above shows one instance where the offload let Glasgow down, as Ryan Grant forces the pass to Al Kellock, who is arriving to clear what he expects will be a ruck. The error comes in a similar position to those examples above, with Glasgow having made yards in a narrow channel, but Grant is in a far less dominant contact position.
It shows the more forceful nature of the Glasgow offloading in the second half, where the pass was pushed rather than flowing naturally to a supporting player. In that vein, the video below shows Nakarawa attempting an offload that is low percentage.
This error comes at the end of an excellent counter-attack, in which the Warriors have made superb yardage back up the pitch before running close to the left-hand touchline. Rather than take the contact and recycle possession, Nakarawa goes for a really testing offload. The Fijian is a thrilling and frustrating player in equal parts, looking for the offload virtually every single time he gets his hands on the ball. No coach would want to quell that magnificent ability totally, but there are times when the offload simply isn’t on.
Nakarawa’s first thought is so often to look for the offload, even before he has entered contact. Again, that’s not necessarily an unwelcome mindset – Sonny Bill Williams operates under a similar philosophy – but being in a strong position through contact is equally as important as the actual offload itself.
In the GIF above, we see Nakarawa used as a midfield carrier against Leinster’s typical line speed. As soon as the Fijian gets close to contact with Jamie Heaslip and then Sean Cronin, the offload is foremost in his thoughts. The hands go up and Nakarawa briefly considers passing the ball, almost forgetting that he needs to pump his legs through the contact. The result is that he is driven backwards in the face of a thunderous Leinster hit.
In contrast, below we see the Glasgow player winning the contact situation before looking for the offload post-contact. These are the situations when Nakarawa is at his very best and surely something the Warriors expect from him.
Nakarawa’s one-handed carrying adds a whole new element to his offloading game, and again highlights the risks that temper the potential rewards for offloading in certain coaches’ eyes. The former Fijian Military Forces man has an incredible grip on the ball when he carries in one hand, enabling him to complete offloads from positions that, at times, seem barely plausible.
Leinster were clearly prepared for that trait of Nakarawa’s though (take a bow Emmet Farrell and the performance analysis team), and targeted the Fijian’s arm whenever he carried with a single-handed grip.
In the clip above, Nakarawa again envisions an offload over the top of the last defender, but Ian Madigan reacts swiftly to get up to Nakarawa’s offloading hand and swipe the ball back to his teammates.
Below, in similar fashion, we see Nakarawa entering contact with the ball in one arm, initially thinking about the offload, before Madigan bursts in on that left arm and wrestles the ball clear.
Leinster clinically counter-attack from the turnover and Zane Kirchner scores to turn what was a 20-12 scoreline into one that reads 27-12 in Leinster’s favour with five minutes left on the clock.
As mentioned before, offloading is one of the most attractive attacking skills in the game, and it’s one that should certainly be encouraged among younger players and amateurs, at the very least.
It’s fun, and allows players to express their vision and handling ability. When successfully carried out, an offloading game is close to impossible to defend against. However, at the higher levels of the game, offloading is a fine balancing act, and we have seen some coaches look to limit the amount of times their teams use the skill.
Ireland this season are the prime example (making 27 offloads in the Six Nations), with Joe Schmidt having preferred his supporting players to be free to focus on their rucking duties, thereby ensuring quick ball in phase play.
It will be fascinating to observe whether there is any change in that aspect of Ireland’s approach during the coming Test matches against Argentina, and beyond. With their diamond-shape ball-carrying pods in phase attack, Ireland certainly have the structure in place to build an offloading game.
Similarly, it will be intriguing to follow Glasgow’s offloading habits as they continue to grow next season. The strength of Leinster’s defence ultimately allowed them get to grips with the Scots’ passes out of contact, but there were also clear signs of how effective offloading can be in the Pro12 final.
What is your philosophy on offloading? Is it something you like to see or is there too big a risk involved to pursue a game based around the skill? What has helped your team be an effective offloading side, or what has prevented them from developing that aspect of the game?