In his coaching module on the construction of back moves, Wayne Smith searches for the meaning of the popular phrase “heads up football”. That phrase is often-used in the commentary on games but it is rarely broken down into specifics.
“A lot of coaches talk about ‘heads-up rugby’ in attack,” he says.
“But what does that mean?… If you don’t know what you’re looking for, and what sort of feedback to give, you are not going to be successful”.
Wayne Smith goes on to define ‘heads-up’ attack as the ability to read and react to what the defence is doing, and communicate your understanding to the back-line director.
In his coaching module on “Walk through on Attack”, ex-All Black centre Conrad Smith develops this thread further, pointing up the specific attacking possibilities that can occur from left-side scrums in that prime attacking zone inside the opposition 40m line.
In this scenario the opposition half-back can often be caught on the ‘wrong side’ of the play near the touch-line, which presents some inviting opportunities for the attacking side when they stack all their backs to the open side of the field.
The message from these two great All Black minds is that ‘heads-up’ means an awareness of field position, of opposition tendencies and how to exploit them, plus the ability to communicate the right solutions effectively to your team-mates.
A lucid recent example of these processes working together to produce a score occurred in the Wales v England Six Nations match last Saturday afternoon.
Just before the scrum was set, the Welsh half-back Rhys Webb and the key attacker on the play – blindside wing, #11 Liam Williams – are snapshotted on camera together, with Webb talking quietly to Williams behind the back of his hand. That is probably where the plot was first hatched.
Scrums on the (attacking) left side of the field are notoriously difficult to defend. Usually the defending right wing stays put on the short-side wherever his opposite number lines up – as Conrad Smith says, there is always a chance of the scrum being promoted on the attacking loose-head side and an 8-9 move down that narrow corridor. Meanwhile the scrum-half has a difficult decision to make: does he chase around to the base to disrupt, or pull out and circle around to link up with the open-side defence?
At 37:30 we can see that England have collectively failed to answer these questions with any accuracy. Number 14 Jack Nowell is still out of shot on the blind-side and number 9 Ben Youngs has taken the risk of chasing around on to the Wales eighth man Ross Moriarty. As soon as Moriarty successfully gets the ball away to his scrum-half, England are in serious trouble.
In the freeze-frame Wales have a clear five on three in the middle of the field:
Webb is looking to engage the England number 10 George Ford and Liam Williams is ‘hiding’ just behind him, with Youngs having been ‘used up’ by the chase around the back of the scrum and Nowell still out of frame beyond the England 15 metre line. Meanwhile the two England centres Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph are also looking at an overload with three Welsh attackers (10 Dan Biggar, 12 Scott Williams and 13 Jon Davies) opposite them.
Wales would also have understood from their preparation prior to the game that England always stick close to Ford in the 10 channel in these scenarios. As Webb brings the ball to the gain-line, Ford has a pair of ‘minders’ both inside (number 7 Jack Clifford) and outside him, with Farrell engaged by the angled ‘holding’ run of Scott Williams.
All of this leaves poor Jonathan Joseph defending on what appears to be an island, and surrounded by a sea of red at 37:31.
If he moves in towards Williams, that leaves Davies and Biggar free outside him. In the event he stays out on the Wales 10 and 12 and Williams has a clear run through to the goal-line to score untouched.
All the way through from the initial conversation between the two key attackers Webb and Williams, the accurate prediction of the way the England defence would react and the identification of where the space would be, the scenario fulfils Wayne Smith’s definition of ‘heads-up’ attacking rugby exactly. It is planned but it is also executed according to the circumstances of the moment.
I firmly believe the planning stage occurred well before the game was played and had been ‘held in storage’, certainly for weeks and maybe for months. The scoring move is a carbon copy of a try the All Blacks scored against Argentina in the third round of the 2016 Rugby Championship:
A few years ago, the Pumas used to defend these situations by inserting their blind-side wing in the 10 channel to provide the extra open-side defender, with the scrum-half looking after the short-side on his own.
In this instance however, the wing is again defending empty space out of camera shot, while the scrum-half Martin Landajo is attempting to get a read off Julian Savea as to All Black intentions. He tries to mirror Savea as he jumps left at 10:19, then back to the right one second later.
Landajo follows the first move but is (fatally) a step slow on the second, and that is enough to allow the same narrative to develop as in the Wales-England game. The New Zealand 9 Aaron Smith engages Puma 10 Nicolas Sanchez while the Argentine 12 is successfully held by the angled run of Ryan Crotty. This levers open the space for Savea to run past the hapless #13 Matias Orlando stuck out on his island!
Playing ‘heads-up’ attacking rugby does not mean approaching a contest without any preparation and relying on instinct or hunches to guide you through all the labyrinths a game of rugby presents. Far from it.
It means being ready to improvise from the foundation of a real depth of preparation off the field. When something clicks mentally and you recognize the overlap in preparation and on-field circumstances, you act decisively.
It means being able to communicate your recognition clearly to those around you in order to realize the opportunity fully and cohesively. ‘Heads up’ is nothing else but the perfect marriage of preparation off the field and action on it – and for those heady thirty seconds before and during that attacking scrum against England, that is exactly what Wales achieved.