In a relatively underwhelming season for the Welsh regions that has seen them go somewhat under the radar in Europe, one piece of news from Wales that has resonated across the rugby world has been the recent appointment of the Scarlets’ Brad Mooar as the new All Blacks attack coach. This analysis will look at some of the characteristics of the Scarlets attack under Mooar this season and, by extension, what New Zealand might look like with ball in hand going forward.
Generally when beginning to tactically examine a team’s approach with the ball, we first look at the attacking formation they employ. In most cases, seeing where a team’s forwards are regularly positioned across the pitch will often inform where the ball is likely to go next.
As we can above from the Scarlets’ recent 44-0 win over the Ospreys in the Pro 14, under Mooar, the team employ a standard 1-3-3-1 shape that has also been used extensively by the All Blacks in the past. With the Scarlets, this often involves the tight-five and blindside Aaron Shingler operating in the two pods of three, plus a backrow in either 15 metre channel in the form of no.8 Blade Thompson on the left wing and no. 7 Josh McLeod on the right out of picture.
However, while many teams will lean heavily on a pre-planned structure like this, it’s not the Scarlets’ shape that makes them stand out but their positive attacking mindset when they win possession. Let’s then look at three of the main ways that Moaar’s attacking style of play has manifested itself with the Scarlets this season.
Keeping the ball alive
If you were to sum up Brad Mooar’s mindset in a quote, few could illustrate it better than this one when asked whether a bug pre-match had affected his team’s performance against Cardiff on Friday:
“We had a bit of illness in the camp this week, and the good thing about illness is it’s just weakness leaving the body, isn’t it?”
This conscious effort to stay positive, even about something mundane like illness, has evidently rubbed off on the pitch, as indicated by the Scarlets’ willingness to keep the ball alive in games.
Whereas many teams will use first carry in the clip above to set up a ruck and get back into a 1-3-3-1 structure, the Scarlets have shown a different approach.
By offloading-and even kicking in flanker McLeod’s case-to keep the game unstructured, the opposition defence becomes unstructured too; inevitably creating space elsewhere on the pitch and allowing the Scarlets to play to their strengths.
This optimistic offloading attitude, plus deeper support lines that give the ball-carrier time to find a teammate, has paid dividends for the Scarlets on a number of occasions this season in the form of tries.
In the build-up to the following score, the Scarlets start with quick passing interplay between the forwards and backs. Instead of initially looking to latch onto ball-carriers to win a collision, the support runners hold their depth; leaving the offload option always open.
Despite no offload being forthcoming on the next phase, the forwards again keep their depth for the pass while still affording themselves time to clear out the ruck.
Before the Ospreys can realign, Aaron Shingler has decided to not join the structured pod of 3 forwards in midfield and makes a linebreak because of it. One more pass then sees Steff Evans in under the posts.
Running the ball back
For more conservatively-coached teams, winning the ball back often presents a prime opportunity to put boot to ball or slow the game down and get organised again.
In the above picture from the Cardiff game, Evans has both of those options open to him; to kick to touch or to carry to the middle of the pitch where the majority of his teammates are.
Instead, Evans runs the ball back from this precarious field position and beats three defenders in the process to get his team back on the front foot.
Whether it’s after receiving a kick or winning the ball in a ruck, the Scarlets have regularly took advantage of turnovers to make the game disorganised and break the opposition defence open.
In the example above, out-half Angus O’Brien counterattacks instantly off a loose kick, offloads to winger Ryan Conbeer running a deep supporting line and Scarlets are suddenly in the Ospreys’ 22.
It’s notable that even as he’s tackled, Conbeer again shows a positive mindset; looking for the offload again so the ball doesn’t ‘die’ in the ruck.
Off the back of this mindset, a couple of quick phases later scrum-half Kieran Hardy is running over the try-line.
We can see a similar ‘run it back’ approach from another loose kick against Glasgow from earlier this season.
This time it’s Paul Asquith who breaks the line before keeping life in the ball and offloading to Hardy for another try.
Using the cross-field kick
Along with looking to keep the ball alive in contact and running the ball back from turnovers, a third characteristic of the Scarlets attack under Mooar is how often they use the cross-field kick.
If we look at Conbeer’s position against Zebre above, the Scarlets like to place their wingers on each touchline in order to stretch the opposition defence out of their structure.
Although passing the ball is the Scarlets’ most frequent mode of transporting the ball to the wing, sometimes a cross-field kick is just a quicker way to get around a rush defence. In this game against Zebre in October, the Welsh region would end up scoring two tries using this same kick-pass approach to beat the blitz.
Even against a better-organised defence like Cardiff’s on Friday, Leigh Halfpenny got in on the action with another punt to Conbeer on the right wing.
Whether it’s through the constant offloading in contact, counter-attacking off turnovers or the use of cross-field kicks; a regular signature of teams coached by Mooar seems to be the aspiration to make the game unstructured and keep defences guessing.
The best example of bringing three characteristics together can be found in the Scarlets second try versus the Ospreys two weeks ago.
For the vast majority of teams, this position above is one of the most difficult places on the pitch to attack from. With no option to kick the ball straight out and the entire opposition defence on the openside side of the ruck; the defence can rush up together as one line and will often catch an attacking team behind the gain-line.
As a way to counter the rush in a situation like this, 99% of teams will have a pod of two or three forwards 5 metres from the ruck as shown above. The benefit of a pod of forwards close to a sideline ruck is that it generally stops the whole defensive line rushing up, creates an angle for a box-kick and splits the defence for the next phase.
This is Scarlets turnover ball though so you can imagine what happens next.
Moving the ball from the right to left touchline, possession ends up with Evans who refuses to die with the ball. Having not been held, the winger then gets up again to offload to Shingler out of contact, who in turn puts Hadleigh Parkes away into space.
After initially running the ball back from a turnover and keeping the ball alive in contact, the cross-field kick opportunity then opens up.
Hanging out wide on the wing, Conbeer can track the flight of O’Brien’s kick early as it travels across the pitch and beat the fullback to run in for the score. Three tenets of the Scarlets attack, three phases and a try.
After winning just 10 league games out of 21 in 2018/19; the Scarlets’ 7 Pro 14 wins in only 10 league games this season shows why the region have been reluctant to let Mooar go. While it’s difficult to judge how Mooar’s attacking mentality will transfer to test rugby, all the signs from the Scarlets suggest that the All Blacks will hit the ground running.
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