Sam Larner breaks down Robert Baloucoune’s try in the latest of this series
The Intercept: Ulster Try Against Connacht
With very few exceptions, tries which appear to be individual moments of brilliance are actually well-crafted team moves.
Robert Baloucoune’s exceptional try against Connacht in the United Rugby Championship in February was one of these examples. It was an incredible finish by the young Irish winger, but the space he exploited was created by incredible teamwork.
We spoke with Dan Soper, Ulster’s assistant coach, to understand how the try was scored.
Escaping the Edges
We all know the frustration of watching your team and seeing a potential overlap on the wing go begging when the carrier decides to take contact at the 15m mark. There is method to this, though.
Getting the ball out from the wide channels is one of the hardest things an attacking side can do. Defensive coaches love it when an attack goes all the way to the edge because it gives them a chance to attack the ruck, confident that even if they leave an overlap the defence will be all lined up and can then use their line speed to cut it down.
Soper explains that Ulster actually want the ball wide in attack: “We place a lot of importance on getting the ball wide, getting it right into the 5m channel. We have great players who play on the edges and we want to get them the ball.
“When you get the ball on the sideline it is actually, in a roundabout sort of way, easier to get organised. That is especially true about forwards. There is no indecision about whether they need to go left or right of the ruck.”
As always with attack, the key is winning the collision and getting quick ball. “Against bigger teams it can be better to set up in the middle of the field so you can challenge the defence’s decision-making on whether to stay where they are or keep moving around the ruck. But in this case, we got that front-foot ball and so we were in a great position to attack and get around them.”
When Ulster do move the ball across the pitch, they do it very quickly. When Stuart McCloskey receives the ball, after two passes, he is already midway across the pitch and his long miss-pass puts Ulster inside the far 15m channel.
“Stuart does a great job floating around the back. You can see the comms that he makes to push Marcus Rea out to wide channel. The key, though, is how effectively those lines are from the four forwards.
“Declan Moore runs a line that just checks the Connacht defenders and Marcus runs a really well-timed line that doesn’t let the defenders get out too early and then it’s just a quality pass from Stu.
“We know that Stu is a great ball-carrier and great at those short passes out of contact and he is absolutely world-class at those skills, but this is a part of his game; organising others around him and getting that pass off is something he works really hard on. It’s a great pass from Stu, but those effective lines from the forwards preserve the space and allow us to get the ball out wide.”
Preparation and Finishing
Playbooks in rugby might be a good few years off the scale that they are in the NFL, but they are still pretty hefty. They cover many scenarios and most plays in a rugby match will be out of the book.
Even in this example you can see how Billy Burns receives the ball with one forward on his inside and two on the outside. That presents a different picture to the defence than Burns receiving the ball with all three forwards on the outside.
As Soper explains: “This type of situation we talk to the backs a lot about where they are looking and what they are looking for. Based on that, and the players they have around them, we want to know what is our best play?
“We would have prepped this scenario, with Stu out the back. He has scanned early and he has seen the defender just come off the line and he has the confidence and skill level to throw that pass.”
That pass and decision comes from tons of preparation and repetition, both on the field and when watching video. Sometimes we can be tempted to say that a player threw a sensational pass because of their natural talent, but that does a disservice to the effort the coaches and the players put in week after week.
The McCloskey pass is wonderful, but the Michael Lowry pass also deserves a mention. All the hard work in the build-up could be for nothing if Lowry gives the pass too soon and lets Baloucoune get swamped by the defenders.
“Because Mike is as quick as he is, it’s a pretty horrible place to be as a defender,” says Soper. “You have two quick guys running at that outside channel. Sometimes when we look at matches at the high level you see all the flash stuff, but you might miss those simpler things.
“Something like this is a two v one that you would do in your first training session as a kid and you might end up getting bored of it, but it is key. If Michael doesn’t quite execute that right, if he doesn’t keep himself running pretty square down the pitch then Robert doesn’t get that opportunity, does he?”
When Lowry does give the pass, it is an exceptional bit of skill by Baloucoune to outpace the entire Connacht defence and score a wonderful try. The try doesn’t happen without the McCloskey or Lowry passes but it definitely doesn’t happen if Baloucoune doesn’t have the pace and balance that he possesses.
In the end he doesn’t need the support but for Soper, the commitment from the rest of the team to offer him an inside option should he need it is particularly impressive.
“That is a part of who we are and what Dan McFarland is driving. It is the fight for every inch mentality. There are four of them who all could take a pass to get the try at the end but thanks to Rob’s pace they aren’t needed. That is something that we celebrate, and you can see that when Rob does score the number of players who make the effort to get under the posts to get to him. That is part of who we are.”
I have been lucky enough to watch some professional sides while they train. Really, it’s not all that different to what any of you might experience during midweek sessions. Rugby is a simple sport and the more you can practise the basics and common scenarios, the better you will be.
All of the passes that led up to this try are ones that most backs playing at even just a decent level would be confident of making. What separates the elite is that they can make that pass consistently, under pressure, and having scanned first to ensure it is the right pass to make. You might not get to the elite level, but you can certainly improve your team’s decision-making through repetition of those basic skills.
The final takeaway is that team mentality. Imagine if Ulster didn’t have the attitude that they were desperate to offer support to Baloucoune on his run and the winger was caught. It’s no try and almost certainly a turnover.
Or imagine if they didn’t want to play to the edges of the pitch and so they didn’t have their forwards set up to run those lines to preserve the space for the break.
Here’s another example of an Ulster try.
Decide which mentality you want your team to have and embrace it. If you decide you throw the ball around, then don’t punish misplaced passes. If you decide that you want your players to work hard to get in support then celebrate that, even if they don’t end up getting the ball.
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