Today’s article is a different one. It’s an opinion piece, more than an analysis one. It doesn’t analyse a team in particular, but rather, opens up about The Fox Pattern, a concept in attack I’ve been thinking about for a while. Is this the next evolution of attacking rugby?

This may sound cocky, and I apologise if it does. But this concept gave me the idea for a new Style of Play that I don’t think has ever been used. The reason is that the concept behind it is so unexplored, that even the All Blacks are still potentially years from realising this style in multi-phase play.

Attacking rugby like we’ve never seen?

To master it, you need to be a full time, professional rugby team. Believe me, I’ve tried with the alternative and it’s chaos. You need time to train it. The structures and dynamics are too complex. It is at the moment, entirely theoretical. However, I believe a team that can master the skill sets needed to implement it, can raise their attack to levels unheard of in rugby, and gain the ability to hurt any team in the World.

There are certain philosophies I apply in rugby. One of which, is that you need to choose your own path, both in the style of play you champion and your culture off the field. By extension, this means you cannot copy the paths of others.

Winning is an important thing, but to have your own style, to have people copy you, to admire you, that is the greatest gift.
Johan Cruyff

The All Blacks Attacking Rugby

Take the All Blacks, with their fast all court game that they play. The one they play better than anyone in the world. No team will beat the All Blacks consistently and repeatedly, trying to play like the All Blacks. They’re the best at it, and due to their youth and academy cultures, will always be the best at it.

How to make the All Blacks perfect. Part 1

In fact, at their peak, the team that has the greatest win ratio against the All Blacks; South Africa, often played anything but.

The brand of attacking rugby the All Blacks played was not match for the great Springbok team of 2009 who dominated the men in black.
The brand of attacking rugby the All Blacks played was not match for the great Springbok team of 2009 who dominated the men in black. Photo: Stephen Barker/PHOTOSPORT

At their best, they espoused incredible physicality, bruising defence, power runners, and an incredibly effective kicking game. This gameplan beat the All Blacks repeatedly. Since Graham Henry changed up the plan in 2009, this subsided. But the point comes across. Better to play your own game that works for you, and come up with new innovations within it, that you can play better than anyone else. Rather than striving for another teams game, that you can’t do half as well.

A changing game

The game is changing rapidly. The players are becoming faster, fitter, stronger, and more highly skilled. These are the qualities we see in the players as the game becomes more and more professional. A great side effect of this, is that the players, are now able to do things that weren’t possible before. This means that new ways of attack, are also possible.

This will be the subject for today. You’ll get a full unload from my rugby brain and where I believe the next frontier of attacking rugby lies. In Part Two, I will discuss my own theoretical pattern to play this game, and why the increasing professionalism of the game will allow this to happen.

The “Fox” Style of Attacking Rugby

The objective of the Fox Pattern is to implement a structure that will allow the capability to go Wide-Wide, over one phase. It is this concept, I believe is the next step in attacking rugby.

The concept requires six key facets of the game to successfully implement.

  1. Immense work-rate to rapidly realign the used side of the field.
  2. Subtlety of the reforming line until the last second.
  3. Detailed and experienced knowledge of Alignment.
  4. Excellent decision making in Two key channels
  5. Proficient use of catch and pass.
  6. Clear communication and hidden switch based running lines.

Visual Tool

To help with the explanation, I’ll introduce you to one of my tools.

The Grid Fox Pattern

The above image is the grid breakdown I use. Each channel has its own code word, as LC/LB/LA after a while can be figured out by a smart team!

After every phase in attack, we must scan and shout the areas where the opposition is undermanned, and the same for us in defence. Using these code words, which most teams mistake for a move or player, we are able to quickly identify the two undermanned channels, that we can attack at any one time. This is an important concept; the idea is to NEVER attack one channel alone.

Code words:

LC: LuCky
LB: LiBby
LA: LArry
RA: RAlph
RB: RoBbo
RC: RiCky

Fox Pattern Example

The “C” channels denote the Wings, but as we always attack 2 channels, we will have the channel next to it, “B” having running options in as well. This enables us to maintain the undermanned numbers in C by committing B.

