The play of the weekend was the diagonal kick from Owen Farrell to Jonny May to touch down in the corner. Once the ball came loose from Watson’s aerial challenge, May was reactive. He was immediately aware of which one of his players was in possession of the ball.

Knowing Farrell’s skill set, he screamed for the kick and Farrell executed perfectly. With one single play, Farrell took out the entire Welsh pack and backline. The defence was quite literally dissected. Even if May did not score it was still the right thing to do. England might have forced a 5-metre scrum or a lineout 5 metres from the Welsh line. Brilliant instinctive play from England and very difficult to defend against.

I wonder how many other international numbers 12s would even attempt such a play? Not to mind pulling it off successfully. I can’t think of one. Maybe the game has sped up so much, that it is no longer viable to put a creative, kicking player in this position.

Australian teams in the past often played with a kicking, playmaker at 12. Someone who could open things up and change the rhythm of the game. All the players, all the teams and all the backroom analysis fails to produce a 12 that can kick like this. Maybe they don’t have the free reign, or maybe they are trained to play in a specific way, that does not allow for such individual flare.

Modern centres

The modern number 12 is mostly used in quite a conservative manner. They truck the ball up in close quarters, support rucks, mauls and midfield runners and occasionally pass outside into space. That’s all fine and 12s have always fulfilled some or all these functions. They must. But when the 13 outside him is playing just like a 12, then creativity suffers, plays get predictable and players get worn out.

Warren Gatland warrenball

The role of the international 13 is also changing. Fewer and fewer 13s are selected for their ability to pass at top speed and look for that outside break. It’s crash up first, hold possession, maintain continuity and go again. 12s and 13s are diligently supporting modern systems, such as the 1-3-3-1, which sees them managing and maintaining a specific system. A system dotted with forwards across the width of the pitch. That’s all fine, but when the time comes and the try line beckons, they must be able to shift the ball.

Possession and continuity

This overall approach to the game has evolved with an obsession with possession and continuity. Just because a team holds onto the ball through rucks, mauls and short passing does not mean that they are automatically more likely to score tries, than if they did not have that same amount of possession. Look at Ireland and all their possession in Paris. Continuity, also a byword for phase after phase and not making a lot of progress toward the opposition try line.

France v Ireland Action Areas
Courtesy of Opta

Attempts to mitigate risk in this way causes the game to be played by numbers. How many in the ruck?, Who’s covering the first man out etc. Playing like this causes games to move towards their inevitable conclusion by one team out wrestling another. Ironically, it is those small individual moments of risk, whether, from the hand or the boot, that change the course of a game and define its outcome.

England v Wales

England knew the way Wales were going to approach the game and played to it. They were content to kick the ball intelligently and keep Wales back in their own half for long periods. Yes, Wales had a lot of possession and continuity in terms of attack. When a team is playing like this from their own half of the field, they are a lot less likely to score.

Wales ruck locations. Only 15 of their rucks were inside the English 22.
Wales ruck locations. Only 15 of their rucks were inside the English 22.
Courtesy of Opta

Farrell was again instrumental in May’s second try. He gave a long pass out the line, which was gathered by one of the English forwards, who scooped the ball back inside to May. Again, great awareness from the English 12 taking out the Welsh defence with a super pass.

Centres need something. They can’t be just high-powered blocks in the middle of the field that will shore up an attack leading to the next phase. Most teams play like this now and are losing out in terms of creativity and results. Plays like this, not endless amounts of rucks and mauls, define results. Enough of these games together, win tournaments. That’s really continuity.

Author: Kieran Gleeson

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