This is my second article in the England Attack series. If you haven’t read the first, I fully recommend you do.
If not, terms like “Two Prong” and “Switchback” may sound odd in this article without the context.
Now, it’s been a long time since England had an effective midfield. A really effective midfield. The last time England had a proper 10-12 axis was in the 2001-2003 era, where Jonny Wilkinson and Will Greenwood teamed up in the positions to great effect.
The context of a ballplayer at 12 is not a new one, nor did the idea originate with England. Sir Clive Woodward championed the idea of picking a second playmaker from his first days as England coach. Again, brought over from his days spent in Australia playing for Manly.
However, when Greenwood retired, we lacked another class playmaker at 12 who could step into his shoes. As such, we experimented with defensive stalwarts, out of form 10s and crash merchants. But none that had the versatility to take up the mantle.
The reasons are numerous, but I believe that any team can become a more potent force with a playmaker at 12. This is not just restricted to international Level. I’m a 12 myself, and though perhaps I’m a little biased, we only have to look at international examples to see this proven.
Beale, Nonu, et-al
We’ve seen how potent Australia became over the course of last year’s Championship with Beale playing outside Foley.
And Nonu, the great Nonu. He was dropped by the All Blacks in the mid-2000s due to him being progressively known as a crash ball. He was told in no uncertain terms that he needed to learn to kick and kick well. So he went away, learnt, and came back as part of the All Black backline which dominated rugby.
Carter, Nonu, Smith… all names that roll off the tongue together. The improvement in Nonu’s skills was not just restricted to kicking. It extended also to his ball playing skills, and in him, NZ found a player who could scare the opposition in multiple ways. Not just the smash and bash approach.
But we have to look at the reasons why a 10-12 creative axis is so important and influential in a side’s attacking game. Not just to England, but to all these other teams as well.
Simple but important
From my own experiences, I consider the role of 12 to be a simple but important one. We’re not defensive captains like the 13 and 7 are. However, if we’re a ball playing team, we’re important to the attack.
The 12 is first and foremost, a communicator. The 12 has got to have a set of lungs on him, and like the 10, is one of the busiest men on a rugby pitch. Good 10s often make it look easy at international level. Great 10s make it look simple, but it is a mentally hard job.
As a 10 you are the quarterback of your team. You manage the attack, you direct the phases, you decide what option your team is going to take. If you have a very prescriptive game plan, it isn’t that hard. On the other hand, if you have a framework to your attack and a remit to use it in any way, based on what the opposition is doing, it is much harder.
If you have a very prescriptive game plan, it isn’t that hard.
You have so many things to watch out for it’s untrue. Imagine you have gone wide, and have a player caught on the 15-metre line. Imagine it…
A 10 will need to have been looking at the makeup of the field as the phase is being played out. There’s no other way. He can’t jolly over there into the first receiver and make a decision then and there. To do so would be making an uninformed decision and a likely disadvantage to his team. If he does jolly on over there he will have missed a number of things.
He has not seen the defensive line, how it’s arranged, whether the back 3 have come up, where his forwards are, where his backs are, whether the blind side is exploitable, whether a crossfield kick would be viable as the has winger come in. He knows nothing if he isn’t aware of his surroundings and how the defence is reacting to the attack.
This is only the simple version. And even this, is too much for a 10 to process all at once. Remember that work off the ball is VERY important.
The more players you can have ready a couple of seconds post ruck, ready to receive the ball, means more options for the defence to watch and more chance of success in an attack. This is why structures and patterns are so key in the modern game.
It means the players are less reliant on the 10/12 and can be ready. It allows the 10/12 to only worry about which option to pick, not organising and babysitting where everyone should be. And it gives order to what can only be described as chaos.
I will give an example of this below. Think about it closely. You can then work out if this running through your head is your idea of fun.
The complicated version of the above would go something like this whilst the play is happening:
Ok, we’ve made metres. Have we got the ball back? Where are my forwards? Closest still moving over from the centre.
Ok. *Expletive*, their back row is wide. It’s going to be slow ball. Potential turnover. We need the forwards there rapid… [Cue screaming for forwards to sprint to the ruck.]
