The Seattle Seawolves' Samoan international takes Sam Larner into the mind of a fly-half
The Intercept: Playmaking Skills Of AJ Alatimu
Major League Rugby is going from strength to strength.
With the Championship struggling for funding in England and teams generally tightening their belts, a trip across to the US is looking increasingly appealing for players.
I was at Seattle Seawolves’ final home game of the regular season, against Houston SaberCats, and it was a sell-out with an atmosphere that every Championship club, and many Premiership clubs, would love to have.
It also featured one of the finest fly-half performances I have seen to date from Samoan international AJ Alatimu. In this edition of The Intercept, we go behind the eyes of a fly-half to understand what goes on and what they are seeing.
Vision and Confidence
A rugby crowd abhors kicking, up until the point that it works. The best kicks are naturally high risk. Think back to Finn Russell’s match-winning, penalty-try getting, cross-field attempt against England in the Six Nations.
The Seawolves’ second try of the night came from a perfect cross-field kick by Alatimu. What led to this try and what had the Samoan seen to convince him to try this kick?
“We had seen in the video that the wide Houston defenders dropped back early off the lineout. This left a gap between the defensive line and the deep defenders. That cross-kick wasn’t the plan on this play, although the analysis had suggested it was something we could target, but Martin Iosefo was calling for the kick because he saw the space. When he calls for it you give it.”
No 15 people can fully cover a rugby pitch, they have to make concessions. From a lineout deep in the attacking team’s half, the obvious defensive decision is to cover the kick. However, the more people you drop back for the kick, the less risk the attacking team take on by going wide.
Teams will often try to find a balance by dropping the blindside winger, full-back and maybe the scrum-half. They will then play the openside winger at half depth, that is not fully deep and not in the defensive line either. That means that they can drop if the kick comes or push up if the attacking team try to attack wide.
What the Seawolves had found during their pre-game analysis was that Houston dropped deep almost immediately. That presented an opportunity to attack wide, either with hands or through this kick. However, Alatimu decided that the winger hadn’t dropped deep enough so was still an option defensively.
“During the week we said we were going to run it and we said that if they do drop then we run the play and either kick it downfield or we move it out wide. I saw the winger had dropped but if we went hands we would have lost that opportunity because the winger would have come back into the picture.”
The Box of Tricks
It is a cliché, but rugby is a physical version of chess. Your opposition will set up to defend what they believe is the most likely method of attack. That might be a kick, a carry, a wide pass, an inside ball depending on what type of team you are and the location on the pitch.
In the first example, Houston took all that information and decided the best use of their resources was to cover the deep kick. Once Seattle scored a try from the cross-field kick that presents further problems for Houston.
Do they keep dropping deep to cover, what is still, the most likely option or do they stay up and compromise that deep defence? What do the defensive line do? Do they push wide to cut down that threat or do they stay narrow and defend the midfield crash, a likely attack point for the Seawolves?
“I think it is helpful to be high risk because you show the opposition all these different hands and they then have to be aware of all those possibilities and it adds more pressure. It is good to show those pictures with other teams reviewing us and they then have to worry about how they defend situations where we might kick.”
This was the case for the next try that again featured Alatimu’s deft kicking skills: a delicate nudge over the top straight into the hands of Dan Kriel. The situation was different because Seattle were now in the Houston half. They wouldn’t have the benefit of the additional space to work with. Instead they could attack the Houston line speed.
“During the week we saw that they had great line speed and so there was space over the top because the full-back defended in one 15m and the other winger in the 15m. We called a different play but then we saw that the flop kick was on over the top, so we changed to that and we got the lucky bounce.”
Alatimu does himself a disservice here; the kick was perfectly placed and luck played only a minor role.
You can see again how this would play on Houston’s mind. It is undoubtedly true that defending with high line speed is a good idea. You cut down the attacking team’s space and time and put them under more pressure. But the weakness is that you create a hole between your defensive line and your deep defenders. That can be exploited.
What do Houston do next? Do they stop playing with line speed because of that one kick? Do they pull up their deep defenders to limit the threat? You can see how Seattle added confusion to the Houston defence simply by opening that box of tricks.
The particularly exasperating part of this if you are a Houston fan is that Alatimu knew it was a win-win situation. “Even if they retained the ball we would be in their half and with strong players around the ball. They would have had to kick the ball out or tried to run it from within their own 22, which is fine for us.”
Rugby is a relatively simple game that can have almost unimaginable complexity added to it. That complexity starts when teams analyse one another. You can spend hours breaking down what a team has done before and where their weakness might be. But then you have to go onto the pitch and deliver.
At full speed, with an opposition back row bearing down on you, those easy options don’t look so easy. Alatimu and the Seawolves saw those weaknesses and knew they could exploit them, but it still required exceptional skill and presence of mind to hit the target in the match.
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