What began with wondering who had the most beautiful pass in rugby turned into a meditation on speed versus efficiency of passing in the elite game. With help from Oval Insights
The craft of executing passes in rugby
At the height of the Covid pandemic, we sought to explore who has the most beautiful kick in world rugby. It was an exercise in analysing techniques and aesthetics, while also picking the brain of some kick-loving coaches.
And over two years later the thought took hold: what about passing?
Because we’ve seen some real beauties in the modern game. Balls ripping through hands almost as if on a track; arcing cut-outs that practically retire some defenders from the game; back-door offloads; blind flicks over heads… Every weekend you can see chef kiss stuff.
But while the initial intention was to ponder the beauty, we quickly saw two themes emerge. Because the more you talk about passing, the more you hear about speed and accuracy. Is there room for art in a world of rocket scientists and mechanics?
HITTING THE TARGET
Maybe it helps to consider what you want out of passes first, before we look at the choreography of it all.
“I had this argument when I was coming to the tail-end of my career, with a guy who was coaching me at the time,” begins Cardiff assistant coach Richie Rees, who has nine Wales caps at scrum-half. “He was like ‘Your hands aren’t finishing to the target’, and I was like, ‘Mate, I’m 32. I’ve never had an issue in my pass. I’m not going to change the process now.’
“Because ultimately, what are you judging me on? The outcome of where the pass goes and the time it takes to get there? Or are we gonna judge me on where my hands finish? People are naturally built differently, aren’t they. If you compare Aaron Smith’s pass to Mike Phillips’s pass, they are miles, miles apart.”
For Rees, hitting the objective is paramount, and if you looked across a menu of players, each has their own foibles and ticks and signatures in their passing as well as a graph of heights and builds. So if it is working – and it isn’t hurting them or exacting some other toll – then trying to make everyone uniformly the same can be a painstaking and potentially fruitless experience. Rather, how can we get you to the desired outcome better…Or quicker.
It’s why he boils it down to: “Generally, when passing in motion, your catch is huge. But then there are other key triggers. Are your feet under you? Are you managing the height of your chest, how high are you? Then there’s the speed of your transfer across. It’s a big one for me now, the speed of your transfer. Because the longer the ball is in your hands, the slower naturally you’re gonna get the ball into space.”
If you look at rugby through the prism of passing, nirvana is getting into space. And the ball travels much faster than players can. There’s a lot more to explore but let’s get into that first.
In pre-season, Rees built in a lot of catch-pass. Static at first, but you could work in fatigue and then game scenarios. At the heart of it all was considerations of speed of transfer. As he sees it, in an intense match outside-centres and 15s with potential overlaps face g-force line speed, and so they have to be able to take-and-give with fitting alacrity.
Of course, before we assume it’s all about pace, Rees adds a note on efficiency: “You talk about correcting yourself in technique but for me it’s correcting yourself in pass. So managing your bodyweight, trying to pull out from a breakdown, how quick can you get that ball away from any threat and all this sort of stuff.”
And on highlighting heroes in your regular analysis, he gives praise to the players who tie plays together, who, by being unfussy and efficient, lay the foundations for sublime scores. As he tells us: “They’re not the miracle workers. They’re not the X-Factor. But they’re the ones creating the tries.”
KEY PASSES IN RUGBY
So at this point look at outcome in the Gallagher Premiership last season. Specifically, ‘key passes’ last season – a pass which either results in a break or a try. The team at Oval Insights have provided us with some interesting data.
Paddy Jackson of London Irish made the most key passes last term, with 34. Next was Saints nine Alex Mitchell, on 25. Quins full-back Tyrone Green made 21 and young Fin Smith at ten for Worcester made 20.
To add an extra layer to this though, you can look at how many of those ‘key passes’ were deemed to be short or long passes by the analysts at Oval Insights.
Interestingly, Jackson made the most long passes that led to a break or try with 18. Mitchell was again second with 11, while Joe Simmonds and Stuart Hogg (both Exeter Chiefs) made nine.
Jackson also made most short key passes with 16, with George Ford (then of Leicester Tigers) with 15. Next was Mitchell, Fin Smith, Fraser Dingwall and Alex Goode, who all made 14.
This can serve as an illustration in the margins if you are also considering the balance of play for some teams last term and how they might have evolved over the summer. For example, Ford is an interesting case study as he made 15 short key passes but only three long ones on Tigers’ run last season.
Something else you might want to consider is who plays as well from left to right as right to left. Sticking with key passes and looking at ambidextrous play, Saracens’ Alex Goode made 18 key passes last season, with nine off each hand. Ben Meehan of Gloucester made 12 (six off each hand), while Saracens centre Nick Tompkins had ten (five off each).
Others jump out on the list of prolific assist-makers when looking at ambidextrous assists. Fraser Dingwall of Saints made 19 key passes last season but favoured playing right to left, creating 13 key passes to his left and six to his right.
