Teams need quick ball from the breakdown so they can attack more freely by limiting the time the opposition has to set up its defensive structures.
In 2010 the revised interpretation of the laws saw the attacking team favoured at the ruck. That led to much quicker processing of the ball, allowing teams to retain possession and attack with more confidence.
Early that year, questions were being asked about the open-side flanker’s role, on the assumption that there would be less opportunity for the traditional scavenging function and fewer turnovers at the ruck. Some suggested that No. 7s would play a little bit looser and become more of a ball-running link between the forwards and backs. We did see some of that in 2010, but we also saw plenty of traditional No. 7 play — particularly chasing the ball in attack to support quick processing at the ruck.
Over the 2010 Super 14 season the rates of quick breakdown ball achieved by the four teams that made the finals were: Waratahs 42.9%, Stormers 37.2%, Crusaders 36.7%, Bulls 36.5%. The rates of slow ball for those teams were: Waratahs 5.7%, Stormers 5%, Crusaders 7.2%, Bulls 7.7%.
This year, while referees are still favouring the attacking team, the ruck contest is being refereed in such a way that there is a much more even contest.
The following table shows the speed of attacking ball from the breakdown after six rounds of the Super Rugby competition.
|Team||Speed of Ball at Breakdown - Quick||Speed of Ball at Breakdown - Normal||Speed of Ball at Breakdown - Slow||Speed of Opposition Ball at Breakdown - Quick||Speed of Opposition Ball at Breakdown - Normal||Speed of Opposition Ball at Breakdown - Slow|
Overall, the rates of quick ball are well down on 2010 levels and the rates of slow ball are well up.
Today I’m going to focus on the performance of the two teams leading the Australian conference: the Reds and the Waratahs.
On the surface there is little difference between their respective quick ball rates, with the Reds on 20% and the Waratahs on 21%. The Reds are doing a bit better in terms of slow ball, with only 15% compared to the Waratahs’ 23%. However, those averages don’t show the clear performance trends that are emerging between these two teams.
The Reds were actually the best-performed team in the 2010 competition in achieving quick ball (43.2%) and their slow ball rate was a low 6.3%. On the back of that the Reds made more runs, more line breaks and more tackle busts than any other team. A lot of the Reds’ success that year was built on the performances of Daniel Braid, who plays the traditional number 7 role. Braid went home to New Zealand after last season, leaving the Reds with the challenge of covering his loss.
It appears the Reds decided that with the 2011 interpretations of the laws being applied to the ruck, they could move away from having a Braid-like scavenger and play with a bigger ball-running back row. However, that tactic didn’t seem to work, and after two rounds they changed direction and called up a more traditional No. 7 in the form of Beau Robinson.
This change seemed to lift the speed of ball from the rucks and allowed the Reds to get their mojo back; as we’ve seen in their last two games, they’re attacking more like they did last year. Let’s look at the statistics for individual games in 2011 to see if there’s any significant difference in performance at the breakdown before and after Robinson’s selection.
|Reds||Speed of Ball at Breakdown - Quick||Speed of Ball at Breakdown - Normal||Speed of Ball at Breakdown - Slow|
Is this improvement in performance from the Reds at the breakdown all down to Beau Robinson’s coming in at No. 7? Not all of it — I’m sure there’s been a focus from all the Reds on improvement in this area. While Robinson is playing really well, I don’t think it’s just down to his effectiveness on the ball; I think the function of the traditional No. 7 role changes the way the whole team plays.
The numbers for the Waratahs show a different story.
|Waratahs||Speed of Ball at Breakdown - Quick||Speed of Ball at Breakdown - Normal||Speed of Ball at Breakdown - Slow|
What has caused this drop-off in performance from the Waratahs at the breakdown? Phil Waugh’s injury certainly wouldn’t have helped, but I’ve seen other issues with the Waratahs’ performance in the ruck lately. The first is a general lack of urgency to support ball carriers, which leads to their getting isolated. Heinrich Brüssow exploited this brilliantly two weeks ago, as shown in the video below. The other area I see where the Waratahs need to improve is their lack of accuracy and aggression at the ruck when on attack.
[youtube width=”600″ height=”450″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MBu3hNOE4b4[/youtube]
All teams, whether at international, Super Rugby or club level, must maintain their intensity at the breakdown to be successful, and the traditional role of the No. 7 in that respect is just as important as ever. Teams that move away from that model will struggle.