All Blacks

Analysis: Quick Ruck Ball and the Wallaby Halfbacks

Analysis: Quick Ruck Ball and the Wallaby Halfbacks

Good defence relies on a number of aspects, not the least of which is maintaining a good structure with all defenders moving together and no defenders getting isolated.  Maintaining a good structure relies on players quickly realigning each phase so that the attacking team doesn’t achieve an advantage in numbers.

The best way to break down a defensive structure is with consistently quick ruck ball.  If a team can achieve quick ruck ball phase after phase, defenders will fatigue and not realign as quickly as required which results in their defensive structure breaking down.  If the attacking team achieves this they’ll end up with a numerical advantage and this will force the outnumbered defenders to make decisions such as rushing out of the line to try and shut down the attack or to leave the attacker they’re marking and come in to plug a hole.  Even if a numerical advantage isn’t achieved, once a defensive line starts going backwards, it becomes a slippery slope and a team that achieves quick ruck ball every phase and makes one metre from their first two phases will usually then make three metres on their next, five on their next and so on.

So how do teams achieve quick ruck ball? I think there are five keys:- 1) support players staying close to the ball carrier so that they are ready to drive the player forward immediately when they hit the defensive line and clean out defenders; 2) the ball carrier needs to work hard to place the ball as far back behind them as possible when they go to ground to make it harder for the defenders to hold the ball into the ruck; 3) the players supporting the ball carrier must make an effective clean out to make it harder for the defenders to hold the ball into the ruck; 4) the halfback needs to be in position quickly to collect and deliver the ball; and 5) attacking players have to realign and get in position quickly to give the halfback options to deliver the ball to.

The video below shows recent examples of the Wallabies achieving quick ball at the ruck.

[youtube width=”600″ height=”450″][/youtube]

Whilst achieving quick ball for one phase may be enough to disorganise defences in club or school rugby, that’s not enough in international rugby.  A quick ball phase followed by a slower phase allows time for the defence to reorganise. In some instances, ‘Slow’ ball becomes a necessity where for example the play maker is on the bottom of the ruck and the halfback has to wait for someone else to organise the next play or where there has been a turnover or dropped ball that means the attack is not realigned in time to use ‘Quick’ ball.  In those instances the halfback delivering the ball just for the sake of ‘Quick’ ball would be more negative than regrouping by using ‘Slow’ ball.

The important thing with ‘Slow’ ball is that the next phase must be ‘Quick’ ball – there is no value in playing a sequence of ‘Slow’ ball phases, unless of course you were trying to run the clock down at the end of a game.  Once the decision has been taken to use ‘Slow’ ball it really doesn’t matter how slow it is, so you’ll often see the halfback taking an eternity to deliver the ball even though the players now appear ready.  This tactic is simply used to set up the next ‘Quick’ phase where the forwards normally take the ball up from the ‘Slow’ ball phase and the players for the next ‘Quick’ phase are also in place.  The following video shows how it’s done and not done.  The first ruck is ‘Slow’ and Beale doesn’t slow play down enough for the following phase to set up and accordingly one ‘Slow’ ruck is followed by another ‘Slow’ ruck.  Then Genia slows the play right down and that enables the attack to get set and as a result a ‘Slow’ ruck can be followed by a ‘Quick’ ruck.

[youtube width=”600″ height=”450″][/youtube]

There are two ways defending teams can slow the delivery of ruck ball:- 1) by making dominant tackles where the defender ends up on top of the attacker and is therefore in good position to start attacking the ball; and 2) by disrupting the ruck through getting good numbers into the ruck so that even if the ball is retained by the attacking team, the halfback has to dig around to get the ball out.  Of course there are also the illegal options, which the referee may or may not pick up on and like it or not, all teams take these options during a game.

How hard is it to play with consistently quick ruck ball? My answer in a word or two would be – extremely!

At this point I had planned to compare the ruck speed of the Wallabies in 2010 with the 1991 and 1999 World Cup winning Wallaby teams.  However I’m not aware of any such statistics for the earlier periods and looking back on some of those games, there is a significant difference in the way the game is played today which makes it almost irrelevant to compare what occurred in previous eras to what happens in the modern game.  The basics of the game haven’t changed but the way the game is played has changed significantly, particularly in defence and the fitness & mobility of players.  Rucks are also much more competitive in the modern game and I suspect that has a lot to do with the elimination of rucking.  I’m quite certain that in the amateur era if Richie McCaw found himself in many of the positions he does in rucks today, he wouldn’t have stayed there long!

So let’s look at what’s happening in 2010.  Statistics from this years Super 14 competition showed that the Reds led the competition with 43.2% of their rucks resulting in quick ball.  The Waratahs achieved 42.9%, the Stormers 37.2%, the Crusaders 36.7% and the Bulls 36.5%.