The defence will have numbered up on blind by the time the ball’s out. Slow ball. Backs there are useless. Blind is out. Unless…
Back-three, have they come up? That one has. Maybe grubber kick option if I can get there fast enough. Unlikely though…
Ok, have we got numbers back wide on the open? Potentially. However, the reinforcement backs are still on the blind. Need more time for them. Can’t use a screen pass yet… [Cue screaming for a forward pod out to the open and backs to move to the open. Rapido].
Need the pod to cut an inside angle. We need quick ball!
OK, the scrum-half can handle the pass, [“Boys (blindside backs) hurry! Open! Open!”].
One crash phase should be enough time for them. I gotta be out wide for the wide play, get them aligned. Wait…
We need some decoy forwards out there, up against the rush defence. The opposition could catch us behind the line. Damn, our loosies have moved over here! Oh God wait! Their winger, is he still flat? Wait…
No, no damn he’s deep again, no territory option!
As you can see, this didn’t cover all the bases. It’d be too long and isn’t the point I’m trying to make. What I’m trying to say, is that the 10 has a lot on their plate.
We are quick to criticise 10s in the modern game, but they carry a huge, huge weight on their shoulders. Their teams will attack best if they have clarity and some framework in the game. What we saw above is chaos. Absolute chaos.
He had to analyse all of that, all the while, his forwards were moving around without structure. No one was communicating to him or organising themselves. He was completely by himself, and would most likely, make a wrong decision.
Now, as you can see from the above, any 12 who can take the responsibility off the 10 is going to be helping.
Divide and conquer decions
Let’s assume that the team now have a forward pattern of 2-4-2, and follow it.
Simultaneously, the 12 takes a mere two facets of the above scenario that he will be in charge of. This will be alignment of the openside forwards and watching the back-three.
The 9, as another Tactical Decision Maker (TDM), will be in charge of one facet. The Blindside.
The 10’s new perspective
Now let’s see how the same scenario goes from the 10’s perspective.
Ok, we’ve made metres. Where are my forwards? Good, already securing the ball.
(Shout from 12: “Blind winger up flat! Up Flat!”)
Good, good, can do a grubber. Maybe not. The scrumhalf has already moved the ball to the blind. 10 extra metres made great!
Ok, the blind is dead now. We’ve tied in the winger. Kick to the corner? Good option. But…
But we’ve got them on the ropes. Want to keep the ball in hand. What have we got on the [look over to the open] open?
12 has got the 4-pod just outside the 20 metres. Nice. Ok, so that should be good. B Channel is a little thin. A good place to hit.
Helping hand from 12
(Shout from 12: Wide! Ella! Wide! Ella!) (Ella = Wide play with 2 pod forming loop with 12)
Run Ella? Ok. Yep. B channel is still a little thin though. Could use 15 on my side out wide. Ok.
(Shout from 9: Coco/Target B!) (Coco [Pops], 9 passes to a forward. Shift via a pop pass to another forward within the 4-pod.) (Target B, refers to the B Channel [20-30 metre area]).
Here the 9 taking responsibility allows the 4-pod to make metres off an easy channel, whilst allowing 10 to reposition and 15/11 to move to open as inside options.
Ok, good gain-line gained! Ella! Ella! Ball!
Nice one scrumhalf. Take it flat. Inside option in 15? No, no, run the play.
10’s involvement ends here.
Passes behind hard run 11 to 12, who then runs the Ella play outside. Which he has organised and aligned as to get around the rush defence.
This is an example, of what can happen when everyone knows their roles, and the decision makers take responsibility for what they see.
There was no slow ball, as the forwards were in a position to regain possession quickly. The 9 ran the blindside as it wasn’t defensively sound and the 10 wasn’t in a position to tell him to. As such he has left the 10 in a much better position. The 10 was scanning for options. He was told immediately of the back three alignment by 12. The 12 also informed him of another option out wide with a wide play keyword. He didn’t even have to think about it.
He could either get the 9 to chip kick for the corner with a pre-planned call. Or, in this case, listen to the 12. The 12 was in a position further out wide and could accurately state where the space was. The 10 organised the forwards accordingly and ran the play.
