Fifty Twenty Two

The battle for time can be won by vertical space

When you talk about new rules, you either think of Dua Lipa – I’m listening to a lot of pop music these days – or you think of the plethora of rule changes currently being trialled in different jurisdictions all around the world.

There’s the waist-high tackle trial, the yellow card upgrade during the sin bin period, the accumulated yellow card, the “held up over the line” possession tweak and, most interestingly, the 50:22 kicking rule.

This rule would be a tweak on the current, familiar kicking law where you move the lines of territory (but not possession) by kicking a ball off the field with a bounce infield before exit if you’re outside your own 22. The 50:22 rule would mean that any kick from within your own half that bounces infield before crossing the touchline in the opposition 22 would result in the kicking team getting the throw into the lineout.

Nothing is set in stone yet with regards to the application of this rule but I thought it might be fun to have a look at what the introduction of this rule might mean for attacking and defensive schemes. I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to suggest that the 50:22 rule would be one of the most fundamental rule changes that there’s been in the game for a number of years. It would change large tracts of how teams use possession, give up possession and defend areas of the field.

Let’s look at what the 50:22 rule means at a basic level.

Basically, if you can kick the ball from the blue area and have it bounce before exiting the field in the red area, you would be rewarded with a lineout in an excellent position.

When you think about it, that kind of field position would typically only be rewarded by a penalty kicked down the line or from a poor enough opposition exit inside their own 22 (and usually inside their own 5m line). In both situations, you’ve “won” something – a penalty or the kind of territory that tends to produce bad outcomes for the opponent.

To understand how this rule change might affect the game, we have to understand why it was brought in the first place.

Death By Line Speed

Defences have been improving consistently for the last 10 years or more to the point that terms like “blitz” and “line speed” have become synonymous with the modern game. This has meant that playing in your own half of the field – Q2 in particular – is not something that most teams want to do anymore and, as a consequence, this has meant a lot of slow box kicking after two or three phases of possession outside the 22 which, when combined with caterpillar rucks, is about as unpopular a tactic as there has ever been in the game for fans, media and probably players too.

But when you look at the realities of the modern game, box kicking in Q2 (between your 22 and halfway) is usually the only sensible play to make. This isn’t even about having 14 players in the defensive line – most sides don’t play like that when they’re defending on the halfway line or beyond -because with modern defensive coaching, 13 players in the primary defensive line are enough to smother most attacks when the teams are relatively balanced physically.

Here’s an example of why from Saracens vs Munster in the recent Champions Cup pool game in Allianz Park.

Munster use three phases of possession looking for an edge and get double-stopped each time before deciding to reset with a box kick to move the lines of territory into Saracens’ half of the field.

Saracens are handling this defensive set with 13 players in the primary line and two players guarding the backfield.

Thirteen is the perfect number for guarding this area of the field.

It allows you to pack the primary carrying point off #9 with heavy defenders…

… and then effectively double up on the ball carrier in contact to slow the ball before it’s ever in a position to even be recycled.

When you look at how Saracens approach the contact area you can see why they don’t need to pack 14 into their defensive line to defend this area of the field oppressively. They have a one-two punch in contact that gives them a tackle slow down while also keeping the numbers of players involved in the post tackle scenario to a minimum. It’s all about the second man in and the “brace” position.

You can see Kruis in that position here.

Mako Vunipola makes the initial low sweeping tackle to make the stop and slow the transit of the ball backwards while Kruis arrives in after the first contact to “brace” the tackle – stopping it, essentially – while also staying on his feet and in a position to pillar the breakdown. If Kruis loses his feet, then the first tackler pops back into the pillar position.

In doing so, Saracens have won the gainline, slowed the ball and reset their defence to make Munster’s next phase incredibly difficult to plan for. They win the collision but don’t lose any players from the effective defensive line.

Sure, we could spin the ball wide but that takes time.

In the 3.5 seconds it might take to just pass this ball to the far edge without any running or deception, Saracens will have pushed up and across to fill the space

In the above example, we don’t move the ball wide but Saracens’ wide defence still advances (blue line) well beyond the tackle line (yellow line) to cut off a presumptive screen pass.

And all this with two backfield defenders defending halves of the pitch so that any box kick or crossfield up and under has a man underneath it and players tracking back to block chasing attackers.

But even in this segment, we get a brief glimpse of the picture that the 50:22 is designed to create albeit through an injury.

With Mako Vunipola down injured after a tackle, we get a picture of what a 12 man defensive line on the halfway line looks like.

We aren’t in a position to go off the pod here but, if we had a ball-handler a little closer to the screen, there’s a possibility to unbalance Saracens with a numbers advantage on the far side of the pitch.

The key to 50:22 having a material effect on the game is if it means having fewer defenders in the primary defensive line. You’ll only encourage that by establishing the threat of the 50:22 kick to the point where teams have to reliably scheme against it.