I’m not sure how ‘Quick’ was measured in those games but I decided to look at the speed of the Wallabies rucks during the Tri Nations.  To do this I looked at each ruck and for those where the ball was recycled I assigned a ‘Quick’, ‘Normal’ or ‘Slow’ rating.  There are no absolutes in this process – I didn’t use a stopwatch – but as they were all rated by the same person, there should be a reasonable level of consistency.

Wallabies v Overall Springboks All Blacks
Quick 31% 38% 26%
Normal 38% 39% 38%
Slow 22% 16% 26%

Overall the results  for ‘Quick’ ball were down from the Super 14 levels but you’d expect that as the one thing that improves the most the higher the level of competition being played is defence.  Then looking a little further there are differences between each of the games.

Wallabies v Springboks All Blacks All Blacks Springboks Springboks All Blacks
Quick 32% 33% 16% 41% 46% 33%
Normal 41% 41% 40% 35% 40% 31%
Slow 21% 18% 34% 15% 7% 23%

What would cause these differences?  Any number of factors could have an effect including how well the Wallabies were playing, how well the halfback was playing and who they were playing.  On that last point it’s interesting to note the difference in the results against New Zealand and South Africa.  Interesting, but not unexpected – I’m sure there will be very little argument regarding which team is currently the best in the world at the ruck contest.  Whether there are illegal tactics involved or not, the All Blacks are the masters at slowing down opposition ball.  All teams use similar tactics and always will, so to gain the ascendancy at the ruck or even parity, the Wallabies need to devise tactics and play in a way that minimises the disruption being caused.

Looking in more detail at the instances of ‘Slow’ ball, the factors that I recorded as the cause are shown below.  I assigned a factor of ‘No Reason’ where the ball was available, players were ready to receive the ball and the halfback chose to wait.  The ‘Ball Not Clear’ and ‘Waiting for Attack’ factors are obvious and the ‘Slow to Arrive’ factor applied where there was no halfback ready to clear the ball.  At this stage of the analysis ‘Halfback’ includes all players, not just the #9.

Reasons For Slow Ball Overall Springboks All Blacks
No Reason Identified 10% 13% 9%
Ball Not Clear 47% 33% 54%
Waiting for Attack to Realign 38% 51% 31%
Slow to Arrive 5% 3% 6%

The high percentage of ‘Slow’ ball in the games against the All Blacks caused by the ball not being clear for the halfback confirms again how effective the All Blacks are in the ruck.  The higher percentage of times the halfback is having to wait for the attack to realign against South Africa is a result of the extra pace those games were played at as the ball was not being slowed down in the ruck as much.

Overall I think the Wallabies have got some work to do at the breakdown.  The percentage of times that the attack is not aligned and ready to play quickly from a breakdown is too high.  Players have got to work harder to get in position if the Wallabies are to play an up tempo game to break down defences.  There’s also far too much reliance on David Pocock in the breakdown itself and whilst he’s been playing brilliantly he needs a bit more help from his mates.

There’s been recent comment that Will Genia didn’t play well during the Tri Nations whilst Luke Burgess (albeit with limited game time) looked to be in better form.  One of the main criticisms of Genia has been that he was too slow in getting to the breakdown.

To find out whether that perception was reality I looked at the reasons why the Wallabies couldn’t play with ‘Quick ball’ on every phase.  Given that Burgess played such little time compared to Genia during the competition I’ve not separated their numbers at this stage.  The first aspect I considered was how many times the Wallaby #9 didn’t collect the ball from the ruck and another player filled that role.

I’m sure every #9 aims to make it to every ruck but given the Wallabies average around 110 rucks per game all over the field, any #9 would have to be a machine to get to every ruck.  Next time you watch a game have a look at the #9’s running pattern – they essentially jog from one side of the field to the other following the ball and then accelerating when they see a ruck forming.  It’s not a mad dash around the field from ruck to ruck.  The following video shows just a few examples of Genia and Burgess doing exactly this. Watch closely to see their running line and the speed they move at.

[youtube width=”600″ height=”450″][/youtube]

The reasons I recorded for the Wallaby #9 not making it to rucks during the Tri Nations are summarised below.

