New learning and a way to unlock the Press defence
Over the month of May, the players picked for British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand will build towards the climax of their domestic competitions – the English Premier League play-offs and the Pro 12 – before preparing for the tour Down Under.
One of the biggest challenges for both sides will be how to find ways to break down the versions of Press defence which will be employed by both the Lions and the All Blacks.
The Lions’ defence coach Andy Farrell was probably the first coach to employ a huge collective upfield drive at international level, during his time with England (2012-2015). New Zealand teams have tended to favour a basic drift defence historically, but that pattern has been changing steadily over the course of the last two or three seasons.
The Hurricanes won the 2016 Super Rugby title on the back of an aggressive rushing D which allowed only four penalty goals and no tries, in three games during the knockout stages of the tournament. At the level above Super Rugby, the All Blacks themselves have added increased line-speed in many specific situations on the field.
It will therefore be fascinating to observe how both sides approach the task of suppressing line-speed, and creating attacking openings against the Rush in June and July.
With blanket satellite TV coverage of games from all around the globe available 24/7, rugby learning has become easier to access, even if some psychological reservations about the speed of that educational process remain.
Some coaches prefer to stay more or less where they are in terms of knowledge, and wherever possible deepen and ring-fence their coaching secrets and their intellectual property from outside enquiry. As a result, their knowledge-base is stable and profound, but more often than not it does not represent the cutting edge of innovation in the game.
Another type of coach, epitomised by current New Zealand senior assistant Wayne Smith, prefers to share knowledge in order to create more desire to innovate:
“If I tell you what I am doing, the minute I walk out of that door I have to come up with something new. It forces you to innovate, to think and be open to new learning. That is how the psyche works… You have to keep moving on. Share ideas, because as soon as you share ideas, you have to come up with something new.”
On the one hand, the Lions will be guided by the Northern Hemisphere master of the known, Warren Gatland. In the South, one of the key influencers will be Wayne Smith, champion of the free and fluid process of learning.
How will this difference affect the attacking approach to unlocking a Press defence? I believe that the short, attacking kicking game will have a big part to play. One of the clear minuses of the defensive rush is the space left in behind it, because the zone between the line and the backfield is significantly bigger than it is in a straightforward drift.
Ironically, the Lions have chosen to leave behind two of the outside-halves who have the greatest expertise in delivering these short attacking kicks, in the shape of England’s George Ford and Scotland’s Finn Russell. They have preferred the solidity of the known at #10, with Owen Farrell, Johnny Sexton and Dan Biggar selected in that position.
Here is an example of Russell’s ability, showcased in the 2016 Autumn tour game against Australia from an attacking lineout:
At first, Russell runs a few steps towards the defensive line in order to encourage it do perform the task for which it is built – to hit attackers hard and square on the wrong side of the advantage-line.
When he is no more than two metres from engaging the defender opposite (#6 David Pocock), Russell drops the ball on to his foot. As the kick is made at 7:11, there are really only two defenders who can read the play and close on the ball – #13 Tevita Kuridrani looking in from the outside, and #2 Stephen Moore who is positioned slightly behind the rush on the inside of the field.
The angle of the main chaser (Scotland outside centre Huw Jones) is sharp out-to-in, and coming from a position behind Kuridrani. With Moore lacking the necessary foot-speed to close down the gap, and Kuridrani tardy on the turn, Jones wins the race to the bounce and accelerates away to score.
In contrast to the Lions, the All Blacks have at least three first five-eighths (Beauden Barrett, Aaron Cruden and Lima Sopoaga) who sit on the cutting edge of expertise in the short attacking kicking game. At least one of those (Barrett, who started his life at full-back), has been coached extensively to achieve the level of potency he has in that area.
This example comes from a 2017 Super Rugby match between the Highlanders and the Crusaders, with Lima Sopoaga creating the play for the Highlanders from lineout.
As in the Russell instance, Sopoaga is no more than one to two metres away from the defence when the chip is made, so the rush has already been tacitly ‘invited’ by his taking the ball right up to the line.
Once again, the only two defenders who can influence the play directly are Crusaders #13 Jack Goodhue (from the outside) and #2 Codie Taylor (on the inner track). Even though Goodhue is positioned deeper than Kuridrani was in the Scotland example, his turning circle is not sharp enough to keep stride with Malakai Fekitoa running that out-to-in angle on to the ball.
Creativity ultimately goes back to amenability to the learning process. The All Blacks, with a genuine innovator in their coaching ranks in Wayne Smith, can select three #10’s who will execute the kind of kick which can be such a powerful antidote to the rush defence on 1st phase.
The Lions, with their drastically-limited preparation time and a head coach who prefers to refine known and proven methods rather than to experiment, has selected three solid, reliable citizens to run the show from #10. Whether the short kicking games of Sexton or Farrell or Biggar will have the variety and accuracy to combat the All Blacks’ version of the rush defence will be one of the fascinating questions waiting to be answered by the approaching Test series.