Sliding The Corner

A good flyhalf determines the personality of the team and shapes their actions in their image.

That’s been a bit of truism for as long as I can remember. The 10 is the most important attacking component on a team? Well, yeah, obviously. This isn’t an article that’s going to refute that. The modern rugby attack has a lot of components to it that have reduced the critical dependence on that #10 shirt but for me, having a play dominant flyhalf separates good teams from great teams.

There are different styles of flyhalf, of course, and with each differing style comes a different way to play collectively. You could get a guy like Damien McKenzie to play a kick-heavy, slow-moving, Morne Style type territory game to take advantage of your big, set-piece heavy pack and he’d probably – maybe – make a decent fist of it but would it the best use of his skills? Would you be getting the best out of everyone else in the side if your pivot is playing a game more suited for a different player? I don’t think so.

In that regard, choosing your flyhalf and getting the most out of their qualities is a difficult task. There’s no point in signing Beauden Barrett and making him play a Morne Steyn game plan and vice verse. If you’re making a change at 10, that player has to reflect your current skillset and game plan if the bedding in is to be seamless and immediate to the point that you’ll win trophies.

If you can combine both; an elite 10 with a side that is suited to their style, or close enough to mesh in, then you’re in the optimal spot. There are a few special players, and they’re very rare, who can play whatever way you want – this is the Dan Carter exception – but for the most part, when it comes to getting a #10 for your team, you’ll have to pick a style and buy into it 100%.

So where does this leave Joey Carbery and Munster?

The Big JC

When the prospect of Joey Carbery becoming available at the end of last season, Munster were more than eager to throw their hat in the mix? Why was that?

Well, when the opportunity to add quality to your backline arises – and Carbery is quality – you have to take that opportunity with both hands. But it’s the particular type of quality that makes Carbery so intriguing; he is a perfect fit for Munster’s transition game plan.

I’ll get to why that is but first, some additional reading – The Kick Counter, Attacking Structure and Why You’d Kick. Those three articles will give you an idea of how Munster were playing towards the end of the season and how we’ll probably look to build into the coming one.

Playing on transition isn’t just limited to “counter-attacking” rugby because to counter-attack you, by definition, won’t have the ball and ideally, you’ll want to boss possession and territory in every game you play.

There are three types of attacking possession on a rugby field as I see them.

  1. Set Piece Strike
  2. Multiphase Possession
  3. Attack in Transition.

Let’s have a quick look at what the first two entail, and the 10’s role in those forms of attack. I’ll look at the transition attack in a separate article.

Set Piece Strike

Everyone will be familiar with set-piece strike moves. This is where your 10 gets direct involvement in the immediate three or four phases after a scrum, lineout or lineout maul.

Those initial three or four phases are the best type of possession to work with in my opinion because you can plan your own positioning in advance and roughly manipulate the defensive actions of the opposition.

I think Rhys Patchell is a good example to look at here. This is an example from the Scarlets game against La Rochelle in the Champions Cup quarter-final from last season.

Like a lot of Scarlets’ best work, it looks like an off the cuff bit of magic but it’s as preplanned as the Sexton Loop. Look at the way that Patchell is coming onto the ball at an angle while attacking the La Rochelle edge defence. That’s the ideal position you’d want a guy like Patchell – or Carbery – attacking teams. But how do you work to that position?

Like all good sides, the Scarlets set piece options aren’t mono-optional. That is to say, there are different options at every stage of the sequence. I’m a big fan of Patchell at 10, and his work in these scenarios is always very crisp.

Here’s the initial lineout action;

He’s running that curve line behind the ball carrier to act as an outside pullback option for Barclay but it wasn’t there on this phase. It’s important that he’s there to give that second layer option though,  and there’s probably a Scarlets’ option off this lineout that sees him take possession from Barclay (or Cassiem, next season) on the first phase rather than the second phase.

His work on the second phase is where I think Carbery can excel next season – creating isolations.

That isolation opportunity is created by the Scarlets’ forward handling and decoy work in midfield.

Beirne and Evans are holding the La Rochelle midfield on the second pass – Owens and Beirne held them on the first – and the return play to Gareth Davies essentially sat down the La Rochelle defence in midfield for half a second. This creates the angle for Patchell and the potential isolation.

Patchell’s line is designed to isolate and attack the last La Rochelle edge defenders and spring the Scarlets outside runners into this overlap. At this point in the game, Scarlets had to play Davies on the wing, which limited their effectiveness here, but not by much.

