THE SIX NATIONS gets underway on Friday evening with the potentially brilliant meeting of Wales and England in Cardiff.
We’ve been frequently reminded by the competition’s organisers that this is the ‘greatest rugby championship in the world.’ With that in mind, there seems no better place to judge the current health of the game.
Here are some of the technical, refereeing and tactical elements we’ll be keeping a close eye on during the 2015 Six Nations.
The day of the jackal
The breakdown and ruck remain the key battle zones of modern rugby, so keeping on eye on what referees are and aren’t allowing in this part of the game is vital.
Some say the ruck in its current form is a mess, featuring too many players going off their feet, too many instances of croc rolling, and too much brute force being unleashed on defenders.
Part of the issue here is that defensive players have become so adept at pilfering the ball. Men like Peter O’Mahony, Sam Warburton and a host of others are almost unshiftable when they jackal over the ball.
Is the advantage therefore with the defence? We never want to take breakdown competition out of the game, but it does appear that some referees are now becoming more fussy about the jackal.
We have seen players being penalised for resting on their forearms as they jackal more often in recent months. There is seemingly less tolerance for the jackal placing his hands on the ground in front of the ball to balance himself before actually engaging with the ball.
Are match officials being pressed to make greater demands on defensive players to clearly support their own body weight when attempting to steal the ball?
It may not be popular, but more stringent measures around what the jackaling player can and can’t do would surely result in the attacking team having quicker ball. Something certainly worth keeping an eye on over the next two months.
Defending the maul
The maul has long been an important try-scoring weapon for the best teams and that’s certainly not been going out of fashion in the last two years. If anything, the maul is a greater attacking threat than ever.
Ireland have shown under John Plumtree and now Simon Easterby that a well-organised, tactically-planned maul from close range can be nigh on unstoppable. They’re not the only side who have been thriving in this area of the game either.
So how do you go about stopping it? Ireland themselves used a novel tactic against South Africa last November, standing off from engaging in a maul, then sending a defender haring around to make a tackle at the tail of the Springboks formation.
Many other sides have been using the same tactic since, although attacking mauls are getting smarter in identifying when the opposition are standing off. That sees the attacking team instead simply landing from the lineout and running directly at the defence.
That ploy is in turn being countered by the defensive maul teams sending a single tackler in low around the ankles of the landing lineout jumper, essentially attempting to end the ‘maul’ before it even becomes that.
It’s a fascinating element of the game, and watching how the likes of Paul O’Connell, Alun-Wyn Jones and Josh Furno defend the maul should be intriguing this spring.
Getting back onside
Linespeed is the common theme of defence in the current professional game, meaning there is a whole lot of rush to get up on each phase and deny the attacking side any gainline progress.
Most teams are now masters of timing their ‘break’ off the defensive line, but there are many instances of defences creeping offside too. With referees having so much to watch at each breakdown, the goings on behind their backs can go ignored.
Again, it’s something that needs to be strictly policed if rugby wants attack to be favoured. Watching a smothering defence restrict their opponents is enjoyable, but even a split second of extra time on the ball could help attacks to thrive once more.
We’ll be keeping a close eye on how this sector of the game is refereed over the course of the championship.
Kicking and screaming
Ireland have been the most stark indicator that a highly-accurate kicking game is essential for success in international rugby. It would be foolish to think that kicking has not always been of importance to rugby, but now more than ever it seems the case.
Highly contestable box kicking and garryowens have been the order of the day for many of the best teams in the world, while exiting the defensive half of the pitch through use of the boot has been equally valued.
It seems unlikely that this will change in 2015, particularly given the success of many teams’ kicking games last year. Comparing kicking figures for 2015 against those of previous Six Nations campaigns will be an interesting task.
Where are the tries coming from?
Part of the reason for some of the contestable kicking in ruck nowadays is the potential creation of unstructured attacking situations. Get above the defensive team and gather one of your own kicks in the air, and the opposition defence will likely be in trouble.
It’s these unstructured scenarios that are increasingly the lifeblood of tries, allowing the attacking side to strike when those brilliantly-organised defences we mentioned earlier are attempting to swiftly find their feet.
Hanging onto the ball for multiple phases just isn’t conducive with try scoring, even if the fatigue effects of prolonged attack can indirectly lead to tries in later stages of a game.
Instead, teams are looking for turnovers on the ground, kick receptions, opposition knock-ons and failed set-pieces as prime attacking chances. Otherwise, striking in the earliest phases of an attack is the most likely route to the tryline.
Joe Schmidt’s Ireland are becoming well known for their highly-planned, meticulously-executed ‘power play’ tries, such as Tommy Bowe’s against South Africa in November, and we will look for other teams to follow that lead.
Score early in your phase play or kick the ball away may the the order of the day, with plenty of tries to continue coming from turnovers of possession.
What will you be looking out for during the Six Nations outside of the individual players and teams? What are the refereeing, technical and tactical trends you will be keen to observe?