“Fellas just trust, trust. Trust the systems we’ve been working on and trust your own ability. You don’t need to force it.” A simple but effective message; these were the words that head coach Andy Friend delivered to his players prior to taking the field on Saturday. In a remarkable game that saw Connacht score 14 points in four minutes, this analysis will take a look at the 1-3-3-1 attacking system and how it helped them to produce a last-minute winning try in their Champions Cup victory over Gloucester.
So, before we look at the build-up to Connacht’s last try, what is a 1-3-3-1 and what does it mean? Inspired by football’s use of numerical formations such as the 4-4-2, rugby has adopted the same approach to positioning the 8 forwards in a pack on the pitch.
As we can see with the coloured boxes in the image above, the way the 1-3-3-1 system works in rugby is that it splits the forward pack into four groups of players positioned laterally across the pitch.
Essentially, the numbers in a 1-3-3-1 formation determines how many forwards are in each group and where they stand. For example, the ‘1’ will stand alone on the left wing, the ‘3’ on the 15 metre line and so on. The idea behind systems, or ‘shapes’, like this is to spread out the forwards, instead of having them all bunch around the ball, and stretch the opposition defence as a result.
As some readers may already know, there are a number of pack formations used in rugby nowadays such as the 2-3-2-1 used by Japan or the 1-3-2-2 used by the All Blacks. So why have Connacht chosen a 1-3-3-1?
At a basic level, the 1-3-3-1 allows Connacht to:
- Protect the ball where the opposition defenders are most numerous in midfield with two pods of 3 forwards,
- Draw the defences focus to those 6 forwards and away from the wings where Connacht’s most dangerous players are positioned and
- Realign quickly to attack either side of the pitch due to the symmetrical nature of the formation.
Keeping these three benefits of the 1-3-3-1 in mind, let’s then take a look at the build up to Connacht’s 81st minute try.
With Shane Delahunt having just scored from the back of a maul in the 78th minute, Connacht restart by setting up to receive Gloucester’s kick-off.
It’s worth noting in the image above that, whereas 20 years ago receiving teams would traditionally position all of their forwards on one side of the pitch, Connacht have their pack in a rough 1-3-3-1 shape already as Gloucester’s Lloyd Evans kicks the ball.
With the score at 20-24 and only a few minutes to go, the idea behind this is to allow Connacht to get into their attacking system early and work their way up the pitch.
Connacht don’t get their shape right straight away but with Gloucester down to 14 men and choosing to drop players back to cover a potential kick, out-half Conor Fitzgerald takes advantage of the opposition’s narrow defence to move the ball to the wing.
As well as playing to the space, this decision by Fitzgerald buys Connacht’s pack time to readjust into their formation quickly as backrow Robin Copeland and the outside backs secure the wide ruck.
Once scrum-half Stephen Kerins looks to pass the ball again, we can already see the pack laying the foundations of the 1-3-3-1.
In spite of this development, Connacht now must be clever as, with a ruck near the sideline, Gloucester can now rush up as one cohesive line to put pressure on the ball.
To counter the rush, Connacht pass to the first man in the pod of 3 closest to the touchline-Ultan Dillane here. This reduces both the amount of time the ball spends in the air and the time for Gloucester to rush up to make a tackle.
Dillane also passes, changing the point of contact as Gloucester’s defenders brace to tackle him and allowing Eoghan Masterson to get over the gain line while protecting the ball.
Having survived the initial rush and now split Gloucester’s defensive line either side of the ruck, Connacht have bought time to bring their second group of three forwards into action.
Connacht use this second pod of three forwards as a decoy, drawing the Gloucester defenders focus to the forwards in the middle of the field. This distraction allows Fitzgerald to play a tunnel pass to Tom Daly and releases the faster players out wide. Having started just outside their 22, the 1-3-3-1 system is beginning to help Connacht to move their way up the pitch without ‘forcing it’.
After another three phases working the ball left into midfield again, Connacht then take advantage of 1-3-3-1 shape’s symmetry to attack back down the right.
Using a pod to distract Gloucester’s midfield tacklers, Kerins and Jack Carty this time pass behind the three forwards to Denis Buckley who is acting as the ‘1’ on the right wing. Buckley then releases Bundee Aki and trusting in their system suddenly has Connacht over their own 10 metre line.
Now in full flow, Connacht use another group of three to hold the midfield defence and reach the Gloucester half through Copeland as the ‘1’ on the left wing.
As an aside, it’s worth noting the running angles and animation of the three forwards above. By slightly angling their run inwards and having their hands up, the trio look like a genuine threat, forcing Gloucester to mark them and concede a 4 vs. 3 overlap out wide.
With Gloucester now backtracking, Connacht methodically stick to their system, trusting the 1-3-3-1 to work the ball back across the field before Aki breaks another attempted tackle.
Even as Connacht reach Gloucester’s 22, their continued belief in the system delivering is admirable, as exemplified by Fitzgerald.
After the next pod of three carry into contact, the young 10 is presented with the opportunity to throw another tunnel pass to Carty with an overlap out wide. Fitzgerald’s decision not to force the play underlines his trust in the 1-3-3-1 to get them over the line. And get over the line they do.
After working the inside with the two punching pods of 3 forwards and an inside pass to Kyle Godwin, Tom Daly gets beyond the tackle to offload to Copeland and spark delirium in the Sportsground.
In a losing situation where the minutes on the clock or the points on the scoreboard can seem the most important numbers, Connacht’s faith in the 1-3-3-1 on Saturday was admirable. Although a Champions Cup quarter-final looks unlikely from here, knowing the value of trusting teammates and sticking to the system under pressure can only stand Connacht in good stead for the rest of the season.
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