Sam Larner and the Secret Analyst dig into the tap-penalty

If this season could be condensed into one action, it would be the five-metre tap-and-go. In a sport which can be slow to adapt to changes, the sudden rush to adopt the tap-penalty has caught some by surprise. In this edition of the Intercept, our Secret Analyst explains how teams have been preparing for this new attacking weapon.

Avoiding Mistakes

It has long been the feeling that referees focus particularly on certain offences in certain contexts. That’s especially the case when teams are adjudged to be playing in a negative way. Think about the times when teams have been pinged for sealing off when trying to see out the game. That is also true when attacking close to the opposition line, where both scrums and lineouts have narrow margins for error. Scrums have already largely been consigned to the scrapheap as a penalty option. Lineouts remain the most popular option, but they are being caught by the tap-and-go.

“From my experience as an analyst, quick tap plays five metres out are made by a creative attack coach. I’d say that most plays are built by combining elements of plays that they’ve seen before but putting their own spin on things.” Rugby is a copycat sport. Teams will let others take the risk of inventing something new, and then swoop in and steal it. We see this in all aspects of rugby and the tap-and-go is no exception.

In the above we can see how Leinster have learnt from the Bulls. The success of the Bulls tap-and-goes provides a blueprint for other teams to be successful. Unfortunately for defence coaches, it doesn’t provide a blueprint for how to stop the tap-and-go, as our analyst explains.

“Lack of training time may mean you only defend one type of this play in a training week if it’s a major threat of the opposition. You also don’t tend to see the exact same play five metres out, twice in succession. Whereas a team may have a lineout go-to play which they use week to week. This makes these types of plays hard to predict.”

That causes huge problems for teams if they end up defending these plays. They could dedicate more time to practicing defending tap-and-goes but there’s a good chance they won’t face one that weekend. Or worse, they could spend their week preparing for a specific tap-and-go their opponents used previously, only to be caught out by a different play. One of the most common traits of bad analysis is to be fooled by a small sample size.

Next Tap

All of this shows why the tap-and-go is such a powerful weapon. It’s very hard to prepare for but it also takes away training time which might otherwise be used to stop lineout drives. Even if you don’t use a tap-and-go, you’ve still gained an advantage for your lineout drive.

What are teams trying to do then to solve the sudden onslaught of the tap? Our analyst explains that it’s back to basics:

“In my experience, defence coaches, as you would imagine defending on your try-line, will just put the emphasis on attitude and preventing as many passes as possible by bringing line speed and aggression.”

Related: The art of goal-line defence

It might sound simple, but teams need an approach which can account for the many tap-and-go possibilities they might face.

Teams already have plenty of experience defending carries close to their goal-line. The tap-and-go is just a slightly more complicated version of that. For the moment, it’s the best weapon defenders have. Cut through all the smoke and mirrors and misdirection and simply hit the player with the ball as low and as hard as possible. They are fighting a losing battle however, the moves are getting more complex and just knowing who has the ball is becoming a real challenge. As the tap-and-go becomes even more popular, that challenge only becomes greater.

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