If we’re on Ralph and are to attack Robbo, we will also in turn attack Ricky. This is because as we attack Robbo, players will move over from Ricky to fill in Robbo. Meaning Ricky will fast become the undermanned channel to target. As we have attacked channels, our players are running flat at Ricky and offering themselves as catch and pass options to target it.

Engage the Drift Defence

Now that we know the codes and grids, we must secondly understand, that the opposition drift defence, must be engaged to successfully employ the Fox Pattern. Because of this, we must know at any one point, the circumstances, the makeup of the line, and how many passes at which any opposition will switch from their Rush to Drift defence. As this will give us the invaluable information on where, and how much time we have to realign to apply Fox.

When a drift is engaged, very few times does the whole field remain connected. If a ball has gone From LA through to RC on an overlap, by the end, RC maybe well numbered, but those numbers have come from RA-RB. Therefore RA-RB can on the same phase, be hugely undermanned, as the players to fill it are still jogging over from LB-LA.

Knowing where a drift will happen, allows us to plan ahead for the eventual space. Let us take a look at some examples…

Drift 1 Example

Fox Pattern Drift Funnel 1

As we can see here, the French have drifted out heavily. In their haste to cover Lucky (LC), they have inadvertently created an incredibly undermanned Larry. As the inside defence has not remained connected.

Fox Pattern Drift Funnel 2

Ben Smith, due to his sensational skill, is able to use his footwork to exploit this gap.

Drift 2 Example

Fox Pattern Drift and Funnel 3

This is off set piece. I believe that set piece development of this concept will be seen before multi-phase development, due to the gap naturally created between forwards and backs.

As we can see, 12 AB’s are in the Ralph – Ricky Grids. All of them are looking one way, and completely ignoring Larry – Lucky. The Lions, on the other hand, have 7 players in these channels, against 3 All Blacks. This particular image perfectly illustrates the dynamics of the Fox Pattern and how it comes together. We will study this example later in “The Pattern”.

Note

A key observation I want to note here is that in all of the slides the men within the used lines of the attack, are following the “Black Arrows” to get back into their pattern for the NEXT phase. They are moving over to either form the ruck, or organise into their patterns, be it 2-4-2 or a 1-3-3-1.

This re-positioning speed is admirable, but the Fox Pattern is one step ahead of this.

The Fox Pattern works on the principle that these players are quickly following the Black Arrows to align along the Green Line. This is under the guise of forming their pattern for next phase, until prompted with a reverse/scissors (Blue Arrow). When the reverse happens, they’re in position to switch from Black to Green running lines immediately.

This means receiving the pass from the scissors runner, and due to the earlier speed of re-positioning, running rapidly at the disconnect on the SAME phase. This is done at an alignment that allows for catch and pass. This means no ruck, NO time for the defence to adjust, and multiple players against few defenders.

In the next article, we will go through the pattern, as well as the technicalities, and requirements for it to work.

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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.

12 COMMENTS

  1. I have been developing an idea built around splitting the field into 5 channels that sometimes are 7, but more as a reference for players:
    left wide channel (“wide, 15s or channel 3” with an optional “wing channel”)
    3 middle channels (“10 or channel 1”, “12 or channel 2” and “13 or channel bis”)
    right wide channel (“wide, 15s or channel 3” with an optional “wing channel”)

    Wide channels are repeated because they are mirrored (left and right) and wing channels are optional channels that I will explain later. 10s and 13s to are mirrored to, because 10s and 13s channel are the transition zones between the actual middle (12s channel) and 15m channels. As I return to play in the middle from a wide left ruck my 1st playmaker would stand in the 10s channel (left middle), my 2nd playmaker in the 12s channel (exact middle) and my eventual 3rd playmaker would stand in the 13s channel (right middle). So if you return to middle from a right wide ruck it would be the opposite: 1st playmaker in 10s channel (right middle) my 2nd playmaker in the 12s channel (exact middle) and my eventual 3rd playmaker would stand in the 13s channel (left middle), but my 3rd playmaker would be a different player, that’s why 10s and 13s channel are the same space, what changes the name and player involved is where the ball comes from.