A lack of pace prevented a better quality linebreak from being generated. Patchell’s attack line is a little below where I’d like it – and it’s one of the weaknesses in his game at the top level – but the real killer is James Davies. Ideally, you’d have had a McNichol in Davies’ (Red #7) position as the play hits the edge.

How does this relate to Carbery? He’s got the pace and stepping ability to step into both of these roles – the first phase pullback and second phase edge attack – and add a real pop to the sequence wherever it goes. If I’m Felix Jones, I’m constructing set piece options like this one to isolate and then attack that edge.

That pace and reset speed to find the edge is vitally important for a 10, but especially one who’s got above average speed and agility in their skillset – as Carbery does.

Here’s a good example of those qualities in action.

Watch Damien McKenzie’s work on the three phases after this lineout;

Three involvements, all built on attacking reset speed and finding the edge.

McKenzie’s pace allows him to have four crucial roles in this initial set-piece strike. He’s got three passes and one decoy loop option. Look at the hard decoy/option line he runs behind the hit-up here;

At that point, McKenzie knows that the French edge is going to compress on the next phase, and all it needs is a “set up” hit to set it in place.

Once that happens, he can use his pace and hand speed to attack that compressed edge on the next phase with superior numbers to work with. France look like they have good numbers here but the All Blacks have them right where they want them – two forwards and one winger defending 15 metres of space against four attackers.

It ends predictably – a killer All Black linebreak.

Why was it a killer?

Well, look at the French wide defence right before the linebreak.

All heavy forwards. When they reset to the next ruck, France are in big trouble.

That wide linebreak – and the resultant French defensive reset alignment – gives McKenzie a chance to finish this sequence inside four phases.

The French alignment stayed the same as they transitioned back to the ruck after the linebreak and that created the space for McKenzie to pop up behind a heavy screen and attack the gaps.

McKenzie had FIVE involvements on this sequence as it transitioned from the set-piece into multiphase and used his pace, reset and agility to ram home the try.

We know that Carbery has the pace, composure and hand speed to work similarly, be it directly or indirectly.


That last try was a good example of a set piece strike running into multi-phase possession. There are no hard and fast rules regarding when a set-piece strike turns into multi-phase but I’d roughly define it as when all you pre-planned phases have run out and you’re looking to reset to “open play” situations. Brevity is important in these circumstances, because the further away from the initial set-piece you go with your phase count, the less likely you are to score. The general sweet spot for point scoring – especially as of Ireland’s tour to Australia – is within six phases. Anything more than this reduces multiphase possession into something that needs a mistake or a bit of magic to turn your way, and neither of those are reliable things to bank on.

Converting these multiphase possessions into points is a bit of a holy grail for attack coaches in a situation where the scores are level. Racking up 15+ phases for 4 minutes plus and then landing a 7 pointer is a sickener for the opposition because you’re forcing them into long periods of defensive concentration. It’s a double-edged sword though, because the more phases you rack up, the easier the defensive decisions become. Ideally, you want to tax teams mentally as well as physically but 18 phases in, it often becomes a one-out slugfest. Again, in those situations, you’re waiting for a mistake or a bit of magic (or brutality) and that isn’t optimal, especially against modern elite defences.

That’s why you’ll see teams organising to strike within six phases of the set-piece. This is where your 10 becomes incredibly important.

Have a look at this example from Damien McKenzie off a maul.

His reset speed is very evident here, as he floats from point to point. The first benefit of this is obvious in that you want your creative players on the ball as often as possible and the more times they can do that – whether you use them or not – the easier it is to build an effective attack. The other important aspect is the heavy screen, and how well you can construct them.

Midway through the sequence – on the second phase – you’ll see the All Blacks form a three-man screen ahead of him. He starts out on his own but then three forwards slot into place right before the ball is played.

This gives a player like McKenzie (and Carbery) a platform to work, even if they aren’t used on that particular phase, as happened above.

It allows you to construct “set phases” in open play situations where your 10 can slide around the corner of heavy screens.

Look at how this played out on the very next phase (again, with six phases of the set-piece) and how important McKenzie’s pace and agility was to the move.

This is a three-part loose play constructed somewhat on the fly. It’s a set-piece of sorts but organised after a breakdown of the previous phase (Smith’s run back against the grain).

There’s the pull back to McKenzie (1), Frizzel’s decoy line (2) and then McKenzie’s attack at the isolated edge (3).

These three man screens are perfect for generating these kinds of isolation plays, especially when combined with a flyhalf with the speed and footwork of a McKenzie or a Carbery (or a Hanrahan, or a Johnston).

