Playing The Transition

In an article earlier in the week, I covered the 10s role in two of three main areas of free-form attack – the set-piece strike and multiphase possession.

The third form of attack – attack in transition – is, for me, one of the key areas of attacking focus in elite rugby sides around the world from test level all the way down.

First, we need to understand what an attack in transition is, how you generate it and the different types of attack in transition.

What is attack in transition?

As the game grows further and further into professionalism, it becomes incrementally “easier” to defend than it is to attack. I’ve written “easier” in inverted commas there because there are very few things that are easy at the elite level but in the battle between attack and defence, defence always has the benefit of pre-drilled organisation and structure. A good attack needs imagination, creativity, skill execution and timing – be it when the attack is being designed or on the field. All a good defence needs in comparison is physicality, mobility, trust, threat identification and knowing your role.

I like to think of the attack vs defence question like the Battle of Thermopylae. The Persian army had bigger numbers and fancier weapons but the Spartan’s were organised, technically proficient and had a rock-solid (literally) system of manipulating the attack.

To boil it down to a folksy quotable, it is much easier to destroy a thing (defence) than it is to create a thing (attack).

That’s why, given the quality of modern defences, a lot of sides are making the decision to play off the transition between defence and attack as a primary attacking play. Some sides, like Leinster, don’t need to play off transition as much because of the overwhelming quality of the ball carrying. Teams like Scarlets, on the other end of the scale, play an awful lot of their best stuff on transition.

As far as transition attacks go, there are two main types.

I’d describe them as;

  • Bait Transitions
  • Stolen Transitions

Bait Transitions are when you’re trying to bait a transition event out of the opposition through your kicking game or quick taps. What do you need to play a lot of bait transitions? Ideally, you’d want quick wingers who are good in the air, solid hands across the board, a very mobile 10, pace in the back row (if one or both wingers are involved in the chase) and, I’ve mentioned this before – and it might seem counterintuitive – you’ll have to have a good offensive and defensive scrum due to the high risk of knock-ons that occur on kick chase. If you have all of those components,

I’ve been over the kick transition before but they mainly look like this from a kicking perspective;

We’ve kicked the ball away – nominally – and this is the “bait”. When we claim the ball back on the catch, this is a transition attack because the defence has to reset as they run back for the kick.

The best option here was the pass out from Cloete at the base but a good tackle from Blue #4 stopped that at the last minute.

By the time Castres had reset, the transition was still there to be attacked but we picked the wrong side.

We went post-right instead of post-left and coughed up the moment. This is the kind of scenario when you want your 10 making the exact right decision and your scrumhalf trusting him with the play.

In the above example, Keatley lines up at first receiver with Zebo second and Farrell third. Murray looked at his options and attempted a kick through for Zebo and Farrell to chase. I’d have liked to see Murray trust Keatley or Zebo to make something happen here.

We might be looking at a 3v3 here but we have the width. Give this to Zebo, let him attack the space between the second and third defender and see if we can get a ball away to Farrell around the corner or with a fix/pass.

Bait transitions like this need to have a high level of trust, split-second decision making and pace, pace, pace.

Here’s an example of that need for pace from another transition in the game. In this example, we’ve drawn a kick transition event from Castres and can attack the openside.

This transition event shows the importance of pace from your primary creator when you’re attacking that same transition.

Zebo makes a good catch and we’ve caught Castres napping on their reset. We get clean possession and a good pull back to the second layer. From there, the transition starts to break down.

Personally speaking, I’d have liked Keatley to commit his man before shipping this ball on.

Stander is running a hard decoy option line and we’ve got a stacked second layer ready to come around the corner. Ideally, in this situation, you want to get outside shoulder angle on all your passes so you’re forcing the opposition to drift towards the openside touchline. Why? This elongates the space between them and gives you lanes to run into. The two men defending the edge of this ragged transition defence are prime for isolation with Conway, Farrell and Cloete as viable threats.

Keatley, for me, has to hold that initial defender so Stander can stick the second defender with his decoy/option line. By shipping the ball on without interesting that first defender, Keatley hurts the initial transition.

See how Castres immediately drift away from his line and onto the outside shoulder angle of our second layer? Now, Stander’s decoy line doesn’t even cause a stutter on the second defender and, with nothing to pin them in, they’re free to push up and out, which kills our second layer. We were lining up outside them – good – but they took back the angle when they didn’t buy the decoy – that’s bad.

A superb carry from Chris Farrell – seriously, it’s outstanding – recreates the transition alignment.

Look at that long body position and presentation on the floor. That’s creating a tunnel, not a gate, which is what you want.

He chops back inside, which maintains the defensive panic for Castres.

