With the blitz defensive style coming to the fore in rugby over the last 4 years, and perhaps reaching it’s zenith with the performance of South Africa at the World Cup, coaches have been tasked with finding ways to stem the tide and get their attacks running again. This analysis will look at an early attacking trend amongst some of the form clubs in Europe that goes against the grain to break down the blitz.
This article starts in France with Bordeaux, one of the surprise packages in what has been a topsy turvy Top 14 this season. Lead by former Bouclier de Brennus-winning coach Christophe Urios, Les Girondins have shot to the top end of the table early on. The first example of attacking play in this article will look at a moment from Bordeaux’s win over Toulouse in August.
Playing from the left side of the pitch in the wine-coloured jerseys, this is a less than ideal attacking position for Bordeaux at first glance. With a ruck on the 15 metre line, this allows Toulouse to load the open side of the pitch with defenders and form a cohesive line to rush up with.
On the following play, while Toulouse don’t make a dominant tackle on Cyril Cazeaux as he carries the ball into contact, Cazeaux doesn’t necessarily make any progress up the pitch either.
Bouyed by this relatively positive return, Toulouse’s defenders reset on the open side again with a standard ABC ruck defensive organisation so that they can blitz once more.
Let’s see how Bordeaux go about breaking down the blitz on the next play.
All of a sudden, Toulouse go from running up to make a tackle to running behind their posts. So how did Bordeaux make this happen?
If we think back to the first pass in the play, Bordeaux throw a long pass into the middle of the pitch. This has two effects on shaping Toulouse’s defence; one it splits their defensive line while forcing them to number up correctly and two it makes them move laterally.
As scrum-half Yann Lesgourgues looks to pass, we can see all three Toulouse defenders on the right of the ruck already leaning towards the side line. Crucially, there are also two props on the other side of the ruck with Bordeaux winger Blair Connor hidden behind the ruck.
This allows Ben Botica at 10 to draw the blitz on to him and isolate the A defender, before cutting against the grain and giving Connor the space to race by Charlie Faumuina to create the try. Rather than trying to go over and around Toulouse’s blitz defence, Bordeaux go under it and slip through the seams of the ruck to score.
Just in case this looks like a coincidence, let’s now head over to Bristol where the surprise Premiership leaders played Bath in October.
In what is a very similar position to where Bordeaux started their attack against Toulouse, Bath are in a similarly strong defensive position with more numbers in defence and everyone jumping off the line to blitz Bristol in the tackle.
However, once again, we have the defenders at the edge of the ruck running sideways instead of square. The position of the Bears forwards-circled in blue-beyond the ruck should hint at where the ball is going to go next.
With a clever dummy loop play that varies the theme, Harry Thacker goes against the grain with an inside pass to Charles Piatau to streak through the gap.
The picture is near identical to the Bordeaux try in how the first ruck defender rushes out of his position but it’s worth drawing attention to the support roles every Bristol player is performing here.
If we look at point no. 1 marked in the picture above, we have Bristol’s forwards going beyond the ruck just to make sure that Bath prop Beno Obano-circled in red-can’t close the gap quickly to tackle Piatau.
With point 2 and 3, we can see both Mat Protheroe and Nathan Hughes running lines ahead of Piatau anticipating the linebreak before it even happens.
Finally-at point 4 which is a little more obvious in the GIF above-inside centre Will Hurrell is showing for the ball to keep the outside defence distracted.
In summary, it’s a finely crafted try from Pat Lam’s Bristol that draws the blitz and attacks the edge of the ruck to score once more.
Having been to Bordeaux and Bristol, the article will now move across the water again to Galway where Connacht hosted Conference A leaders Leinster in the PRO14 last weekend.
Much like the other examples, Leinster find themselves near the touchline but this time they are throwing into a lineout.
Leinster play a flat pass to centre Joe Tomane in this instance in order to split the defence and get them moving across the pitch.
However, with Connacht’s A defender at the edge of the ruck running square, Luke McGrath at 9 for Leinster must get Paul Boyle moving sideways as options Cian Healy ( 1 ) and Ronan Kelleher ( 2 )run onto the ball outside him.
Using Healy as a decoy, McGrath pulls Boyle out of position before throwing a switch pass against the grain for Kelleher to burst through-with a little shepherding from no. 8 Max Deegan at the ruck to help.
After originally breaking the line with a hooker who then offloads to a loosehead prop, tighthead Andrew Porter then provides the front-row finish by muscling over the line for the try.
Our last example stays in Ireland to look at the match-winning score for Conference B leaders Munster in their PRO14 derby win over Ulster on Saturday.
The set-up for going against the grain should be starting to look familiar at this stage now. Just like the three teams before them, Munster split the defensive line and get Ulster’s would-be tacklers moving laterally around the corner.
From here it’s almost a mirror-image of Bordeaux’s play with Tyler Blyendaal stepping back against the grain like Ben Botica. As Blair Connor did before him, Andrew Conway also comes out of his hiding place behind the ruck to receive the ball on the cut-back pass. However, Conway also goes one better by showing great balance and speed to score himself in a move that will have delighted new attack coach Stephen Larkham.
While many have marveled at, and will look to emulate, South Africa’s World Cup-winning style of defence; club coaches have shown that the tactical landscape of the game very rarely stays completely still. After an early blitz, it looks like rugby in Europe is up and running again.
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