The 10 only had to focus on getting the ball to the 12. Which meant he didn’t have to worry about out wide or the forward positioning. They’d already organised themselves.
However, the 10 is the deciding TDM and outranks the 12 and 9. It was the 10 that saw the B Channel was defensively weak and ran the 9 Coco Play. This was not only to attack a potential weak spot, but all the while using the one phase of time to quickly get himself and others over to the open so as to provide multiple options and to commit more defenders.
Stressing the point
This hopefully stresses the point about the effect a 12 can have on a 10. They can assist in informing where the defence is weakest, taking options onto themselves, as well as organising alignment further out wide when the 10 is occupied and stepping into the first receiver when the need arises.
That’s the second thing a 12 needs to be. Comfortable, with being a playmaker. Comfortable with having and acting on vision. Having the confidence to trust your instincts and taking the weight off the 10’s shoulders.
When he looks uncertain. Slot into the first receiver and go for a run. Go and try to run a forward pod that’ll open some space for the 10 to use. There is a whole host of options with the ability to have a playmaker on either side of the ruck. You can split the field, and cause more problems for the defence.
This all ties well into the England set-up of using the Two Prong and Switchback patterns.
The 10-12 playmaker axis is needed. And I say 100% needed in order for these patterns to be used most effectively.
A recap from the first article.
- The first prong is usually run by the 9, though 10 can take both prongs should he want the ball out wider.
- The second prong is stationed much much further out and nearly always attacks the edge of the defensive line. It runs hard at the line and is designed to prevent the rush defence from forming that Umbrella shape that is so often the death of wide attacks.
- Ford is needed to run the second prong, as, not only can he draw defenders with his flat play, but the distance between the 9 and the second prong is often too long for one pass. Because of this Ford steps in at first receiver allowing the ball to cut out defensive players faster than they can drift. The 15 is also an inside option helping stop this.
- Farrell is usually stationed behind the second prong, and this is where it’s important. It presents another option. I cannot stress how important multiple options are in this system.
As was shown in the previous article, Ford can either pass to the second prong or, he can pass behind to Farrell.
The second prong has been able to compromise the edge of the defence due to the lengthy earlier passing from Youngs and Ford. This gives Farrell options for a 4 on 2, and a 3 on 2/1 in some cases.
This is another situation where you want a gifted distributor, who is not afraid of making the missed pass that will put your wing in for a try.
Basically, it allows England to get the ball across the field quicker than the defence can number. An imperative factor in the England game plan.
It is also imperative for the Switchback. As was described in the previous article a 10 slotting in at blindside does not need the 12 with him. The space is too short. This means, that once the defence has constricted (again see the previous article for more details) there is a 12 on the open side with the skillsets to exploit the created space.
Lessons from the Lions
The first Lions test against the All Blacks provides a key example of this. The Lions were in for a try (for all money), it was a 3 on 1 overlap. However, Ben Te’o (who I really rate as a player) did not trust his left to right passing. Thus, he charged the line, slipped, and the opportunity was squandered. This is because Sexton was not in a position to help, and he can’t be in two places at once. If Te’o was Farrell then the chances are that pass goes down the line and the Lions score.
Eddie Jones has realised the importance of this, which is why it is Joseph, more often than not who makes way for Te’o.
This was evident in both the Italy and Wales games last year. Jones has previously said he sees Manu Tuilagi as a 12, but in this Six Nations he committed to having the crash ball position at 13, rather than 12. This shows how much he is starting to rely on the 10/12 axis as part of England’s attacking strategy.
Not only that, both Ford and Farrell are class players, and if possible you want both on the pitch at any one time.
Next in the series (Monday 29th January) I will be moving on to the Importance of Multiple Options in the patterns.
Author: Conor Wilson
I split my social time between jumping out of planes, running, going away with the Army, and coaching and playing the beautiful game of Rugby.
Joe Schmidt, Will Greenwood and Rod MacQueen are my heroes, and my proudest moment was putting Jason Robinson in for a try at the Samsung School of Rugby. It was truly beautiful.