    Also splitting the players into different groups and roles.
    The first thing is using an 6 forwards pack in place of 8.
    Using a 1st playmaker in a pivotal role (10s channel), and a 2nd playmaker as a link in the middle (12s channel). They can switch roles depending on the side of the field the ball comes.
    Leaving the rest of the personel occupying a spaces in this way:
    13s channel: 2 backs occupy the 3rd playmaker role on each side
    And then 15s and Ws channels would be occupy by the other 2 backs and the other 2 fws.
    wide and wing channels.
    That means if you are counting well that the main idea of the system is having two backlines at the same time. The only realignment comes from the playmkers (10 and 12 roles) while the rest of those 6 wide players will create two 13-15-WING structures in each side of the field and staying there.

    That would mean that the other 2 forwards will be occupying a kind of a back roles. Sound like 1-3-3-1 right, but in place of fixing fwds in each flank, they actually would realign together or split depending on how we started our 1st phase set move. That can create to mixed attacking lines or a weak-side (pure backs) and a strong-side (wide fwd together)
    So it could be 1-3-3-1 or 2-3-3. But actually seeing that s a 5 channel system it could be 1-(3-3-0)-1 or
    2-(3-3-0)-0 (the “0s” stands for no forwards there). But also it could be 1-(2-2-2)-1, 2-(2-2-2)-0, 1-(3-2-1)-1 or 2-(3-2-1)-0. Changing the shape of the core forwards allowing multiple options and different support structures to be more efficient against contest and no-contest defenses.

    Wide channels are basically divided into a “wide channel” per se or “channel 3” (lets say between the 15m and 5m) and a “wing channel” (5m to touch line that works as an optional channel that I want to avoid for obvious reasons I will explain and only would be attacked if there’s a clear overlap that drives into a clean break). Anyway, players around the wide channels work together in support for ball conservation. The main difference between both of them it’s the fact of what options I can built from the ruck created.
    If the ruck is in that “Wing channel” we lose option to have a blindside playable for lack of space (that’s why probably you see wingers running inside when there’s no clean break opportunity). The system by itself doesn’t have an structure to support blindisde attacks, the blindside option would be something I like to call “breaking the system” where it becomes a pure and genuine x factor decision making. But the main idea is to force the defense to cover those 5 to 10 metres with at least 2 or 3 players, transforming them into residual defenders that wouldn’t play the openside and wouldn’t fold in time phase after phase because of pace and the amount of LQB’s we want to create in the midfield.

    It’s pretty complex to explain it with words, so check this video explaning the main idea. It’s built around a basic pattern of it.

    https://drive.google.com/file/d/1-IUzVfPKxNy4aDi9tn2XoGyKpkS__UWT/view?usp=drivesdk

    Of course the system is built around freedom and decision making. Each playmaker decides individually from each fwd structure. The only idea of the multiple set ups is creating multiple options and support options to keep possession of the ball if necessary, but remember, there’s nothing better than a 0 second ruck.

  2. Damn Brian. That’s pretty heavy and impressive! You’re also much much better than me at the use of graphics. I could only wish mine in the next article looked as streamlined or as good as yours.

    I like the break up of the way you’ve assigned the pods and positioning. Is there freedom however for the Pods to constrict and maybe take up 1-2 channels rather than 3-5? Particularly amongst the forwards? Or are they always assigned to the 3 centre channels?

    Correct me if i’m wrong of course. The gameplan seems built for wide play and movement across the field in particular, with the 10-12-13 all being proficient playmakers and able to take the back pass and pass to the next channel if wanted.

    One thing I think however, as you have an abundance of playmakers. You could defo run a blindside attack if you wanted.

    If you’ve run this structure and have got the opposition expecting side to side with either a 31 or 33 Pattern, you could coax the oppo into overloading the open and strike the blind pretty effectively.

    My next All Blacks perfect article is entirely based on this concept. The 20 blind and 5 metre channel is such a vulnerability for them properly targeted. I think if you wanted too. You could have the set up at 0:05, 9 could run sideways open and run a switch play to the 10, who in turn would be running back blind using 6 as a screen runner/loop option. You combine that with the defence already expecting you to go open, the 1st 3 pod holding in as many attackers as possible, the 2nd 3 pod running hard as well to coax reload speed from blind to open and the 15/14 on the blind as the speed men receiving the pass off 10 flat. Add it all up. That could be damn effective. If they’re caught. You still have the 12 who can step in as 1st receiver on the next phase.

