By Richard Anderson
A native Welshman, I watched the England v Wales Six Nations this year with plenty of emotion in the belly, but in the mind was a subdued torpor.
The match was the most unimaginative rugby I could remember watching since the end of the Rugby World Cup. Scrum-halves took up to 30 seconds to 'dig' the ball out of rucks - if jabbing at clean ball with your foot a few times counts as digging. Forwards ran into defensive walls along the gain-line, rarely crossing it. Backs were choked of space. Kicks were usually efficiently dealt with. The only try was scored by a sumptuous piece of opportunist play - last-minute dramas notwithstanding. It was pretty ordinary stuff.
That same day I sat through the frenetic free-for-all between the Chiefs and the Highlanders in Super Rugby action, finding myself out of breath at times but once again, frustrated by the end. The speed of it all took over the game, forcing countless errors in attack. Plenty of endeavour, precious little cohesion.
The following day I read Tom Billups' excellent column on slow-ball tactics then later that afternoon watched my own team speed up - on my own instruction - ball for a half of rugby against a defence whose line speed (the pace at which the defensive line advances) was a real benchmark. The results were mixed: our opening phases were threatening, but if a break was not made early, we ran ourselves down many a blind alley; ultimately we were the only people having our structures stressed. Needless to say, we trailed at the break 12-6.
As a coaching staff, we've been preaching to our boys the need for speed to stress defences, and the need to operate on the gain-line and win contact over that line as much as possible. But it just wasn't effective: quick ball is all very well, but when you are playing against a defence that keeps you behind the gain-line, you are embellishing their advantage. Slower ball is more effective as dumbing down line speed.
So you need balance. You need to know when to speed the ball up and when to slow it down. You need to instill within your half-backs the skill of analysing field position and defensive numbers before calling individual phase plays or two-phase motions that accurately create the space you need.
Long-time South African coaching mentor Iain Mackintosh taught me perhaps the most valuable lesson I ever learned about how to attack and stress defences, called 15v7. It's a simple concept, but it has struck me that it is one not enough coaches know or adhere to as regularly as they should.
Put simply, 15v7 is a means of making sure that more than half the opposition's team is behind the level of the ruck and on the blind side of the field when the ball emerges from your ruck. Obviously, the simplest version of this stems from full first phases (scrums or full line-outs): your backs run a first phase which gets over the gain-line, ensuring the full forward pack of the opposition must retreat back and around the first ruck in order to re-organise as a defence. That way, on the openside of the new ruck, all 15 of your players can run 'forward' (any of the 180 degrees forward of the new gain-line from the horizontal) into the openside space, while there are only seven of their players who do not run 'backward' and round to defend it. Once in a position of 15v7, quick ball is your greatest weapon.
From broken play, achieving 15v7 is more difficult. But this is where slow ball is a weapon. Slow ball is a more steady and sure source of possession, so you can use it to work the ball into a playmaking area, usually a wider zone: say between 10-20 metres from touch. From there, it is up to your half-backs to call a motion that may create a 15v7 situation for you: this is where the ball needs to be speeded up.
If you can accurately run a play from this playmaking zone to break the gain-line, even by just a few metres, on the open side, trapping more than half the opposition in the blind side space, then get quick ball to run open, this is your quick ball zenith: space to run into, a surfeit of numbers with forward momentum, a defence unable to produce effective line speed because it is outnumbered. 15v7. If that breaks down, use slow ball to move play back to a playmaking zone, then aim for 15v7 again with quicker ball.
Going back to the weekend's games: both defences were excellently organised and there were some good tackle contests, with both teams holding players up in the tackle - a far more effective way of slowing ball down in defence than playing along the lines of legality on the ground. As a result, neither team was ever really able to create a 15v7 situation - it's worth noting, much of the Welsh success at the Rugby World Cup was founded on 15v7 principles.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs-Highlanders clash created miniature numerical advantages: 5v3's in specific parts of the pitch. But the speed was so frantic at times, that nothing clean-cut enough really came about bar two excellent tries - instead, both attack and defence became stressed, a situation in which defence always holds the upper hand.
As for my own game, we looked to play more 15v7 in the second half, using slow close plays to take us to playmaking zones and then speeding the ball up with accurate calls, and were more effective as a consequence - we were 15-13 down going into the final five before the superior conditioning of our opposition finally told and we coughed up a killer try.
But always keeping 15v7 in mind helped our scrum-half know when to take his time and when to get the ball out come hell or high water, and it helped our fly-half know which channel to strike in once the ball was in the playmaking zone. As a result, moves were called more accurately, with better synergy between forwards and backs, and we began stringing periods of multiple-phase possession together: building an innings.
So when you are looking at a game and thinking 'speed it up', or 'this is too fast', consider the defence, the numbers, the position on the field, and think where you could get 15v7 next - it'll be the key to effective and accurate usage of your possession.
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