Unlocking the Press defence (part 2) – using the kick-pass
In my last article on short kicking solutions to the Press defence, I examined the use of the chip over the top of a rushing midfield D.
No sooner had the article been written, than the effectiveness of the alternative short attacking kick – the kick-pass – was highlighted quite spectacularly by the round eleven Super Rugby game between the Hurricanes and Stormers!
As the name suggests, the kick-pass is directed to the outside of the field rather than straight down the middle, and the ‘Canes #10 Beauden Barrett was able to create three tries from the ploy in the first half of the match alone.
The development of the cross-kick or kick-pass in Rugby Union is not new. It dates all the way back to the 2003 England World Cup-winning team, who included an outstanding kicking coach (in the form of Dave Alred) in their ranks. Alred had been a goal-kicker for the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL and he was one of the first to bring specialist knowledge across from one sport to another in a process which could be called ‘cross-fertilization’.
The All Blacks employed ex-Aussie Rules player Mick Byrne to make the same kind of ‘cross-fertilizing’ impact within their own coaching group between 2004 and 2015. Byrne has now moved back to his home country of Australia, where his influence on the kicking game is already apparent within the Wallaby set-up.
Beauden Barrett first cut his teeth at first five-eighth against the Press defence during the 2014 Welsh tour match in Cardiff. At the time Shaun Edwards had constructed the most outstanding version of the Blitz defence in world rugby, and Mick Byrne was still an All Black coach.
As a result, both the middle chip and the cross-kick were used extensively. There were eight instances combined (four of each), with the All Blacks scoring once from the chip and twice from cross-kicks to the far side-line in the red zone.
With Mick Byrne moving back to his homeland (and a position on the Wallaby coaching staff), it was no surprise to see the cross-kick making such a strong re-appearance against Edwards’ defensive structure in the 2016 end-of-year tour game between Wales and Australia.
In this example, the kick-pass is made from midfield position in between the two 40m lines by the Australian number 10 Bernard Foley. There are a number of keys which tell Foley that the kick-pass is ‘on’, and these are in fact quite clear from the embryonic situation on the phase before:
As the Wallaby captain Stephen Moore takes the ball into contact, the Welsh Press defence is in its typical shape. Both the eyes and the shoulders of the last two defenders on the outside of the field are turned in towards the target, and the last attacker (Israel Folau, circled near the right side-line) is left ‘free’ and unmarked. That is the way the Press functions, with the principal idea of cutting off the supply of ball for any attack on the edge of the field.
Folau’s positioning on the edge is probably the tip-off for Foley to think ‘cross-kick’. Full-back Folau is Australia’s best aerial receiver, so his appearance near touch can only mean one thing.
By the time the kick is made at 2:03, Folau is at least level with all the attackers inside him, as the target-space (“1” in the screenshot) is revealed. Folau is attacking the blind-side of the final defender – if this defender was in ‘drift’ he would have far more awareness of Folau’s position behind him – and the full-back Leigh Halfpenny is too deep in the backfield to provide immediate help.
As a result, Folau is first able to re-gather the ball in the soft spot of the Welsh D, then offload to Tevita Kuridrani in space on his inside.
Now back to Beauden Barrett. Since his experience against Wales in 2014, Barrett has refined his use of the kick-pass to the point where it is now a major weapon in his armoury:
Here the kick occurs in the red zone (as it did twice in the 2014 New Zealand-Wales match), within the opposition 22. Why is the tactic so effective in this area? Because the backfield is frequently empty, with less space needing to be defended in behind the defensive line.
The cross-kick can even be effective as an exit strategy, with the defensive open-side wing often playing 30-40 metres deeper than he would do further upfield, in expectation of a long clearance kick.
Another screenshot neatly illustrates some extra features on the play:
Again note that the flat alignment of the attacking line tips off the play to follow – #14 Cory Jane is already level with Barrett before he receives the ball from the half-back.
The play also picks up a theme outlined by Wayne Smith in one of The Rugby Site articles on kicking:
Work with the whole backline on improving the kicking game and work at communication. The first five-eighth or fly-half is often not best placed to see the shifting patterns of the defence. He is concentrating on the half back at the breakdown in order to time his move. You need the people around him to read the space in the backfield.
While it is typically the #12 who would provide this feedback to the attacking first receiver, it is perhaps a sign of the times that this information is here being supplied by the Hurricanes #4 Mark Abbott (circled, with his right arm out).
Abbott is pointing to the target space (“1”) and, with Jane already up on the line and the Stormers’ emergency full-back (#11 Dillon Leyds) struggling to cover it, Barrett dutifully hits the bulls-eye.
The short attacking kicking game will be a major issue on the upcoming British & Irish Lions tour, and it has become a fast-growth weapon in the war against high line-speed, Press-oriented defences as a whole.