English clubs had a field day in the European Champions Cup last weekend and, though they look destined to dip out on the quarter-finals, Bath were responsible for round three’s greatest moment.

Their third try in the Montpellier mud was one you’ll want to watch again and again. It featured a George Ford dummy and a marvellous low pick-up by Henry Thomas, but it’s the four offloads that really dazzle you – Leroy Houston to Ford, Ford to Thomas, Thomas to Kyle Eastmond, Eastmond to Houston, who scores.

Ford and Eastmond both pass off the deck, with Eastmond’s decision to ignore the well-marked Ollie Devoto, instead waiting for Houston, a crucial detail. The whole move takes place inside a 10-metre outside channel, as you can see in the video below – the move starts at 1:00:37 (48:48 on match clock).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=klfGft5YCX0

The quality of the score suggests Bath have been putting special emphasis on the offload skill in training. In fact, that’s not the case, though there’s no doubting the message imparted to the players.

“Bath want to score points – that is our mind-set,” says skills coach Darren Edwards, who joined the club from the Dragons last summer. “You have to take risks to do that.

“We encourage players to beat defenders. What we work on is collision skills and good footwork. The first thing is to win the contact and control the ball in the tackle.”

Mind-set is everything

For all Harlequins’ pedigree in this area, arguably the best offloading teams in England right now are Northampton Saints, Bath and Exeter Chiefs – who just happen to occupy the top three spots in the Aviva Premiership.

Northampton scored a beauty of their own last weekend, Ben Foden’s try in Treviso owing much to a super bust and offload by Luther Burrell, whilst Alex Waller’s standout try at Newcastle Falcons early this season illustrated the virtue of composure in the tackle, with George North and Samu Manoa each waiting for the support runner to arrive from deep.

The desire to offload is as important as the technical skill itself and when it comes to the ultimate practitioners, youdon’t need to look beyond the All Blacks. Perhaps no one can replicate Sonny Bill Williams, whose thumb grip facilitates those lethal back-of-hand passes, but spending time practising offloads in training will pay dividends.

Two-touch training

Jason Holland was part of the Munster team that in 2000 produced this try from heaven in Toulouse (below) – just count the offloads! He’s now backs/attack coach at one of the great rugby provinces, Canterbury. In training they play ‘two-touch’ rugby, in which the ball carrier has to offload after the first touch, and the ball is turned over if he’s touched again.

In essence, they’re looking for good footwork before contact, the desire to go for the space, a ‘snap fend’ to dominate the defender and then a palm-up type of offload, if the carrier can’t get both hands free.

“To be a good offloading team, your players must have the attitude to offload,” he says. “When the ball carrier is tackled, he should be looking to make the pass. He can’t do it every time but he needs that mindset. That attitude feeds into the minds of supporting players, who will run lines to be able to take the pass.”

So many New Zealand players instinctively seem to follow their pass, which, coupled with their offloading ability, makes for a deadly combination.

Former New Zealand coach John Mitchell attributes the All Blacks’ high offload figures to the ability to ‘stay tall’ in the tackle and keep the ball away from the tackler(s).

The All Blacks made 15 offloads when winning at Twickenham last month, only three fewer than England made over all four Tests. “England tend to be a bit taller in the tackle and too square. Keeping ball before body invites two defenders,” Mitchell says.

Orchestrating things: Joe Schmidt doesn't feel offloading is a major factor for IReland

Orchestrating things: Joe Schmidt doesn’t feel offloading is a major factor for IReland

The Irish approach

Yet the paradox here is Ireland, because they have effectively eschewed the offload, averaging only four per match under Joe Schmidt and famously making none at all when beating South Africa.

Ireland flanker Chris Henry says: “I think Joe wouldn’t be as pro offloading as other teams, because he wants to make sure there’s a clear, definite carrier who’s going to carry straight to form the ruck well.

“It’s worked very well for us as it means you get quick ball. He’s not a coach that says you can’t offload, it just has to be on.”

Ireland’s low offload rate goes hand in hand with their exceptional efficiency at the ruck. In the Six Nations, their strikingly low figure of 27 offloads was supplemented by a peerless ball retention at attacking rucks – it ranged from 93.5% against England to as high as 97.5% against Italy. Why risk an offload, one might argue, when you’ve got the ruck sewn up?

As always, it’s about juggling risk and reward. There are plenty of ways to skin a cat in pro rugby but Bath are certainly doing it more thrillingly than most. And on Friday night, Sam Burgess – 66 offloads in this year’s NRL – will pick up the scalpel as he makes his first Bath start in the return fixture with Montpellier. It should be fun.

Friday 12 December: Bath v Montpellier (7.45pm, The Recreation Ground)

  • Lawrence Aggleton

    Stringer played in both the Bath and Munster games 14 years apart!