Sam Larner breaks down Theo Cabango's fleet-footed finish
The Intercept: Cardiff Try against Harlequins
In this series, Rugby World talks to those involved in big moments in matches to find out the detail involved – the hows and the whys.
Theo Cabango’s Cardiff try against Harlequins in the second round of the European Champions Cup was one of the feel-good tries of the year. It was the story of a makeshift band of Cardiff players who gave both Toulouse and Harlequins problems before ultimately succumbing to losses.
For this edition of The Intercept, I spoke with Cardiff defence coach Richard Hodges to understand how the try was scored.
Attacking the Ruck
Cabango’s try originated from an Ellis Jenkins turnover. That isn’t an unusual situation for Cardiff and something they pride themselves on.
The trend in modern rugby is to keep 15 defenders on their feet and force the attackers to find a way through. But Cardiff aren’t one of those teams, as Hodges explains: “We want to go after every ruck. Yes, that will lead to some penalties and we will make some poor decisions, but we have won the most turnovers in the Pro14 in the last two seasons; 81% of our jackals occur in the first three phases so we go really hard at the ball in those early phases.”
It is true that if you attack rucks you leave yourself potentially exposed to being overpowered. However, when you do attack rucks you force the attack to commit more players to keep hold of the ball. You might only have 13 players on their feet, but you might still have more defenders than the attack.
“We know that when we compete at rucks, we force the attack to overcommit men to the breakdown. This means that after a few phases, the attack will have lost their shape because they have had to commit men into the rucks.
“We have a call, which I can send on the field in game, where we will tell the lads not to compete if we are struggling with the referee’s interpretation at the breakdown. Then we want to get our momentum back by using our line speed and winning the collisions.
“We’ve used that twice so far this season. But even when we use that call, we still want out back-row players to go for the ball in the ruck because that’s their skill. Our approach changes depending on the position of the game. If we are within a score, we will send a message on, telling the boys to go for every ruck.”
There are some key takeaways for coaches at all levels. It is important to set your game plan; for Cardiff, this involves competing at rucks at almost every opportunity. If that is your plan, then you have to accept that sometimes you will get penalised or find yourself short in defence. No team can compete at every ruck but also never end up with those outcomes.
The same is true of offloads. If you want your team to offload you can’t then get frustrated when some of those offloads go to ground. “You have to nail your colours to a mast and you can’t be all things to all men. We are a team who want to blitz hard and then turn you over. I know that in every game we’re going to give away a penalty at the breakdown, but I will be able to show more examples where we won the ball back.”
Playing off the Turnover
The default approach for many teams, when playing off a turnover, is to move the ball two passes away from where the turnover took place. The idea is that by moving the ball two passes from the source of the turnover, you should be attacking a weaker spot.
For Cardiff the rule of thumb is similar with slightly more detail, as Hodges explains: “Our attack coach, Matt Sherratt, has a rule that from a turnover the ball has to be in a nine, ten or 15’s hands. It’s not just a case of moving the ball two passes, but actually moving it to people who have the vision to make those decisions.”
This is a key point. Rugby doesn’t need to be a democracy where everyone is given a chance to show off every skill. It is almost always best to give the ball to the person in the best position to do something productive with it. If you want someone to scan the field and make a decision then your nine, ten or 15 is often best. If you want someone to carry hard, then a back-row player would be your best option.
This try is a perfect example of three experts doing their jobs to perfection. Ellis Jenkins uses his jackalling skills to steal the ball, then Seb Davies uses his exceptional handling skills to free up his arms and then Cabango uses his pace and footwork to finish off the try.
“I think Seb deserves a lot of the credit. There are very few second-rows in world rugby who have that high hand skill and get their hands free to allow the offload.”
In Cardiff’s case, they have a culture where they want to hunt the ball and create turnovers. That approach comes with risks and Cardiff have accepted that risk because they believe the rewards are greater.
At your local club you can take the same approach. If you want to play a style of rugby where you keep the ball in play and offload, then you have to accept the risks. That means that you can’t berate your players when they follow your game plan and a mistake happens.
The other key is to put your players in the best positions to make use of their skill-set. If you have a prop who doesn’t really want to carry but will hit rucks all game, then use him for that purpose. Your team will be better if everyone is given the chance to be at their best.
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