Exploiting space brings whole new style of play


RUGBY ANALYST:Teams are employing some new and revolutionary systems to unlock defences

WHILE WALKING to Thomond Park last Saturday I noticed two young lads cycling along the narrow South Circular Road. The fact there was an irate driver in the car behind them with another 15 cars behind him all bedecked in Munster colours made no real impact on their day or cycling style. Clearly the cars were at walking pace or I would not have kept up. Eventually the incensed driver, spotting a gap, slipped out past the boys, swinging a fist and beeping his car horn. To which one of the boys asked his mate: “How much space does he need?”

That evening in Thomond Park and the following day in Croke Park I kept repeating the young boy’s question. How much space does an attacker need? And to it I add: “Where is the best space found?”

To this end when watching a match, or for that matter any other code, I enjoy benchmarking the different systems employed by teams to unlock defences.

Leinster, for instance, appear to have brought a slightly new style of play to their game. Minutes into last Friday’s clash with Edinburgh it was obvious they were focusing on a certain type of door opening. Jonny Sexton took the ball deep inside Edinburgh’s half while drifting away from the pass. As he drifted, it forced the Edinburgh inside defence to make a decision which was partly blocked by a lazy Leinster runner. Not unlike Keith Earls in Ravenhill, Sexton drifted out as Earls did against Ulster’s defence, which sucked Edinburgh to him. Immediately outside Sexton was the rampaging Cian Healy running a brilliant line. He pulverised his way into the heart of Edinburgh, gaining yards and honey-potting even more Edinburgh players. This in turn gave Sexton a brilliant touchdown try just as Earls had started and finished the same move in Ravenhill.

In both cases the ball receiver fixed his immediate defender before drifting out to the next defender, freeing up fractions of space for the hard-running support player. Both Healy and Billy Holland, the support runners, were very, very close to the offload on the outside shoulder; the margins are tiny in this commonality.

It appears sides are now looking to unlock space where there is none and in doing so are ultimately unlocking great potential. Before either Earls or Sexton got the ball the defence was fine but a combination of their fix and run, and hard line from outside support, opened up all sorts of opportunity. It appears the best space to exploit is the one that didn’t exist moments earlier as this throws the defensive system into complete disarray. In the disarray quality players can maximise the advantage.

All four provinces are attempting phase one with degrees of success. Others, like Leinster, are much more comfortable with phase two, exploiting the newly-created space.

Later, a Leinster lineout off the top 40 metres from Edinburgh’s line continued with multiple switches, including one off Leo Cullen, all aiming to have the Leinster blindside winger Fionn Carr popping up at pace where no space existed. The commonality appears between the Irish sides to get to the gain line quickly in very heavy traffic, fixing defenders to be in the tiniest of gaps, to be exploited by the pace of Healy, Seán Cronin and the wingers – such as when Andrew Conway and Carr continued to pop up from nowhere.

This concept of space is very much on Munster’s mind as they have changed completely their point of attack. Ronan O’Gara’s first touch inside his 22 was a crossfield kick to Simon Zebo. The first went out on the full, the next one didn’t.

I’ve spoken at length this month on Munster’s new spatial awareness but to witness Zebo’s development in this area has been extraordinary. He’s shown something I’d not seen last season: an awareness of space-fixing and not just one but multiple offloads to better placed men. An off-the-top lineout from Paddy Butler allowed Peter Stringer to swing pass to O’Gara, with Earls, right on the gain line, floating over the Dragons’ ferocious defensive line to Zebo, who produced the fix and then the offload twice for Ian Keatley’s try. A little later, while on the ball in space, he kept it alive in the heavy traffic of hungry defenders before offloading to openside Niall Ronan, who himself showed some cracking in-and-out support lines, very cultured, to join Brian O’Driscoll and Earls.

Another space opener was the nice pull-back from Holland to his second line of attack leading to Zebo. This time Zebo, without options, didn’t go to deck, lose the ball or rush a pass. He instead fended off and pumped his legs to buy time. Very smart.

Last Sunday a former Clare minor footballer and his father, a former Donegal minor and senior footballer, sat watching the All-Ireland trying to see how Donegal were unlocking space. There is major commonality in their style to rugby. They set up their lines where they can move the ball laterally like rugby, sucking in defenders and creating overlaps to flying wingers or diagonal balls to an unmarked or loosely marked player such as Michael Murphy.

These lines free up unorthodox attackers such as their corner back Frank McGlynn to score a cracker, like rugby’s blindside wingers.

Tonight at the Sportsground I’ll be watching Leinster’s and Connacht’s point of attack, how hungry they are in heavy traffic and how they, especially Dan Parks, subsequently attack and unlock the heavy defences.

PS: Last Saturday’s Munster backrow were very effective in their play. The man of the match was either Niall Ronan or Paddy Butler. liamtoland@yahoo.com

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