ANALYSIS: The All Blacks' World Cup shape
OPINION: An in-depth look at how the All Blacks are developing two shapes for the Rugby World Cup. Rugbypass writer Conor Wilson makes sense of it all.
“We knew at times with the new stuff we’re introducing, that we’re gonna be a little off, and we were. But there’s enough signs there to say that if we carry working away, get our timing better get our execution better, we’re gonna be able to hurt some teams” – Steve Hansen; 27/06/19 – Springboks post-match conference
In the world of high performance, there are two industries, that consistently operate at a higher level than any other institution. These are industries, that operate in life or death environments, and the outcome of an error can result in fatal consequences.
The levels of detail and investigation into errors that occur in these industries go far deeper than any other profession. In the Aviation sector, this is reinforced by real-time sensors which analyse stresses on the aircraft mid-flight. These slight errors are investigated, to see that if it didn’t cause a problem this time, how could they next time, and what needs to be done to stop any further recurrences of an error that didn’t even cause an accident.
The Medical profession, with its usage of marginal gains and change in culture to accept improvement, has resulted in the creation of constant feedback from doctors on botched operations and investigations into poor practice. These investigations are passed into lessons, lessons that are implemented in hospitals as standardised processes towards greater improvement. The result being that patients survive, who 5 years ago may not have.
These improvements are minuscule, but every time something devastating happens, it’s is refined, so it can’t happen again. In sport, no-one symbolises this ethos better than the All Blacks.
Every-time they experience a loss, it’s like a funeral in the changing room. Kieran Read being the epitomal captain is going around and comforting his men. We’ve all seen it, but the fact that it means so much to them is why they improve and get better every-time.
The All Blacks and their management are an incredibly smart bunch of eggs. They realise that most teams who have beaten them since 2012, have had the fundamental approach of aggressive rush defence firmly in hand to do it. As such, Hansen and co have been introducing different approaches to counter this since 2017.
However, they really ramped it up during the 2018 Internationals.
Today, we will take a look at one of their new approaches and options facing different defensive alignments. Do not judge the SA game as an indication of where NZ are at with these. Once these dynamics come good and New Zealand lose their rust, they will be devastating.
Before we go into the patterns, we need to discuss the ‘Milk Bottle’ principle. This is possibly a slightly odd analogy; however, I believe that it describes stacking, which is a key concept. Key to the All Blacks’ attack, and why the All Blacks often have acres of space for their wingers to exploit for a try.
If a shelf at the store is 2 metres long, and on it, you have 15 bottles of milk evenly spaced there is always a gap between each. There aren’t enough bottles to fill the shelf. If you have 1-15 evenly lined up, and you move 7 to the left so 1-7 are stacked up right next to each other, between 7-8, there will be a bigger gap. If you move 8 in next to 7, there will be more space between 8-9, if you drag in 9, there will be even more space between 9-10, and on it goes.
Here we can see McKenzie, use stacking in the 1-3-3-1 format to break the line and score a try.
The All Black 10 and 15, have to have the speed to take the back pass and accelerate through the gap formed by the above dynamic. This is a key reason the All Black 10’s are so proficient at 15, with the fullback position providing the perfect attacking tutelage that Hansen and co want from their 10’s.
Whilst they used the 1-3-3-1 to do this, New Zealand has changed it up.
The style I’m predicting they’re developing for the World Cup is based around the structure of two new patterns. These are;
The All Blacks still utilise the 1-3-3-1, predominantly for slow ball situations, and in midfield, you often see pods of two’s and three’s operating off 9 and either side of the ruck off 10 or 15 via their dual playmaker system.
However, if you look at their shapes, they have introduced the patterns above and dynamics around them to control the opposition line speed and create two new strike zones. One in the midfield, and one at the edge of the defensive line.
Against South Africa, they spent a long time on Pattern 1 as listed above and were dominated for a large portion of the game. It’s only when they switched to Pattern 2 in the second half, that the All Blacks really made the Springboks scramble.
Though we will explain why later, Pattern 1 is designed to target the edge of the defensive line. Whilst Pattern 2, is designed for the midfield break with the 3-man pod or the inside playmaker.
Once they have hit up the midfield or the edge of the line with a break, they then use quick ball, and their backs outside these pods to finish the job.
Let’s see how.
As alluded to in Ben Smith’s insightful article, the All Blacks have started sending a 2-man pod to target the fringes one pass off 9, rather than the 3-man pod used by so many other teams. This is especially prevalent when they have made front-foot ball down the 15-metre channel.
Two key reasons behind this are due to wanting a 3-man pod in midfield.
This gives them more options in midfield who can use interplay at the line to target thinned out zones, and two, having one extra forward out near the wing.
These forwards, however, are roaming, and are able to move around to reinforce other pods as directed by the TDMS’.
On top of this, New Zealand wants more rucks in the midfield. By forming a ruck in midfield, the defence is unsure of which way to fold, meaning the All Blacks can split the field with two very good playmakers.
In terms of management, the pods have their own formations, alignments, and plays within themselves.
Whilst interplay seems to be called on the hoof, the pods are managed by the 10 and 15, whom as can be seen above, each have ownership of one pod. However, with front-foot ball, they want to move the ball to the individual runners outside of the 3-man pod.