When the ball comes back, we’ve got a massive linebreak opportunity on the outside but it all breaks down.

What happened?

We stuffed a 3-1 transition overlap.

The blame will usually go on the forward in this instance – Stander – but for me, #10 needs to be stretching his legs out here.

If Keatley has the footspeed and pace (two different things) to stretch this out, he’ll have a 4v1 overlap in 20m of space with Conway, Cloete and Earls to finish, if he doesn’t want to finish himself.

These are marginal issues but they show why a certain type of creator is needed to fully take on an attack that relies a lot on taking advantage of transition events.

Just as a quick aside, quick tap penalties also act as bait transitions.

Look at this one from the Scarlets’ Gareth Davies;

When a quick tap is used correctly – like this – it works in the exact same way as a breakdown turnover as far as attacking the transition is concerned.

Look at this alignment before the ball comes back.

There are three La Rochelle forwards 15m behind the ruck and fourteen La Rochelle players in this shot with good Scarlets numbers out wide. That’s a tight compression and its one that the Scarlets are excellent at taking advantage of. The speed of the ball coming back hurt this transition attempt but it’s a perfect example of what a good quick tap transition can look like.

Ultimately, bait transitions need speed and attacking decisiveness to be successful.

The addition of Carbery should be a key part of our developing work in this area of the game as long as he builds on the budding relationship he has with Murray. If Carbery can get into the right positions – even the ones that I showed above – then Murray will find him and use him.

After that, it’s up to the man with the ball to make it happen.

Stolen Transitions

This is where it gets a little complex, so bear with me.

I would define stolen transitions in the following categories;

Loose Stolen Turnover

  • Breakdown turnovers
  • Forced Opposition Kickaways

Set Piece

  • Lineout turnover

And then to a lesser extent;

  • A scrum taken against the head that doesn’t end in an awarded penalty

If we look at the primary three methods listed here – breakdown turnover, forced kickaway and lineout turnover – Munster are uniquely stacked to take advantage of all three this coming season.

I’ll start with the lineout, for obvious reasons; in Peter O’Mahony and Tadhg Beirne, Munster have two of the premier defensive lineout operators in Europe. They’re both incredibly quick into the air – be it at the front or middle – and are usually good for one or two clean turnovers per game, regardless of the opposition.

The principle behind the effectiveness of a lineout turnover transition is the same reason as it is for the breakdown and kickaways – a purely attacking alignment is an inherently faulty defensive one. That’s almost a truism, but it’s the basis behind the mentality of transition attacking.

Our mentality on lineout turnover is already pretty expansive;

We turned this over on our own 22 and you can see how eager Murray was to get this ball out and wide to take advantage of Castres’ formerly-attacking, now-defensive alignment.

They have twelve players in the shot, with five Munster attackers out of shot on the outside. Any quick ball out the back of this lineout opens up a number of possibilities through hand or boot.

The turnover doesn’t even need to be clean;

This was a scrappy Scarlets turnover but if Barclay gets this ball to Patchell, this is a cast-iron try for the Turks.

Sure, La Rochelle would have moved across to the space but this would take a massive defensive read or a bad attacking play to end up as anything less than five points on the scoreboard for the Scarlets.

When you attack in lineout transition – or any kind of stolen transition – your defence IS your attack.

Forced Opposition Kickaways

Forced Opposition Kickaways and Breakdown Turnovers are inherently linked. Bait Transitions are where we risk our possession by kicking it away for a territory gain and a transition alignment to attack. When you force/shape the opposition to kick the ball away through your defensive efforts and position, you can get incredible attacking opportunities if their kick is less than optimal.

For example;

Munster turned this ball over after a five-phase possession but pressured the Toulon exit to the point where Trinh-Duc missed touch. From there, Conway had a route to the try line through a broken field.

This is a fairly extreme – and epic – example, but the theory behind forcing kick away transitions on opposition multiphase possession is something that you can control, with the right personnel.

Have a look at this sequence from Scarlets vs La Rochelle;

La Rochelle pinball between Beirne and Barclay – two talented jackals – for a few phases before kicking the ball back to the Scarlets in a sub-optimal position. Is this a Bait Transition? Arguably, but I would posit that La Rochelle aren’t really in full control of this situation, despite their possession. You can’t really call it a calculated risk – mainly because they don’t really have the personnel in place.

In this situation, Scarlets’ known threats on the floor are actively manipulating La Rochelle’s phase patterns.

There’s always a live jackal threat at “C”

This would play out all through the game and actively limit La Rochelle’s attacking threat with the ball in hand.

Scarlets would use this threat of Beirne and their other jackals as a means of corralling most of the sides they faced this past season.