    You’d need at least one flanker to be positioned on the wing at all times to run it with ball security. But it would give the option for you to target all areas of the field at once whilst maintaining ball retention.

    • I forgot to say that the complete system is built around 2 systems.
      This is the wide-wide or spread shape and the other one is the same way/compressed shape, aka the classic forwards movement free shaped and conducted by the 9 (pick and go and one out vertical runners between 1st and 2nd defender). This idea came after watching the all blacks lions series. The all blacks playing Warren ball/brumby mode made me understand that if your forwards only play wide-wide you are screw and predictable, like Australia. But if you only play warrenball/brumby mode you are screw as well, like the lions all the games before playing crusaders and the all blacks.
      That’s why I talked about a 6 forwards pack. After watching tons of modern rugby I realized that a lot of pro teams look for a more efficient work rate of the forward pack, at least here in Argentina that’s what pumas/jaguares do. We called the 6 forwards “infanteria” (spanish for infantry), and the other 2 wide forwards “carrileros”.
      The “infanteria” can play compress (1-6-1) or spread (1-3-3-1) depending on the situation.
      So playing a compress forward pack can buy time to realign your pure backline by positions because playing compress and sameway allow your forwards to play more than just the 2 phases a 3-3 set up allows you before you go wide. That allows you to use more complex back moves, because the main reason on why we built two mixed attack lines each side is the pace we want to create through LQBs in the midfield. It probably can only give you no more than 10 to 15 seconds (no more than 2 rucks of 2-3 seconds plus 2 or 3 seconds while the ballcarrier battles on feet) to realign your pure backline by position and not by roles. Imagine being a 13 or a 15 running 50 to 60 metres every 10 seconds to realign.
      Then the other 2 forwards would work freely, being involved in the narrow attack or stay wide.

      The thing about blindsides is that at least for me, the main goal is to force defense to put players there just in case, and attacking them is the exception, but an exception that can be a game changer. But not as part of a game system, it’s more like a free license to creative players, it’s like a 9 running through the pillars or a 10 selling a dummy.
      Imagine your wide ball carrier is tackled behind the gainline and you only use 1 support for the ruck, the 2nd support hears a call for the 9, 10 or the 12 to play the short blindside from just not a 2-3 seconds ruck, but a 1-2 seconds ruck. That 2nd support pick the ball like a 9, passes it, and then you attack with those 2 or 3 player in those 5 to 10 metres. Pure heads up rugby.
      Other situation, the ruck is made wide. Your 10 sees that the defense is not covering the short side because you haven’t shown any threat, you forced them to adapt. He calls for the ball there.
      That’s why I like the concept of a 10 not getting involved behind the second pod after the return to midfield. I like the idea of a scanning 10 both flanks in case he reads a switch move, like you said, let’s say behind the ruck. Also he can work as a inside option for the 2nd playmaker (Pumas does this with Sanchez and Bofelli). Imagine McKenzie running inside of Barrett or viceverse, but I think they all ready do that.
      The system is built around a dual playmaker, let’s say 10 and 12, more cerebral playmakers.
      And two secondary wide playmakers with good offloading skills or pace or both, like a 13 and 15. They are occasionaly playmkers if there’s a situation to relief the 10s role. Like jack goodhue does a couple times in saders.
      Imagine playing with Carter, Nonu Conrad Smith and Ben Smith at 10-12-13-15.
      Or Mounga, Crotty, Goodhue and Havili.
      That’s the main idea in a certain way.

      Of course is more efficient in terms of secure the ball having wide forwards split, but I believe that as Eddie Jones said, we are not to close to see backs playing flankers, at least technically in the breakdown. I don’t see it as far as we think. If forwards can pass the ball then probably backs can clean as well as them.

