Sam Larner uses examples from the latest round of Six Nations matches to illustrate how teams look to exploit players
Six Nations Analysis: Targeting Individual Defenders
Most tries scored cannot be attributed to a particular moment. They are a build-up of pressure or an accumulation of small mistakes, or successes, by the defence or attack.
It is one of the elements that makes rugby such a joy to watch. Every action influences something else. A missed tackle may not lead directly to a try but it may draw someone else in to make the follow-up tackle. The second defender is then out of position and space may open up in the ensuing phases.
That is one way to score a try; an accumulation of pressure. The other way is to pick a perceived weak point and exploit it. If the weak point cannot hold up, you score the try.
There were plenty of examples from the weekend’s Six Nations matches of teams looking to exploit weaknesses in the opposition.
France targeted Leigh Halfpenny for their first try. Halfpenny is not a weakness under the high ball but a good kick – as Romain Ntamack delivered – and a good chase mean that the best case for Halfpenny is that he is tackled as soon as he hits the ground.
You can see that as soon as Ntamack winds up for the kick Josh Adams is already dropping back and Nick Tompkins soon follows. Their job is to block the path to Halfpenny. They can get in the way and allow Halfpenny to take the catch without too much French pressure. Their second job is to play any loose balls and ensure that a Halfpenny mistake isn’t terminal.
They both end up on Halfpenny’s right-hand side. That causes two problems; the first is that the full-back is now jumping into French pressure rather than being covered and the second is any loose ball that ends up to Halfpenny’s left will have no try-preventing cover. Of course, the ball does end up to the left and Anthony Bouthier scores his first try.
France again target what they perceive as the weak link at 1:13 in this clip. Wales are defending with Johnny McNicholl in the five-metre channel. This is something that France would have picked up in their pre-match analysis – Wales did the same thing with George North two weeks ago against Ireland, something you can see at 1:32 in the clip below, when they were inside their 22.
This is not new for teams; Australia used to defend with Bernard Foley in the five-metre channel and hooker Stephen Moore in the midfield.
The logic is simple, it should be easier to defend in the five-metre channel than it is either at the back of the lineout or in the midfield when you need to make many more decisions. Teams will therefore hide their weaker defenders in the channel. The problem comes when teams spot this and exploit it.
France expected Wales to put a weaker defender there at the lineout in their own 22 and drew up a nice lineout move which sent 21st lock Paul Willemse straight down the line. McNicholl was suddenly at the centre of the defensive effort and he couldn’t stop the French player.
Kicks are frequently a way to put pressure on individual players. People may bemoan kicking, and admittedly it can be aimless, but it is a way to create open field and attacking opportunities.
In the above example, Conor Murray’s kick stays infield and allows England to counter-attack. When you receive a kick or a turnover you typically want to move the point of attack. This means that you spread the ball left or right away from the strength of the defence.
England immediately move the ball to the far side of the pitch to Jonathan Joseph. The act of moving the ball has forced Ireland to drift and that has exposed Rob Herring. The hooker has not been able to close the gap between himself and Josh van der Flier and the hole that is left is exacerbated by Sam Underhill and Tom Curry forming a corridor for the winger to run through.
Stuart Hogg does something similar against Italy from a kick. Again, Scotland move the point of attack away from the defensive strength. This puts pressure on flanker Sebastian Negri.
The Benetton player has to cover the inside shoulder of Luca Morisi. Centre Morisi cannot drift until Negri has covered the hole. Of course, Morisi is quicker than Negri and when he does drift Negri cannot get across in time and Hogg runs through the hole.
Teams will always target individual players. Every player, even the very best in the world, have some weaknesses. Both Negri and Herring, mentioned above, are exceptional players but they will of course be at risk in the open field against somebody like Hogg or Joseph.
Halfpenny is one of the very best in the business but a well-placed kick and a strong chase will always cause problems. It isn’t possible to be good enough in the air to guarantee you win the ball every time. Unfortunately for Wales the mistake becomes catastrophic because there is no cover once the knock-on occurs.
MORE SIX NATIONS ANALYSIS
The opening round of the Six Nations showed…
Hiding players in set-piece situations has become commonplace. There is no law that says where players need to defend so it would be foolish to put your ball-playing flair fly-half, who may be lacking a little in defence, in a key defensive position. Much better to hide him on the wing, or close to the lineout.
For attackers this is just an invitation to find the hidden player and go after him. It will be interesting to see if Wales continue putting their wingers in the five-metre channel for the next two games and if they do, will England and Scotland exploit that?
When you watch your next Six Nations game look out for how teams try to pick off individual players. Especially look out for how teams return loose kicks. They will often target a member of the front five who finds himself utterly exposed in the wide, open space in the middle of the pitch.
The March 2020 issue of Rugby World magazine – a Six Nations special – is on sale now.
Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.