A look at how the smartest teams operate today
Rugby keeps getting smarter as teams hunt for those marginal gains. Nowhere is that clearer than the Six Nations where coaches and analysts have more time to spend trying to gain any advantage they can.
In this article I look at the three unexpected areas where smart teams might gain an advantage.
Kicking to touch from a penalty might feel like it has little impact on the overall success of a team. Unless you miss, it’s all broadly the same isn’t it? It turns out that it’s not. Teams have on average, four penalty kicks to touch from their own half per match and seven from anywhere. Even when just looking at those kicks within their own half, the difference is stark.
A team with a kicker whose kicks travel 10m shorter than a competitor will lose field position equivalent to just over a try in the tournament. For a team like Ireland that represents a 5% increase, it’s just under 20% for Italy.
We saw an example of the value of touchfinders on Friday night’s match-up between Harlequins and Leicester Tigers. Harlequins missed touch twice and were very conservative on a third kick when they just ventured into Leicester’s 22 when already in their half.
Jarrod Evans’s missed kick received most of the blame for their loss but those three kicks had an enormous impact on the number of tries they could’ve expected to score. Something we rarely talk about in absolute terms is field position. The higher up the pitch you are, the more likely you are to score a try. Kicks to touch from penalties present a very simple way of gaining field position without competition. Smart teams can maximise those opportunities.
The simplest way is to ensure your best kicker is taking the kicks to touch and not just your fly-half. In some cases the fly-half will be the best man for the job but that’s not always true. Lorenzo Pani of Zebre is one of the best touchfinders this season, though he plays at full-back. With Paolo Garbisi ranking slightly below average for his kicks to touch, Italy would be silly not to use Pani for those touchfinders.
The same is true for left and right footers, right footers struggle when close to the right touchline and vice versa for left footers. Increasingly we see teams choosing different kickers depending on the pitch location. Henry Slade has been used when penalties are tight to the right hand touchline as has Andre Esterhuizen for Harlequins and South Africa.
The benefits might be small, but the costs are non-existent so expect to see teams being smarter with their penalty kicks to touch. It’s one of the simplest Six Nations tactics to introduce.
2. Hidden Figures – hiding defenders
Think back to your grass-roots days. Often the fly-half would be selected thanks to their kicking or attacking game. Fly-halves who can kick, distribute, and defend are hard to find and so, depending on the level you played at, you’re unlikely to have played alongside one.
Nonetheless, it’s certain that your defensive system would have placed that fly-half as the first defender at set-pieces. Right in the channel that is most easily accessible for the enormous forwards wishing to do that fly-half harm.
Why did teams persist in defending like this? Well, because tradition dictated that you defend 10,12,13 and nobody wanted to move away from that. The times they are a-changin’ though. Teams have largely, though not entirely, ditched the pendulum defence for kicks and instead have moved to having their full-back and fly-half deep. Occasionally a winger might be dispatched to help out but their defence duties are more likely to come in the defensive line.
There was a lot of discussion about whether Marcus Smith could do the job of defending at full-back when he was named there at the World Cup against Chile. In reality, his duties hadn’t really changed from what he was doing when defending as a fly-half. The average Premiership fly-half attempts 8.8 tackles per 80 minutes, though that differs massively per team.
Northampton Saints’ tens have a particularly rough time with 13.2 tackles per 80 minutes whereas Leicester Tigers leave their tens in the firing line just 5.2 times per 80 minutes.
With the advancement of club, Test and Six Nations tactics, expect to see the trend go more towards how Leicester play than Northampton, a fly-half lost for the match due to injury has an enormous knock-on impact on a team’s success. It’s understandable that team’s want to protect them.
- 3. Flexible First Receivers
Just as teams will sometimes want to protect their play-makers from defensive duties, they can also play around with who does which role in attack, when it comes to Six Nations tactics. Again, tradition dictates that the fly-half receives the ball from the scrum-half and then chooses where it goes. It doesn’t need to be the case though and there can be significant benefits to varying who receives the ball first.
Teams rarely use strike moves any more, instead they run strike sequences. It’s not just one phase, it might be two, three or more pre-organised attacking plays in a row. Ireland are the masters at running strike moves which extend beyond just the first phase.
In that situation, it’s not always helpful for the fly-half to be involved in the first-phase attack. Instead, they can sit back and watch the first couple of phases and then step in when they see a weak spot.
Leicester have been successful with a strike sequence this season which involves their scrum-half making two passes in a row directly to hard rushing forwards. The third phases features the fly-half sweeping back against the grain and towards the (hopefully) soft spot in the defence.
Scotland have used Sione Tuipulotu as a first receiver consistently to take pressure off Finn Russell. Tuipulotu can crash, distribute or hit in behind to Russell, who can then choose the best option. It’s not just backs who operate in this role either. England have used Billy Vunipola as a first-phase distributor. He draws the attention of the defenders and can then shift the ball to a softer spot.
Expect to see more teams planning extended sequences of attacking moves rather than just a single strike move. If they do, then it makes little sense to use the fly-half as a first receiver on first phase; it’s far better to let them stand back, let it unfold, then strike once the defence have shown their hand.
Rugby is evolving and becoming more complex. In that landscape, the smartest teams will be the ones who find a way to get around the challenges they face in creative ways. The smartest teams won’t always win, but they will give themselves the best chance to win.
Do you expect to see these Six Nations tactics take hold? Tell us on firstname.lastname@example.org or on social media.