USA Eagle Marcel Brache and Northampton Saints legend Christian Day explain what they have seen this year

The Intercept: Rugby’s New Tactical Trends

We are at that time in the year where nobody knows which season we are in. The summer Internationals mark the end of the season for many. However, while they take place, many clubs are already back in pre-season training ahead of the next campaign. The seasons seem to slip into one another, but this is as good a time as any to look back at the season just gone and identify some of the key trends we saw this year.

For this article I spoke to two experts: Marcel Brache, of the USA Eagles, and Christian Day, commentator for BT Sport and head of player affairs at the RPA. Below are their thoughts on the key trends we saw teams employing this season.

Rugby’s New Tactical Trends: The Rise of the Tap and Go

In years gone by, the tap and go was the preserve of the quick penalty. Once a year we might see a structured tap and go in a Barbarians match but that would be it. This year it has been almost ubiquitous. It even made an appearance in the Premiership final.

Here Marcel Brache explains why teams are increasingly turning to the structured tap and go: “Scrum and lineout defences have become more adept at nullifying threats at the goal-line and I am seeing defending teams even target these set-pieces on the goal-line to win the ball back.”

Think of the number of times you have seen a team totally on top with scrum after scrum barely 10m from the defending team’s line only to push too soon or be found to have wheeled the scrum and give up a penalty. That passes not only the ball to the defending side but also a huge chunk of momentum.

“As Leicester showed in the Premiership final, and the Bulls in the semi against Leinster, a structured tap and go keeps momentum for the attacking side and can take the referee out of the contest and away from making 50-50 calls on the set-piece.”

It was interesting to see how Exeter were one of the early adopters of this new tactic, especially as they had seen so much success with their maul from the lineout. Clearly, teams were keen to ensure that they didn’t end up in a situation where they might lose a great attacking opportunity due to a referee’s interpretation.

That’s not to say tap and goes completely eliminate this. As soon as it started to become more of a feature we also saw more penalties for sealing off and latching. However, generally, the pick and go has proved to generate more points than the lineout or scrum.

“Scrums and lineouts take a long time to set up, or reset, so a tap and go can generate quicker attacking opportunities and allow attacking sides to stay on top and keep the momentum building.”

All tactics are cyclical and something new like this will see a reduction in effectiveness as more teams do it. As teams spend more of their training time on stopping the tap and go they will have to take that time away from focusing on stopping the maul or the scrum. Ironically, the move towards the tap and go more universally, might lead to it becoming less effective and the lineout taking its place again at the top of the effectiveness tree.

Rugby’s New Tactical Trends: Lineout Launch Plays

The lineout may have taken a few steps backwards as the prime attacking weapon within 10m of the opposing line, but it still dominates for the other 90m.

In the Six Nations the most common start point for a try was the lineout, in the 2019 World Cup almost every single team generated most of their tries from the lineout, in the Premiership this year over 50% of all tries started at the lineout.

The French term might be no scrum, no victory but, in the eyes of Christian Day, it is the lineout that is king. “The resurgence of teams this season who will happily concede possession in order to exert territorial pressure on their opponents was very notable,” he says.

“A key element to this strategy is a lineout that not only guarantees possession 85%-plus of the time, but that also poses a genuine threat to opposing teams either via a well-drilled maul or via accurate launch plays.”

The Premiership final, between Saracens and Leicester, featured two teams who ranked in the bottom half of possession stats in the Premiership, Saracens second lowest, but two teams who ranked first and third for points scored.

“By challenging opponents with technical excellence and forward power in the maul you can eke out penalties, leading to further territorial advancement, and eventual try-scoring opportunities when close enough to the line; Leicester Tigers, Saracens and Gloucester ruling in this area.

“As a contrast, lineout-based launch plays are becoming ever more adept at challenging defences and leading to scoring opportunities; see Harlequins and Northampton Saints for prime examples of teams who love to launch from lineout.”

Teams have seen the blueprint for league success. It’s not a question of how much ball you have, but where you have it. Leicester knew that if they kicked the ball deep and accurately, the opposition would have to either return the kick (keeping it in play would have led to a good counter-attacking opportunity and kicking it out would have given Leicester a great attacking platform) or carried it and risk a turnover.

The problem with basing your game plan on the lineout is what happens when that weapon is taken away from you by a team unwilling to kick to touch and disciplined enough to give away the bare minimum of lineout opportunities.

“The Premiership final served up a masterclass in tactics from Steve Borthwick. Saracens wanted lineouts from which to launch, Leicester Tigers steadfastly refused to kick the ball off of the field. Just eight lineouts in the final resulted for the men in black. Saracens were suffocated in their own half, something that they are very adept at doing to other teams, and Leicester won out with a last-minute drop-goal.”

Between 2015 and 2021 Exeter Chiefs finished first or second in every single Premiership season and won the Champions Cup. They did that with a brutal high-possession game that just wore down the opposition. At the same time, Saracens, doyens of the low-possession game were winning the years Exeter weren’t.

This season, low possession – and a dominant lineout – has won out, but will that be the same next year?

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