Paul Gustard looks at the attacking themes emerging ahead of the Rugby World Cup


In terms of attacking trends, what we’ve seen over the last few months – and in particular as we get closer to the start of the Rugby World Cup – is this kind of swing shape out of the standard one-three-three-one structure. Where previously teams were trying to keep two sides to their attack on either side of the ruck, now they are trying to send players straight away to the openside.

‘One-three-three-one’ describes the numbers of forwards spread out across the field, in positions to attack. It has become a standard for many sides.

But what we’re seeing now is people trying to create numerical overload on the flow side. So rather than waiting to see which of two sides the opportunity lies and holding the defence, some teams are now trusting that rival defenders will stay where they are on either side of the ruck – because there’s space to defend there even if there’s no ‘face’ in front of them – and so attackers already get on their bikes and fly round one way. We’ve seen that with Australia, a little bit with South Africa, and from Argentina.

The team that bucks the trend is the All Blacks.

The All Blacks attack

New Zealand have definitely kept a two-sided attack and they haven’t tried to overcomplicate it. They’ve kept their numbers and just used hands, by playing straight. That’s one of the Kiwi super strengths, fixing defenders and staying closer to the pass and letting the ball do the work, as opposed to a long pass and  long pass again as players try to run into the space.

They are the one team – as is often the case with New Zealand – who’ve deviated from what other sides have been doing. They hammered Australia in the first Bledisloe match down the short side, where they were keeping four or five numbers. Australia were overwhelmed.

You’re also seeing a lot of this ‘long and on’ kicking style where teams are just banging it up field and then trying to get their defensive line. Then they kick back and we’re getting this aerial ping pong. The Kiwis can do that from time to time, but they are going for a lot more contestable kicks. They’re trying to create an aerial pressure game.

But often this is off ten or 15 for New Zealand, as opposed to nine. With England and Wales you saw a lot more kicks off nine. A traditional style: kick from nine, high up the field, with chase lines organised.

It is more common practice in European competitions to kick from the base of an elongated ruck. This, in principle, places your kick ten metres further forward than if you passed the ball back, to kick from ten.

Other evolving attacking trends

For so long South Africa have had this immense power game that’s hard to stop if they are allowed momentum from structure.

When they struggled against Argentina was when they weren’t able to do that or couldn’t totally control the gainline. That’s when questions are asked about what their Plan B is, after the kick game. It’s possibly why South Africa tried to play a bit more expansive to start off with in the second encounter with the Pumas. That second Test felt like they were exploring other possibilities with their attack, looking for a spear rather than a bludgeon.

The Springboks look like they are evolving, not to have an all-court game, but to challenge more with their running game, particularly with the back-three players that they’ve got.

With Scotland and France, although it wasn’t the strongest French side, I was super impressed with both’s structured play. So attacking from lineouts and scrums. Both have very, very smart attack coaches. And I’m starting to understand from my conversations with Laurent Labit, that he is one of the very best at strategising and breaking down what he wants to do in certain areas of the field.

With Scotland, we got a lot of ball movement which is something we’ve seen from Gregor Townsend over the last few years. But traditionally France challenge hard at the breakdown, and they weren’t able to slow down the pace of the ball against Scotland in the second half. They looked passive on either side of the ball and weren’t winning the collisions or controlling the lineout, and their maul was dominated.

So we saw two sides of France there, but tactically nothing different from what we’ve seen over the last few seasons. They’re very willing to kick and look for the counter-attack, where they are lethal. Scotland are a bit more willing to play from deep with the likes of Finn Russell and then Blair Kinghorn, who is exceptional. He can play anywhere in the backline that kid, he adds a huge kicking game, but he also has a turn of pace.

With just just a month to go until the World Cup, let’s see how these attacking trends shift.

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