The Rugby Championship of 2016 was a resounding success for the All Blacks.
One thing I noted is that, while the All Blacks have always had their 2-4-2 structure in place, they have made significant strides in becoming far more fluid and less dependent on it. The All Blacks attacking pattern is evolving before our eyes.
In the Kiwi 2-4-2 system, the forwards are split across the field. The pattern usually involves the 6/2 on one side, 1/3/4/5 in the centre and the 7/8 on the other side.
The basic pattern has worked immeasurably well for ball retention and allowing width in the All Blacks game. The superior skill of the All Blacks forwards allows the ball down the open or blind side with very little inaccuracy.
Original 2-4-2 Execution
The Central Forward Pod (CFP) punches up the field, fixing defenders in the centre before moving the ball wide. Multiple players have the ability to play the first receiver.
After someone had broken the gain-line, the ball would be passed back to the CFP, who would normally have scanned and performed some kind of deceptive interplay among themselves that led to more metres gained. For example, a short pop pass off a hard shoulder, before moving the ball to the other side.
Usually, they had a fixed number of backs on each side to prevent outnumbering in defence should the ball be turned over.
Evolution of the 2-4-2
Where the All Blacks have modified this, however, is in the use and placement of their backs, greater exploitation of space, and higher emphasis on skill sets and fitness.
The All Blacks now trust themselves to the extreme. In fairness, they always did, but now, so confident and precise are their skills that they no longer worry about having a relatively even number of backs across the field. In fact, to create many of their overlaps from the CFP, they flood one side of the pod with more backs than the other. Creating a number mismatches and slight overlaps. Via the simple draw and pass, they appear to easily increase these overlaps.
Countering of the 2-4-2
For the opposition, the space created from this via a turnover could be invaluable. A few long passes and they could be looking at a 5 on 1 scenario. However, the All Blacks don’t worry about this anymore. The reasons being are two-fold:
First; they don’t have to worry as much as other teams about the ball being turned over. Why? Their forwards on the wings are fast and fit enough to be in close support when the wide runners are brought down, allowing them to be clearing out 15s and 10s who are performing the jackal role. It’s a physical mismatch and likely man off-feet penalty situation if I ever saw one. Advantage All Blacks.
Second; other teams are not the All Blacks. Many other teams lack the skills or processes or just simply are not ruthless enough to take advantage of this created space. When an NZ player turns over the ball, the line immediately scans and identifies where space is, and the ball is put into that space.
No other team has this skill set, hence kick chase is the likely option to get the ball to that area. And with New Zealand’s back three there to mitigate any threat, this tactic usually results in an inconsequential territorial loss.
The main change in the All Blacks attacking strategy is what I like to call “The Flood“. A ruck may get to the 15-metre tram line. The backs on the short-side will move over to the open. The forwards in the centre pass the ball back behind to a waiting ball player or shepherd the ball down the line while drawing defenders, and simply put, there are more attackers on the open side than there are defenders.
The other major change I have noticed is the removal of one phase of the CFP. Or a greater tendency to go wide quicker.
Against Ireland in 2013, one phase before Ryan Crotty’s final try, Ma’a Nonu stood at first receiver with a view to pass to one of the Franks brothers at the centre. After which, the ball was shipped to Aaron Cruden, Coles, and then Crotty for the last gasp try. Two phases in total from edge to edge.
Against Argentina in the pool stages of the World Cup, we saw the change in the CFP. They preferred to shift the ball rather than taking into contact. This is when I first observed The Flood, with vast numbers on one side of the pitch and the number of defenders lacking. This mismatch in numbers owes a huge part to the All Blacks fitness and communication. The time it takes for the All Blacks players to flood the open side after exploiting the short side is outstanding.
The majority of the backline is moving over to the open side, getting ready for the ball. Meanwhile, the forwards and blindside winger are working their way down the short side, attracting more defenders.
The lack of the CFP going to contact here is huge. Removal of this phase, allows the All Blacks to keep their foot on the throat of the opposition. The CFP taking the ball to contact would allow time. Time the defence could use to drift over from the short side to the flooded side of the field, allowing them to number up against the extra attackers, nullifying the numbers advantage that the All Blacks have created.
By shifting the ball straight on from the CFP in the wide-to-wide pattern, the CFP attracts defenders from running and does not give the defence time to drift onto the flooded line, allowing more chance of the All Blacks scoring a try. This takes incredible positional play and fitness to keep doing for 80 minutes.
This All Blacks side trusts their structures, but with the fitness they possess, they now have enhanced and modified them to an even greater level. This greater level allows them to create situations where they almost always have numbers.
Fitness, Trust and Tenacity
To beat this is sensationally hard. The Lions went very close and a lot of that was down to two traits usually associated with the All Blacks; fitness and trust. The Lions trusted their systems, or at least they started to trust them more as the series went on. And lastly, the Lions had a huge amount of tenacity to never give in. A great example of this is Davies running down Laumape in the third and final test.
It is going to be so interesting to watch the Rugby Championship of 2017 unfold and see if the All Blacks use The Flood setup. Will they enhance it or will they bring something totally new to the table? With the World Cup a little over two years away you can bet your bottom dollar they will be attempting to push the boundaries and bring even more fluidity to their game.
Author: Conor Wilson
Recently retired from the Military, Skydiving and rare Steak Enthusiast and Player of 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 a promotional Rugby day. It was truly beautiful.