The margins between winning and losing Test matches are very fine, and nowhere is this axiom truer than in the actions and decision-making of the open-side flanker.
Richie McCaw was the best in the world over a long period of time at ‘treading the high wire’ of refereeing and decision-making in this area, while his replacement in the New Zealand side, the Chiefs’ Sam Cane, is still learning the ropes.
In the 3rd Test against Wales, Cane experienced both the best and the worst of all possible scenarios. Over the first 46 minutes of the match he was penalized four times and finally yellow-carded by referee Jerome Garces for repeated infringement. The final 24 minutes witnessed a remarkable transformation, with Cane winning three turnovers in contact, one of which was returned for a try, and providing the ‘quick hands’ link for Dane Coles score in the 62nd minute.
Let’s take a look at some of those fine margins in the light of Richie McCaw’s coaching module on the breakdown.
The penalty which finally broke Garces’ patience and led to the issue of the yellow card occurred just after half-time:
In the segment of Richie McCaw’s module dealing with the defensive breakdown (parts 7-9), the ex-All Black captain indicates that there are three possible decisions for the open-side flanker at every tackle situation:
1. Become the tackle assist
2. Attack the ball on the ground
3. Pull out into the defensive line
The accuracy of his decision-making between these three options is the prime measure of a no.7’s successful (defensive) performance.
In the example above, there is a clear window of opportunity for Sam Cane to make an impact from the ‘tackle assist’ position. After the Wales #15 Rhys Patchell receives the high ball, he is turned by the first chaser Julian Savea on to the All Blacks’ side (see Wayne Smith’s module on “Contesting the high ball”), and at 35:33 there is a temporary disconnect between Patchell and his support (2 Ken Owens and 23 Scott Williams).
So far, so good. However, Cane has not quite squared up his body ‘North-South before he is punched out of the tackle area by a very good cleanout from Ken Owens. It is at this juncture in the sequence that Cane makes the wrong decision. He goes in for a second bite at the ball instead of accepting that the window of opportunity has closed, and pulling out into the defensive line.
With Cane rolling on to the Wales side of the breakdown, the Welsh half-back Rhys Webb is able to milk the penalty & yellow card out of Garces by throwing the ball directly into Cane’s body.
Now compare Cane’s actions and decision-making from his ‘golden’ period in the last quarter of the match:
In this example, 22 Lima Sopoaga make a positive tackle on Scott Williams, stopping the Welsh centre in his tracks. At 66:06 Sam Cane shifts through his option menu and makes his decision in an instant, and it is the right one. Despite the platform created by Sopoaga’s tackle, Wales #13 Jonathan Davies is still closest to the ball-carrier and therefore there is no isolation.
Cane momentarily dips in as if to attack the ball before pulling out into the defensive line, and his action creates a huge imbalance on the next phase at 66:08 in the All Blacks’ favour. With six Welsh players absorbed by the first ruck, three Wales attackers at 1st receiver are confronted by no less than five All Black defenders in the same area. New Zealand are able to develop excellent line-speed off their numbers advantage, with Cane dislodging the ball in a strong tackle on Taulupe Faletau.
A second example from the final sequence of play from the match, shows Cane making another correct decision, on this occasion attacking the ball on the ground.
Richie McCaw observes in his module that a successful tackle bust can have the effect of isolating the attacker from his support, and that is what happens here. Faletau makes five metres on a pick & go but loses contact with his first support player.
At 82:32 it becomes a contest between Cane and the Welsh replacement half-back Gareth Davies, and Cane holds all the trump cards. Cane already meets Richie McCaw’s requirements for a successful jackal:
• a wide leg base to give stability
• a lower body position than Davies – he wins the ‘battle of the shoulders’
• 100% commitment to the play
Cane wrestles the ball away as he’s blown out by the next wave of Welsh cleaners and suddenly it’s 14-point turnaround score 80 metres downfield for Israel Dagg!
A third involvement by Sam Cane at an attacking breakdown had a subtle but decisive impact in the build-up to Beauden Barrett’s try in the 57th minute:
At 56:34 the New Zealand wing Julian Savea gets some forward movement through the tackle of 23 Scott Williams, and Cane slots into the perfect niche Richie McCaw recommends for the open-side flanker in inside support (parts 3 & 5) – at a 45° angle, one to two metres off the ball-carrier.
At 56:36 he identifies the primary threat – his opposite number Sam Warburton – and gets a good knee-bend which enables him to explode like a coiled spring into Warburton’s rib-cage. The North-South angle, the knee-bend and the low body height all follow Dr. McCaw’s prescription as Warburton is driven fully five metres backwards through the Welsh defensive line.
Cane’s dominance at cleanout has a critical spin-off. The key defender in the following passing movement is Wales #10 Dan Biggar, and Cane’s cleanout forces Biggar to take the long way around in order to get to the far side of the field:
Biggar is half a step late in cover defence when Beauden Barrett receives the ball and skirts past Liam Williams, and that half-step was the result of Cane’s dominant cleanout creating interference in the Welsh defensive pattern.
It is indeed a game of fine margins.