Of course, you cannot plan for which way the ball is travelling when the breakthrough presents itself, and this is in no way throwing shade, but it is intriguing. In the same way that Meehan’s ambidextrous chance-creation jumps out when you consider that he stood out in our piece Where to put the perfect box kick for his box kicking off both feet.
ACCURACY OVER SPEED
Putting other players away consistently is an art. But how you get there – or rather how quickly you get there – can be a preoccupation for some. And it’s something that James Kent, the former France performance analyst and current Stade Français assistant and skills coach, has meditated on.
“In France there has probably been a focus on speed, right?” he says. “Speed of the first pass, the speed at which it travels from A to B. We’re also creating quick ball from the ruck where the average time of three seconds used to be considered quick. Now we’re talking about how under two seconds is considered quick.
“And then when tagging passes (in review of footage) if it was a positive or negative pass, that would rely more on the analyst’s point of view… So it would be up to me. And for me, I would then look at the accuracy. From my point of view, moving forward into a skills coaching role, accuracy is probably going to take precedence over speed. Because eight out of ten passes, you can put someone away just with the accuracy of the pass.
“That’s going to hopefully win you more games. Then you can start working on the speed.”
You have definitely seen quick passes that aren’t accurate. Now, at this elite level, how often do you see accurate passes, under pressure, that are game plan-shatteringly slow? And while you consider that, add in how often we have seen a close-quarter carrier fire a tip-on pass to a team-mate when something soft would do.
We’re talking about the value of pass selection here. Because some of the finest players in the game have a switchboard of options they can use when a take-and-give is required.
Kent goes on: “I think you’ll find that a lot of young players coming through automatically try the spiral pass, when the pass selection may not call for a spiral pass. It could just be a flick of the wrists. It could be an end-over-end, rugby league-style pass. It can be a pop pass. You can get the ball from A to B in different ways.
“The example I always liked was Stephen Larkham, because of the way he would run and hold the ball on his hip. His pass selections were always pretty accurate and he could fire from the hip with a miss pass or cut-out ball. But he could also hit someone with a short ball and for the defence to try and read what’s coming was practically impossible because he would have no elbow lift.”
MIXING UP PASSES IN RUGBY
This is a point on how players prepare to play. What is it about the spin pass that might make it a crutch? Is it repetition of use early on that might lead to this? From warm-up drills to captain’s runs, week after week, maybe habits can bed in.
Rees gives us an interesting, scrum-half-focused example of a similar thing. It’s about the ball being worked from the base of a ruck. “I looked at something last year when we had a bit of downtime during the autumn, around how many passes for a nine are you actually passing from the floor, with a static ball? You’re talking now at probably just over 50%. So the rest of the time there’s a body in a way. Or there’s a moving ball.
“So you have to replicate that in training to what happens in a game. And I think a lot of this stuff still happens now – you’ll see static balls and boys just slinging it from the base.”
On mixing up passing, Kent also addresses a variety of speeds. He tells Rugby World that with France, “There’s a big focus on speed in the first pass and the importance of the first pass, so how many defenders can you cut out within the first pass.” However, the dream is a mixture, as he adds: “If you were to weigh up, with the first pass versus the last pass, that represents speed versus accuracy – you want your first pass to be quick and you want your last pass to be accurate.”
Rees explains that his side talks about ‘double scanning’. That means a key player away to receive the ball will look or ‘scan’ for the ball, scan the space available, and then go back to the ball. If they catch well and they know what style of defence is coming their way, they can execute a two on one better.
The former nine also chimes with what Kent says, explaining that in a sport of fine margins, all of your previous graft is for nought if the final pass to someone out wide checks the runner and a defender catches them. So every so often, Rees’s charges (no matter the number on their back) will have a pass accuracy drill to contend with, and it will be filmed and coded, to see who’s getting passes out in front of the runner.
And what about the artistry? Well, according to Kent, it’s about spotting your chance but biding your time. He has seen in vivid colour some of the world’s best passers, and feels it’s a great time for centres in particular with exceptional short-passing games. But those with vision inside them can take advantage of that, if they’re smart. Remember what we said about Ford’s short passing above?
As Kent explains: “Say they (a talented playmaker or fly-half) play the short pass three, four times and they see that the opposition centre bites. We might not notice it but they’ve noticed that, they’ve picked it up.
“Which then means on the following one, they can hit that big miss pass – the Harbour Bridge-looking pass, so to speak – and they’re hitting the outside man. It’s rarely, ‘Oh, there’s a bit of space, I’d better hit him straightaway’. It’s worked up to that stage. It’s the same with the kicking game, they’ll see if the winger sits deep or has been set up.”
Which implies there’s beauty all around. But at the core are the solid tradesmen who do the simple well. That’s a virtue we may not celebrate as much. But should.
Data is provided by Oval Insights.
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