Flow Of The Game

To make any part of your game effective, you have to establish it as a threat. That way, you can play off your strengths and the opposition’s reaction to those strengths. For example, if you have a massive set of gainline monsters that play off of #9, it’ll force the opposition to cluster in a specific spot off #9 to stop them. A pass out the back to a ball handler then opens up extra space outside that cluster for you to attack. Now you’re benefitting from your gain line winners and the opponent’s primary response to stopping them because you have established a visible threat that the opposition have to respond to.

50:22 is the same. It’ll only have an effect once teams’ ignore it at their peril. Here’s one of the ways that it could work.

The starting position here is on the 15m line in Q2 with a decent openside to work with.

Conway is on a fairly typical winger defensive line here. He stalls in the secondary defensive layer (halfway between the primary line and the backfield) until the ball moves across the field to the second receiver.

At that stage, under the current rules, a lot of sides would want their winger stepping up into the primary line to guard against the ball going wide through the hands. Instead, Saracens drill the ball into the backfield where Mike Haley is the sole defender.

This kick doesn’t make touch but, if it had, it would be a Saracens’ lineout under the 50:22 law.

That would mean a massive territorial gain along with possession. The current rules would mean a big territory gain but a loss of possession. All it would take is one big game lost because of a 50:22 kick giving a great lineout position like the above to have teams changing how they defend. Ultimately, what we want is for teams to go with three players in the backfield when the opponent is defending on or near the halfway line.

Offensively, I think we’d see a lot of double screens to hide your kicks and give them space to work with but, in a game where you see two or three big lineout possessions won off a 50:22 kick, I think it would be inevitable that we would see backfield coverage that looks like this.

3P at the ruck stands for Three Players committed to the breakdown. Two cleaners and one carrier.

This is pretty comprehensive coverage.

Black #15 is in an advanced position to cover chips over the top and trackback for longer kicks downfield while the two wingers stick around the 22 to track any kicks that look to aim for touch. Only a very good kick from Red #10 or Red #15 (essentially in first/second receiver slots) would beat this system. That ultimately means that the primary line of 12 defenders have to be really considerate of how many double tackles they go into because now, one man down and without a winger in the secondary line to step up, a wide attack becomes a real possibility if the edge players can get a quick pass or an offload away.

Now everything on or near your 10m line can be a workable attacking platform.

In a 50:22 environment, two backfield defenders just wouldn’t cut it. You could still have line speed but your backfield coverage is automatically spread out.

Your backfield defenders have to cover more ground and, if they’re guarding the wings, the middle space becomes open to driving kicks that, if accurate (way less accurate than a 50:22 needs to be) could lead to a dangerous kick-chase scenario right in front of your own posts.

Some opponents would still want to keep 13 in the primary line so might try to play side stack backfield defenders with one quick winger advancing to the primary layer when needed and then dropping back into the secondary layer while the other two backfield defenders track the play across the field and match their depth accordingly.

The double screen works here too with a reverse pass to the #15 opening up a deep 50:22 opportunity.

If you got decent width on the pass, a decent kicker in the edge spaces – more than a kicking #12, in my opinion – would open up a lot of opportunities if a side persisted with keeping wingers in the secondary line.

Conway moves up into the primary line late here and the resulting kick into the space he left behind is a metre away from a 50:22.

Maitland is in the secondary line here on the shortside and Farrell is a decent bounce away from a 50:22 in behind him.

There’s no way that you could leave two players in the secondary line with one player in the backfield. The risk of giving up a lineout that would be the equivalent of conceding a breakdown penalty inside the opponents’ 10m line.

So you’d have to put 12 in the primary line as long as the threat was established.

With 12 men in the defensive line, screened passes and doubling up on ball carriers becomes a risky business. If two men step in on RG Snyman, for example, you risk a pass or an offload out the back to a screened runner and when you’re down a man, that really hurts you.

Once the ball gets to the edge, a mobile #10 and #15 could open up edge opportunities that automatically draw a backfield defender up – which opens the 50:22 for the #15 and for a kicking winger like Andrew Conway to drill a kick low along the tramline.

This is balanced out by the risk/reward of poor kicks. If you miss a 50:22 attempt, the opposition has three backfield attackers to move the ball across the field and hit you with a 50:22 of their own.

This kick on the transition from Elliot Daly would have been a lineout just outside the Munster 5m line under the 50:22 rules.

The rule hasn’t even been officially brought in yet and it’s dizzying just thinking about the new opportunities it could bring! After the last few days, I really hope they do apply it because I think it’ll help to depower the game a fair bit. If you have to defend with three players in the backfield, that puts a lot of cardio pressure on the 12 primary defenders, which will probably have to include the front and second row.

Not every play will take place around the 50m line and behind but a lot of play does. If that holds, lateral speed will be vitally important, as well as agility in the contact area and, at a basic level, your up and down speed after the tackle. Anything that makes players a bit lighter will only pay off down the road in a more attractive game, fewer injuries and scope for smaller, more agile players to come back into the game.