Geraint Davies, Jacek Wallusch and Graeme Forbes of Bajad8ta break down the art of chasing kicks

American Football has long taken ideas from rugby union, particularly in the tackle area, but what has rugby learned from its distant cousin? One major tactical development that adds an extra layer of sophistication to rugby is the use of formalised kick chase teams. This analysis is supported by the excellent cross-sport knowledge of Jacek Wallusch, a data Scientist and former American Football coach and player, and Graeme Forbes a former international sevens coach.

We regularly hear the words ‘kick tennis’ uttered during games, but what exists under the surface is far more interesting than that cliché gives credit to. Let’s take a closer look.

Related: The links between rugby and the NFL

In American Football, ‘special teams’ are highly tuned to perform specific roles for both punts and kick-offs, with a focus on territory over possession. In that case kickers look for distance, aiming to tackle the catcher as soon as they take the ball, and to prevent a break should the kick be too long or chase too slow. The nature of American Football means that an error by the chasing team is likely to lead to their opposition either scoring or gaining significant ground. This need to be accurate to prevent counterattacks is equally important in rugby union.

NFL kick off

Detroit’s special team set to chase a kick-off in NFL (Getty Images)

Let’s look at a snapshot from Wales versus England in the Six Nations.

In the example shown in figure 1, Wales have set up for a box kick. As is often the case, the aim is to tackle the catcher as soon as they hit the ground rather than to contest in the air, due to the reduced risk of an error for the kicking team. The person charged with this responsibility is called the ‘Headhunter’ and in this case Josh Adams has taken up a spot outside of the field in order to improve his angle. The next important role is performed by Ken Owens and is known as ‘Containment’. He will hold the 5m line and is responsible for containing the attack and preventing a breakaway down the touchline. With the Headhunter leaving his position on the wing it’s essential that this space is protected.

evolution of the kick chase

Fig 1: Kick chase set up from box kick. Produced by Graeme Forbes

On the openside we have Dan Biggar closest to the ruck and his role is to target the ‘Catch Zone’. He will aim to get in the eyeline of the catcher and will either support the Headhunter in the tackle or will form a block so that the catcher can’t simply catch and run straight. There will sometimes be three players on the blindside, depending on where the ruck is, and should this be the case, the third player would perform this Catch Zone role.

Outside of the Catch Zone player, we have two ‘Pass Zone’ players in Adam Beard and Jonathan Davies. Their job is to connect outside of where the ball is caught, to prevent the catcher from putting another attacker into space. These roles combined make up the front line of the chase team.

The next piece of the kick-chase jigsaw relates to the hang-time and distance of the kick. The distance, height and type of kick combine to influence the hang-time of the ball, and this balance is essential to an effective chase. The chase team need enough time to cover the ground before the ball is caught, while still kicking long enough to gain territory. This particular kick was 28m with a hang time of 3.53 seconds, which is marginally less time than would be ideal, as we’ll see in a moment.

aerial view rugby

Fig 2: The Headhunter’s path to the target area. Produced by Graeme Forbes

In figure 2, we can see that Josh Adams, the Headhunter, is now cutting across the angle, aiming directly for the target zone of the kick. This angle helps him to evade England’s escort players (who hope to offer a lane for the catcher to safely run into) and to get a relatively clear path to the ball. Both Watson – who is closest to the touchline – and Elliot Daly are forced to move inwards as the kick is tactically placed between them.

Watson will go for the ball and Daly will fill in behind in case of an error. As can be seen in figure 3, Adams effectively breaks through the England escort team and is flanked by his Containment player on his left and his Catch Zone player on his right. As a result Watson would be unlikely to attempt a break on the short side and is forced to play in-field instead.

evolution of the kick chase

Fig 3: Connection between Headhunter, Containment, and Catch Zone. By Graeme Forbes

As the kick does not have quite as much hang time as required, Watson can catch cleanly without too much pressure, but is then tackled shortly afterwards, leading to a positive outcome for Wales. The importance of the Pass Zone players in this situation cannot be overstated. Both Beard and Davies are essential to prevent Daly from attacking that space, and instead England choose to set up for a box-kick return.

evolution of the kick chase

Fig 4: Pass Zone coverage when the ball is fielded. By Graeme Forbes

Equally as important to the success of a kick chase are the actions of the secondary chase line. Note that the Welsh forwards who were in the original ruck now work to fill the spaces either side of where the ball is caught, typically with three players on the blindside (the front row in this example), and the others on the openside, filling the gaps between the frontline players. As a general rule, Justin Tipuric works towards centrefield, placing him in the perfect position to cover a counterattack, to lead the defensive line if England play a phase, or to chase back should England kick.

Every situation is slightly different and there are a number of small variations to the example provided here. However, the key roles identified will always be present in a successful chase team.

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