Ideally, they play to the strength of the flyhalf. That gives you close in options like these;

McKenzie uses the screen as a “blind” to draw out the blitzing defender and use the fourth man – as Frizzel was above – to go for the gap.

Using screens like this is a common enough play these days but different types of flyhalf use it differently.

Sexton, for example, uses screens slightly differently. You’ll see him behind a three-man screen on occasion but he generally passes to a guy behind a one-man screen, uses a screen runner as a loop option, or carries the ball himself from first receiver rather than play from behind a screen as I’ve described above.

Why the difference? Because Sexton doesn’t have the acceleration or foot speed to have much use for a three-man screen outside certain specific situations and he’s much better suited to using his own robust physicality, loop lines and outstanding passing off both sides to link up Ireland’s big runners or finish off “out” balls from forward carries.

Pacey flyhalves like McKenzie, Foley and Carbery use multi-man screens as a means to isolate defenders, draw out blitzes and attack the line themselves.

It works for them because they’ve got the physical talents to make it happen – acceleration, foot speed, agility – as opposed to what, say, Sexton or Farrell might bring in the same situation. They don’t always play behind these three man screens but when they do, they give you a plethora of phase play builds.

In a lot of ways, this difference between Sexton and Carbery is a key point as to why Carbery is leaving Leinster in the first place – Byrne is a closer fit to Sexton with regards to how he plays and to use Carbery as the second choice Leinster flyhalf would require a different phase structure from game to game.

When Carbery started for Ireland against Fiji and Australia, Ireland used a slightly different phase structure.

Essentially, it’s one thing to have Carbery come off the bench into a fourth-quarter situation with Sexton starting, but it’s another thing entirely to structure your game differently from regular PRO14 to Heineken Cup.

The differences between a Carbery focused game plan and a Sexton focused game plan are subtle, but they’re enough to disrupt continuity.

That’s probably why Carbery didn’t see a lot of time off the bench when the game was in the balance towards the end of the season, and probably why it makes more sense for Leinster to go with Byrne as their second 10 option going forward, especially as Sexton will be on the scene for at least another two seasons, if not longer. Byrne is 6’3″ and 91kg, more robust in the carry and can run “Sextonesque” style lines phase for phase. Carbery is smaller, quicker, more agile and arguably a more “talented” ball player but that makes him a better option for Leinster at fullback than it does at 10 if Sexton is still to be the dominant player going forward – and he is.

Ross Byrne allows continuity week to week and that’s why I think Leinster picked him at 10 for that semi-final against Munster in the aftermath of Sexton’s start against Racing a week earlier.

From Munster’s perspective, Carbery made a lot of sense. We didn’t have a dominant flyhalf in situ for much of last season and the style we played towards the end of that season was much more suited to a Carbery style flyhalf. You don’t have to be a super genius to work out that Carbery hasn’t moved down to Munster to sit on the bench so much of how we construct ourselves this season will be based on exploiting Carbery’s skill set – that means a lot of screens, a lot of width and a lot of getting him around to attack the edge in isolation.

This botched Irish attack from the first Australian test should give you a good illustration;

Murray’s pass floated beyond Carbery to Earls but Carbery was definitely the target.

Carbery slides around the corner off a first phase set piece hit up and the long-range pass from Murray gives him an edge isolation with Earls/Conway/Haley to finish the job.

Look at the way Murray and Carbery combine on this one;

The play is designed to get Carbery sliding at an angle to attack the isolated edge defence with Kearney and Stockdale acting as alternating decoy/pass options and with Earls as the finisher.

The key to unlocking Carbery – and Hanrahan/Johnston/Keatley as alternative 10s – is by having the correct blend in the midfield to complement them.

You have to have a dominant physical threat somewhere – this will be Taute or Farrell at 13. McKenzie had Sonny Bill Williams in the game I illustrated above, and Foley had Kerevi. This has to be coupled with a second playmaker – Beale/Goodhue in the above illustrations. If you don’t have that playmaking option somewhere in midfield, a 10 like Carbery or McKenzie can get chained to first receiver where they have to play high-risk inside balls like this;

Which is fine, but it isn’t optimal.

Conversely, playing Carbery increases the dependence on a ball carrying, kicking second five – where I see Bleyendaal/Scannell having a lot of time – as they’ll be the bridging player between Carbery’s work at first receiver and as an edge attacker.

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

I’ll have a look at Munster’s potential work in transition later in the week.