Watch the ball hit Davies’ channel before heading out to Beirne at “C” before kicking away.

You don’t always have to get the ball, you just have to threaten each breakdown enough to slow down possession and tempt a kickaway.

When you see Munster’s current defensive system – a narrow ruck side blitz with a wider drift – you can see how our strength on the ground will slot in.

The narrow blitz is based on this principle;

Essentially, with a heavy jackal like Beirne at “C”, teams will be predisposed to avoid that part of the defence for ball carrying and be “funnelled” into our narrow ruck side blitz for punishment or pass the ball further out.

This lets us attack the breakdown if necessary, punish the ball carrier if he goes narrow – and they often will – and it puts a lot of pressure on our wider defence to track the opposition as they pass back and then out to where we’ve shown them the space.

This, again, plays into our turnover aims – look at this graphic;

The lack of Farrell from this “out” position and Cloete on the cover played a big part in our early game collapse against Racing in my opinion.

Castres have to get this ball wide quite slowly because they’re playing deep into the second layer without dominant front-foot ball – that’s what the narrow ruck-side blitz is for. When they get out wide, Conway and Farrell will be there to scrag and tackle, with Cloete making up massive ground behind the defensive line to assist on a tackle if necessary or get over the ball for a go at the ball ideally. We’ll either steal the ball, win a penalty or slow the ball down enough to allow our narrow defence to reset.

You can see this defensive style in much of what we do since Ferreira took over;

Here’s the same narrow system. We’re set up to hammer Castres in the narrow here, deny them any gain line, slow or steal the ball and then reset around the corner to do the same and tempt that kick away. Here’s how it looks;

This will be where you’ll see Beirne next season;

This defence incrementally increases your chance of a breakdown steal or a kickaway, where you can drill your returns in a structured way to increase the chance of getting a point scoring scenario.

Breakdown Turnover

The final transition attack is probably the most valuable and, as a result, the hardest to get. When you steal the ball in the tackle, or at the breakdown, you get either the best transition ball to attack with or a penalty.

For that reason, these kinds of breakdown turnover transitions are relatively rare in most games. To have a chance of playing off this kind of ball, you need to have elite jackals.

Scarlets were able to play a lot of this kind of ball because of their personnel – Shingler, Davies, Barclay, Boyde and Beirne were all superb over the ball over the last two seasons. Those guys allowed them to shape most other teams attacking patterns and play off their kickaways and turnovers as a result.

You need good close range hands, a mobile 10 and an elite attacking lineout to take full advantage of a team of jackals, but Munster have that and then some.

Look at the jackaling roster Munster have for next season; Cloete, Botha, Beirne, O’Mahony, Cronin and Stander. Look at the lineout options we already have and are building on.

And that’s before you get to the turnover ball effect in loose play;

Beirne’s role in springing this ball wide for a Scarlets’ try was only possible because he was standing in and around the “C” position – essentially turning his defensive position into a devasting attacking position in transition.

We had a hooker, a 13 making a bad read and a blindside flanker trying to lock up 20m of touchline space after a turnover at a breakdown. Normally, a heavy defender is a liability in this position but not Beirne – his pass makes the play.

When you get close range contact/breakdown turnovers your ability to transfer the ball through the forwards to your creatives is a vital part of transition rugby and we’re already growing our game there.

Great work from Keatley, Scannell and Farrell up until the finish.

Being able to play off that turnover ball – if you have the players to get you regular turnover ball – gives you an excellent attacking weapon.

That’s just an outstanding fetch from Cloete under huge pressure.

In this position, the handling from your forwards – who are the defenders (now attackers) closest to the ruck if we remember the narrow blitz system – need to have excellent handling.

In this instance, they did – but the play was left down by inaccuracy from 10.

Personnel dictates game plan and our personnel changes point to a style of play not far from what I’ve described here.

Whether or not we can up our accuracy and build on the work of last season remains to be seen but on the evidence I’ve seen, I think a full preseason under Van Graan and the ever-improving Felix Jones will do our work the world of good.

The main question is – can we avoid the Scarlets’ pitfalls? They were very good over the ball but got thoroughly blasted by Leinster in the Champions Cup and PRO14. In my opinion, they were too focused on the transition and didn’t have the grunt to make the “narrow blitz” system work.

When Beirne, Davies and Shingler weren’t getting steals due to the breakdown attention of the likes of Furlong, Leavy and Fardy, they found themselves getting overpowered and then overrun phase for phase.

I’ll have a look at that in more detail over the next few days.

One thing is for sure, adding guys like Beirne and Carbery to Munster means one thing – more attack in transition.

It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out.