This is due to the skill of the All Black forwards to execute the tip-on pass.
This is a planned move. The way Read runs onto it, takes it flat enough that the defence has no time to catch him. How many times have we seen All Black forwards make a devastating break through the line to provide tries via a tip-on?
Here we can see England’s defence, and why it was pushed to breaking point against NZ in this area. Why both Lawes and May knew, they had to cut Retallick and Squire off. If they hadn’t, Read was away.
When a well organised ‘Out-In’ defence rushes up, the inside defence is incredibly constricted.
This means that the All Blacks to a certain degree, have lost the ability to make this break in the midfield channels. Even if the pass is made, the ‘Out-In’ defence will jam in on Read, nullifying the devastating nature of the break that it had previously. Therefore, the All Blacks have picked a different area to target with it.
The Last Defender Disconnect
As the defence rushes in, the line gets shorter. As such, they have shifted this dynamic to target the edge of the line. Rather than presenting the last defender with one forward to target, they present him with two, to force him to think twice before cutting him off.
If the intensity and alignment of the pods in this system remain connected, it forces one player to make a decision.
Here we see Shannon Frizell and Matt Todd as the tip-on runners, with Lukhanyo Am having to choose between the two. Frizell goes to tip-on but Todd had overrun his line. A little adjustment on alignments and a hard line from Todd would have seen a massive gain.
When they have it nailed on, the tip-on is made to a forward running an inside line in-between the gap between the last defender and Pendulum defence. This commits the fullback and the winger in question, clearing the way for the line of backs outside him.
We’ve seen elements of this against the Boks up centre-field and against the Lions and Scotland in the ‘Javelin’ Attack, with the All Black penetrator keen to hit ‘unders’ lines to clear the space out wide for next phase attack.
This is what the All Blacks have done when they can’t reach the edge of the line and is also what sent the Springboks into scramble mode. Intended to target the midfield channels rather than the edge, it explains why the All Blacks used the 15-metre blind right to the edge of the field.
It makes use of the great ball-playing and running skills of Dane Coles, and one of his loose forwards, who make up the 2-man pod within 10-metres of the touchline.
When they receive the ball from the midfield, I’m quite certain their role is to keep that ball alive via any means possible. Prior hard running on the inside gives them a little space on the wing, and by gosh do they have the authority to use it. They are allowed to switch, to dummy, to catch and pass, every run is with the ball in two hands. Not to mention, that right outside both of them is one of the worlds’ most dangerous wingers in Rieko Ioane.
This freedom and flair they have to keep the ball alive here, combined with their skillsets causes a defensive scramble of huge proportions into this area, resulting in a heavily thinned midfield. This happened to South Africa in a big way, with so many players dragged in, and the All Blacks getting quick ball the defence outside had no choice but to hold their push.
It’s shown here, how the run and interplay between Coles and Todd puts the All Blacks on the front foot and sucks in the defence.
This means Kriel as the last man has to stop a tip-on at the 3-man pod, cutting off Fifita rather than Frizell as the wing forward.
With the front-foot ball they get from the Coles 2-man pod, Mounga and Barrett are both able to line their respective 2-3 setup’s at depth off each other.
Combined with connection down the field, hard running and stacking, this maintained the thinned-out midfield opposite the 3-man pod, allowing Mounga and Barrett to make half breaks aplenty and putting the 3-man pod into space.
The next development will be catch and pass and interplay within the 3-man pod at the line. Once they have mastered this dynamic, you will be seeing full breaks directly into gaps around the midfield, dragging in the opposition back three to cover. If the try isn’t scored, the All Blacks will have maintained their width, meaning on the next phase you have 4-5 All Blacks backs looking at a glaringly empty side of the field. It’s a pretty dangerous combination.
Threading the Needle
I have a gut feeling, that this concept will see use after the quarter-finals of this World Cup.
The All Blacks haven’t shown this in a while, but Rieko Ioanesometimes trails McKenzie or Barrett in after the first stack setup of the first Pod. I think the All Blacks are trying to recreate this move in open play.
We see the point where the defence rushes up to smash McKenzie. This urge to rush up opens the gap in-between the players in the ‘triangle’ of the defence.
The Springbok line outside of the first decoys example push so far forward, that the gaps are extended.
I believe Ioane tracking the first receiver in these attacks could be a pre-cursor to ‘Loop/Tracker’ plays with him combining to strike these gaps.
The defence push forward to put the 3-man pod under pressure not to receive the pass. This ‘keenness’ can stretch their spacings, meaning an inside ball or loop play, could see Ioane home.
Alternatively, if the 3-man pod keeps moving through, Barrett can literally ‘thread the needle’ passing into the gap between the defence, meaning his runners catch the ball behind the Springbok line.
On next phase, they can then use their wide men to take the ball to the line.
This is what we’ve seen thus far from the All Blacks. This is more a guess of a potential target as they continue to develop their dynamics. But as we see different pieces of the puzzle show themselves separate from one another; we can start to see how they’d combine for the bigger picture.
Its looking promising for the Men in Black.
By Conor Wilson, Rugbypass