Reasons For Halfback Not Getting to Breakdown Overall
Half in Ruck 39%
Turnover / Kick 13%
Pick & Go 21%
Distance Between Breakdowns 12%
Slow to Arrive 15%

The biggest reasons the #9 didn’t collect the ball from the ruck was that they were either involved in the ruck itself, still on the ground in the previous ruck or the forwards took a pick & drive.  Together these factors represented 60% of occasions.  That leaves 40% where the #9 didn’t get to the ruck fast enough.  However of that 40%, 25% were the result of there being a turnover (where the halfback was back covering the opposition kick) or where the previous ruck was on the other sideline and the distance involved in getting to the ruck was too far to expect the halfback to make it to the next ruck.  That leaves 15%, or 13 rucks out of 553 where the #9 was slow to arrive.  All of those instances were Genia with 7 of the 13 coming after the 60 minute mark in games.  Those numbers don’t really give a conclusive answer as there is no comparison possible with Burgess given the huge difference in playing time.

I then looked at the number of times each #9 arrived late to a ruck where ‘Quick’ ball was possible but became ‘Slow’ ball or ‘Normal’ ball because the #9 was slow in arriving and no other player managed to get into position to fill the halfback role.  With Genia at #9 that occurred 20 times out of the 392 rucks he tended (5%).  With Burgess at #9 that occurred 4 times out of the 23 rucks he tended (17%).  However those numbers also don’t give us a conclusive answer and are unfair to Burgess, given the difference in playing time.

Given the difference in playing time in the Tri Nations I decided to look back to the tests earlier in the year against England to compare performances in getting around the field.  Whilst every game is different these two games were against the same opposition and were played within a week of each other. Burgess played the entire first game where the Wallabies took the ball into 69 rucks and Genia played the entire second game where the Wallabies took the ball into 68 rucks.  Burgess played what most people agree was his finest game as a Wallaby in the first game whilst Genia was playing his first game back from a long injury layoff and most of us considered he was a little off the pace in that game.  Despite these factors, it’s still interesting to look at the statistics from the games.

First let’s look at the same comparison as for the Tri Nations in relation to how quickly the wallabies were recycling their ruck ball in those games.  The differences between the average for those two games and the average in the Tri Nations games is not that great, although England competed better at the ruck in the second game.

Wallabies v Overall England (Perth) England (Sydney)
Quick 27% 33% 20%
Normal 46% 45% 47%
Slow 17% 10% 24%

Interestingly looking at the reasons for ‘Slow’ ball, England did an even better job than the All Blacks did against the Wallabies, or maybe the Wallabies didn’t compete as effectively in the rucks and then stepped up another notch in the Tri Nations.

Reasons For Slow Ball Overall England (Perth) England (Sydney)
No Reason Identified 0% 0% 0%
Ball Not Clear 57% 57% 56%
Waiting for Attack to Realign 35% 14% 44%
Slow to Arrive 8% 29% 0%

Again the reasons in those two games for another player acting as halfback apart from the #9 were similar to that in the Tri Nations.

Reasons For Halfback Not Getting to Breakdown Overall England (Perth) England (Sydney)
Half in Ruck 43% 33% 50%
Turnover / Kick 14% 11% 17%
Pick & Go 19% 22% 17%
Distance Between Breakdowns 10% 22% 0%
Slow to Arrive 14% 12% 16%

The one area that does suggest some trend is the number of times each #9 arrived late to a ruck where ‘Quick’ ball was possible but became ‘Slow’ ball or ‘Normal’ ball because the #9 was slow in arriving and no other player managed to get into position to fill the halfback role.  In his game against England Burgess was slow to get to 9 rucks (13%) and in the Tri Nations was slow to get to 4 rucks (17%).  In his game against England Genia was slow to get to 1 ruck (<1%) and in the Tri Nations was slow to get to 20 rucks (5%).  However they’re hardly numbers to base selection decisions on.

Whilst on the England games we also previously posted statistics on the passing accuracy of Burgess and Genia during these games and they are worth revisiting.

  ENGLAND – Luke Burgess ENGLAND – Will Genia
Pass Type Number % Number %
Good 33 50% 38 66%
Average 27 42% 18 31%
Poor 5 8% 2 3%
Total 65 100% 58 100%
Average – At Receiver 23 35% 16 28%

In those two games there was also little between the two halfbacks in terms of their passing.

Overall the statistics between the two players don’t show a huge difference.  I don’t think Genia has dropped off in performance – I think he’s being much more closely watched these days.  Burgess certainly looks to have worked hard on his game and I think he’s the one who’s closed the gap by stepping up and that’s a good thing for the Wallabies.  However, I think Genia is still the number one halfback today and I actually thought he played well in the Tri Nations.  The statistics certainly don’t indicate he played poorly.

Barring any injuries these two look like they’ll be the number one and two halfbacks for the Wallabies into the 2011 RWC.  Let’s hope they keep applying pressure to each other and Burgess gets some more playing time to show what he can do.

All Blacks

Scott is one of our regular contributors from the old days of G&GR. He has experience coaching Premier Grade with two clubs in Brisbane.

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