Are All Blacks breakdown cheats?
In his first fortnightly column for SARugbymag.co.za, former All Blacks, Force and Lions coach JOHN MITCHELL analyses New Zealand's breakdown play.
Since the start of the Rugby Championship and the return of the mercurial Richie McCaw, Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie has been talking about the All Blacks getting away with things, or even cheating, at the breakdown, especially in their own 22.
A good example is Aaron Smith not releasing Christian Leali'ifano in Wellington when the Wallabies centre looked set to score a try. Should he have been yellow-carded for not releasing? Was it intentional offending under law 10.2? (If it was, we would have no one left on the field!)
McKenzie's views are shared by his captain, James Horwill, who asked referee Jaco Peyper about that incident and reminded him about the All Blacks' repeated offences the week before in Sydney. Peyper politely said, 'That was last week, this is a different game'. I enjoyed that a lot!
I am not for one minute saying that the All Blacks are squeaky clean, but they do stay on their feet for longer, over and past the ball, than their opposition and they do make informed decisions at the breakdown about when to go for it or not. They are also not strictly ball-focused, but more focused on winning the space over and past the ball.
They get the rub of the green at the moment because they do their work en masse in terms of committing numbers to the breakdown. They are also very quick in their actions and decision-making, which creates indecision and doubt in the referee's mind about a possible sanction. The quicker referees, who arrive just before a ruck is formed, are in a better position to checklist the sequence.
The golden rule for players is: Give away three points instead of seven if you're in your 22, but stay on your feet as it's not as likely to be seen as cynical by the referee as when you lose your feet, fall over the ball or don't roll away. A team penalty is a better contribution than a yellow card. Well done, Aaron.
How did the All Blacks get to the Wallabies' ball?
Firstly, the Wallabies are too slow out of their attacking framework and alignment to the ball. Passing, and supporting your pass, is key but four players must respond in behind the ball. The Aussies, and their backs in particular, are good at taking the defender off his line and leaving a gap on the inside, but too often their attack breaks down because the second and third man are too slow to the ball and inaccurate in their execution.
A ball-carrier's job is to give the ball freedom, keep the ball alive while up or, if he has to go to ground, place the ball away from himself, in one movement, so that the fetcher has to take a step forward (I will deal later with the fetcher being on the ball quicker).
The second man should secure the ball first, before focusing on the threat (defender). What I mean by this is that he should go low over the ball with his feet wide and then win the space past the ball before the threat can come in.
The third man's line should be outside the second man, through the gate, focusing on the non-threat or threat. He can therefore decide to keep the ball moving or target the threat's outside leg to take away his platform past the ball. Referees tend to want to see that he has beaten the ruck but not lifted the ball.
The fourth man can then centralise his line and decide whether to secure the space over the ball, as it could be left open because of his team-mates going past the ball and not reloading over the ball. If all is good ahead of him, then he can get excited about keeping the ball moving.
The Wallabies overload numbers to the ball, they stop at the ball too much and they do not secure the space over and past the ball. The second man goes around the ball too much and leaves too much work for the third man and by the time he has adjusted his line, he has been beaten for space in numbers.
All of the above is relevant to the Springboks too. They demonstrated a quicker and lower method of arrival against the Pumas at Soccer City, which was encouraging, and beat the Pumas past the ball on a regular basis.
My issue with the Boks' breakdown work is that they are too threat-focused. I would like to see the ball-carrier taking the defender off his line to keep the ball alive in the gap while up and/or getting the ball away quickly when going to ground, and securing the space over and past the ball. It's a subtle mindset change that requires the ball-carrier to take the side of the defender, with his body before the ball in two hands, and the second man to secure the space over and past the ball in front of the threat. Only then do you look to engage the threat should he show interest.
So what happens when the fetcher is on our ball and we arrive simultaneously? A bit like the Pumas turning up physically in Mendoza and beating the Springboks at the breakdown!
Was this down to attitude? Was there a lack of understanding of the method and process employed by the team? Or was it just poor execution?
I believe it was partly attitude and knowledge in the process, because the Pumas created a different contest at the breakdown, which exposed Ruan Pienaar's game (as it would for any scrumhalf when the ball is slowed). When you have to blame the scrummy, it's too late!
I am not a huge fan of the rollout of a player, because of safety and player welfare. I would ask the second and third men to focus on their roles and arrive at the same time, with the third man especially targeting the outside leg of McCaw – oops, I mean the player!
So the solution against the All Blacks is to get to your ball quickly, otherwise McCaw, Keiran Read, Aaron Smith and company will beat you to the space in numbers and then cover up an offence with numbers (you could, admittedly, find an offence at every breakdown).
We would love to see referees grow a pair, and use law 10.2 when teams are 5m out from the tryline, but they are human beings who have to survive (and protect their futures) rather than thrive. There are also about 90 rucks per game, so there's bound to be the odd mistake or two that determines the outcome.
And when players – or you and I – are debating a ruck, the All Blacks have already moved on to the next one.
Photo: Ross Land/Getty Images
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