The Bends

The way out for modern attack is away from the gain line, rather than on the gain line.

Rugby has a gain line problem.

How to break it, how to win it, how to use it to your advantage in a game that has become dominated by the impact of modern line speed defensive systems. The prevailing logic that seems to have taken route in the modern idea ecosystem around the game is that the only way to reliably win the gain line is to play on the gain line. How many times have you heard a player – usually a #10 – be praised for their ability to take the ball to the line? I read it in my mentions most weeks and even as recently as this Lions series on Sky Sports, I heard Ronan O’Gara speaking about the need to play flat to the gain line to play effective attacking rugby.

Matt Williams wrote a piece on that very concept ahead of the 2021 Six Nations that essentially described the “Randwick Way”, a system of how to play on the gain line which has long been used as the gold standard for offensive play initially devised and developed. They called it Gain Line Theory.

From the article itself;

[Gain line theory] states: to advance the ball with pace, the attacker has to run at pace onto the ball. The faster an attacker runs at a defensive line, the slower that defensive line will advance.

The closer the attacker is to the defender, when he accepts the pass and the faster he is running, the more pressure the attacker places on the defender. The opposite is also true. The deeper an attacker aligns to accept a pass, the faster the defensive line will advance. So standing deep in attempting to gain time, empowers the defenders to take space.

That last paragraph is the section that interests me. It is the theory behind the oft-verbalised “running onto the ball/playing direct” cliche you see on TV, hear on podcasts and read in print.

I think this idea is completely solid in theory. If you play flat and execute it perfectly, you break the gain line right on the level of the previous ruck. The likelihood of scoring a try in this scenario is huge, regardless of where on the field it happens but the closer to the previous ruck it is, the better. The issue with it in the modern game is that, as far as I can see, the level of physicality needed to dominate the collision as described here – the closer the attacker is to the defender when he accepts the pass and the faster he is running, the more pressure the attacker places on the defender – is incrementally harder in 2021 than it was in 2001 or even 2011. Even when you have that run up before contact, you still have to maintain control of the ball against the biggest, strongest and fittest defences that have ever played the game at any point in the history of this sport.

A player running fast onto a flat ball on or near the gain line will still have to meet an accelerating defender (or, most likely, defenders) who do not have to worry about retaining the ball – all they need to do is put a shot on you. You, as the flat runner, have to ride out that impact without spilling the ball, assess your pass options in contact if you survive the contact, hit the deck and recycle the ball properly before getting up and doing it again. And, keep in mind, this is in an environment where the flat passer who threw that flat pass at you was 100% accurate in getting the ball to a position where you could guard it as you hit contact. If the pass was at your inside shoulder and you had to reshape to get it, you get wiped out. If it was to your outside shoulder, you get wiped out. If it was too low or too high, you get wiped out hard.

How plausible is this strategy in the modern game? Have a look at this sequence where every carry bar Furlong’s right at the end features a carrier who is moving onto the ball faster than the defenders who take him down.

Those two-man stops kill this “flat” action stone dead and it is these two-man stops that kill the idea of the Randwick Way for me in 2021. The margins are too narrow and the physical toll is too high. The Lions were beaten up on the gain line all series long and I’m not sure adding BIGGER collisions to the mix is the way to go. That’s true against the Springboks and, in reality, against all opponents to whom you give up a power differential.

You can play flat against teams you expect to dominate physically and do so efficiently but when that power differential swings back in the other direction, it just doesn’t translate without risking getting beaten up in contact and the entire attacking system falling apart.

But you still need space to attack so what do you do? Playing flat as described by Matt Williams intends to take space by rushing onto the ball before the defence can take the space. The Springboks defensive system takes space on the outside and then punishes you inside. Regular blitz defence takes the offensive space that the attacking team wants before the attacking team.

This is the space that they’re fighting over.

You can play flat to take that space before the defence does but the juice of playing right on the gain line for an occasional critical break isn’t worth the squeeze against the modern defence.

My theory is this – give the defence that space. The attack doesn’t need it. Attack doesn’t need to be flat, it needs to be deep, layered and wide.

Look at how two passes to depth affects the Springbok blitzing pattern.

Now the play here wasn’t to attack the same side, it was designed to bring Henshaw’s “against the grain” run into the game with a trio of pass options waiting for him. This allowed the Lions to attack the fold of the Springboks by running where their forwards had left in search of the next defensive rally point.

But forget about that – look at the way the Lions depth and the passage of the ball through the layers staggered, stopped and unbalanced the Springbok line speed.

Etzebeth’s line speed stopped completely, Kolisi slowed to reset, Smith slowed and then took an indirect – longer – line than planned and De Allende’s progression started, stopped and then started again. When the ball came to the third layer, Henshaw had the entire field in front of him to pick an option with more space than he knows what to do with.

When are you most at risk defensively? When the opposition is moving but you are not. This is the principle that the Randwick Way is supposed to generate but cannot in an environment where you give up a power differential on successive phases of the attack.

When you play flat, you don’t get this kind of start/stop movement the opposition defence. You get the opposite, in fact. The opposition will almost always be moving – accelerating, in fact – in that scenario where you are carrying flat to the line and there is very little variance in where the carrier is going. When you play flat, you know where you’re running to but the opposition does too. The collisions are predictable. 

When you layer your attacking lines and put the ball into the hands of players who are multi-faceted in their skill set, you are unpredictable. What if two of the wider players in line for Henshaw’s cut back were alongside him as deeper attacking threats?

What could you do with nearly 15m of offensive space to fix, manipulate and yes, even run at the opposition defence who have been staggered, slowed and moved by the passage of the ball through multiple layers of attack?

If you could do that, you would have a way to play against a size disadvantage that doesn’t require a tonne of low percentage passing/offloading options in the very area that you’re losing collisions the hardest.

Just like Inception, we need to go deeper. That’s what the All Blacks appear to be doing, anyway.

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The Evolution of David Havili

David Havili is a player that first came to my attention in 2017/18 as a pretty tidy operator for the Crusaders at fullback in Super Rugby at just 23 years of age. You could tell he was a good player – poor players don’t play for the Crusaders – but he was notable in that he was a kind of strike playmaker for the franchise as they went on a tear that would ultimately see them win Super Rugby quite comfortably that season.

Size-wise, he’s what you’d expect for the position. He’s 6’0″ and listed between 88 and 95KG, so he’s not a giant by any means. Fast forward four seasons and Havili is currently starting at #12 for the All Blacks, a position he has only earned regular minutes for at the Crusaders during this past Aotearoa and Trans-Tasman season.

David Havili has played the vast majority of his rugby in New Zealand as a fullback. The first time he played successive games as a second-five was this year between Round 3 and Round 4 of Super Rugby Aotearoa yet there he is, starting for the All Blacks three tests in a row and thriving as part of a triple playmaker system that is built around utilising offensive depth during phase play.

Havili has always been capable of playing in that second playmaker role – he’s done it from fullback for years at the Crusaders before transitioning infield this past year – and now the All Blacks seem keen to add that roleset to their attack in lieu of a player like, say, Ngani Laumape, who finally decided to cash out and move abroad.

Look at how Havili’s comfort as a playmaker fits into this deep philosophy.

Look at how recessed those All Black attacking layers are! There are four distinct layers to this phase attack with Mo’unga and Havili as primary handlers after McKenzie was involved in the previous phase.

A few minutes later the All Blacks showcased their depth in every facet of an attacking sequence – a carry off #9, a ruck reset and then a deep, late morphing forward tip on action that was a hair away from finding space.

The All Blacks stacked all three playmakers on this sequence post that first transition phase and used that depth to draw out the different segments of the Wallaby defence. As each stage of the defence advanced, it exposed possibilities for the All Blacks. They used a forward tip on to a late-arriving outside forward in the above instance but it was the depth from the gain line that allowed them the time to set that up.

If the Wallabies over blitzed on the pod outside McKenzie, he is more than capable of attacking the seam that creates. If they drift out, he can hit that pod to attack that space, if they stick too close to the middle pod, McKenzie has the passing range to go deeper still to Mo’unga, who can break, pass or kick deep.

Havili was constantly put into positions as that deep, third or fourth layer playmaker where he could make plays. He was hurt by a poor pass by Mo’unga in this instance but you could see the options that playing this deep brought him.

There were kicking options – relief kicking and offensive – a further deep pass to Lienert-Brown, a pop to Retallick or a carry himself. Havili’s balanced skill set is crucial in this triple playmaker system that prioritises attacking involvements for those three playmakers.

McKenzie made 11 passes and 8 carries. Mo’unga made 15 passes and 6 carries. Havili had 8 passes and 9 carries. Ioane, who has played as much in midfield as he has on the wing at this stage in his career, added another 7 passes as a combo playmaker in the #11 jersey.

The All Blacks are attempting to use depth to draw the “gain line” to them in a space where they control the parameters. When you have stacked depth, you can isolate defenders if you have the skill set. When you can’t coach “big” and elite power athletes are harder and harder to come by, why not move your attacking style away from the area where they are made to look small? You will always need to be able to rock and roll off #9 but I’ve never been more sure that playing deep, even in that scenario, is advantageous for most sides who struggle on the gain line.

With the Springboks around the corner, it’ll be interesting to see how Nienaber’s edge blitz defence works against an attack that seems designed to invite that blitz as high as possible to play around it.

Who will win? The one who blitzes or the one who draws the blitz to expose the defender?