    • The calls you probably gonna need are:

      For set the order of the fws:
      >”3-3-0 set up” code
      >”3-2-1 set up” code
      >”2-2-2 set up” code
      (Wide-wide/spread set ups are the main attacking shapes/system, meaning that we only are going to need a call to re-spread)

      For decision making asked by the playmaker:
      >”ask for a backdoor pass” code
      >”tell the forwards to crash” code
      >”ask the ball from the 9 directly without a pod intervention using them as screen” code

      For game direction:
      >naturally you will attack the same way so there’s no code
      >”switch direction” code
      >”break the system and attack the blindside” code

      For wide attacks lines:
      >for simple hand to hand attack in only one layer there’s no need for a call.
      >”screen pass option” code
      >”double round option” code

      Then to switch to compress the forwards attack:
      >”a code to compress the pack”
      >”pick and go” code
      >”off 9 vertical one out runner” code
      >”ball to the backline so they can make a set move and we can de-compress the forwards and re-spread again” code

      And too a code for free shape attack after clean break to keep momentum, but more as a general game idea than a call by itself.

      Then of course you gonna need a code for kicking game

      >”box kick” code
      >”crossfield kick” code
      >”grubber behind the defense” code
      >”high bomb in the middle” code

      Between pods interconnection it’s pure decision making and heads up. So 10 after a backdoor can pass flat to the next pod of forwards or use them as a screen and pass it deep to the 12 without a code, only just a call for the 12 saying “deep” or “flat”, for example.

      In my philosophy, once the ball is alive there’s no more codes, it’s simple communication.

      • Hard to argue with the codes! I’d have one for interplay within the pods as well, but that would be up to the decision making of the forwards themselves. I’d also add one or two for zone between forwards and backs, preferably the 15 coming into the line to receive the inside pass off either of the pods or the playmaker out back who can target the transition zone post back pass from his forward pods. Though it does help to try to keep it as simple as possible. Though at the higher levels that is harder to do.

        Good to hear you have got a constrict option however. Mixing and matching is defo key. Otherwise you do wind up like Australia. Which is why I’m so keen on hugely angled out to in runs. As they deceive the defensive line to stretch before massively constricting them.

        A 1-6-1 is fairly familiar to what we ran during my school days. Our coach would have the entire pack bar our 7 who was damn rapid placed in one-2 channels as options off 9, which we called our Punch group. We’d then split the field. Our 15 would position behind the punch group, 10 on the Open, 12 (Me) on the blind, and the rest of our backs/7 lined up on one side with a Winger always assigned to my side. I could pull a forward out into my line if I wanted. But that wasn’t the default. The Forwards would usually take the hard flat passes/ reverse and scissors passes off the 9, with me and the 10/15 running outside options with our assigned backs/forwards to try and coax the fringe D to drift early.

        Once we had them thinking it was just a trucking game and had constricted, we’d start running first receiver on our respective sides and rely on the D’s over-excessive drift to draw the fringes out before running an inside or switch play with our forward carriers/15 to target the hole.

        If the try was defo on and wanted wide, we’d call where the space was and move it to said area on the blind or open dependent on where the overlap was. If it was on the blind, 10 had the autonomy to come round and take over if he wanted, and also had a routine call for bringing me and 15 into his line if he saw the need for it. (That usually happened when the blind attack had worked or we’d gained massive ground close to the 20metre lines). I could only pull the 15 and one forward into my line if I wanted. Mainly for the inside pass. If we went blind to my wing, dependent on where I was I’d (more than most) act as 1st receiver and he’d call the punch or wide play on the next phase, and I’d act accordingly. There were SO many times I’d run the punch group to prepare the open wide play and I wanted to go back Blind. But as 10 he won out. I am a huge huge fan of the switch and blindside attack. Which is why i’m keen on keeping it in. If we played that wide play, we usually made ground. Then dependent on where we were or what the 10 wanted I could take over the blind, or stay on the open if he wanted a quick run at the blind, whoever didn’t do it would, reassign the punch group to the the best channel and go again until we established our lines again.

        Basically, the 10,12,15 were all located on the flanks and behind the punch group, and we could all move to one side if the 10 called it or chose to come my side, which meant we’d have numbers. Then we had our trick plays. Where 10-15 could align open dragging defenders over and i’d receive the flat pass to the blind. Putting the winger in space. It gave us the structure to constrict and stretch the defence as we saw fit, before constricting again and going through, and also made ball retention easy as the forwards didn’t have far to go unless the ball went wide over one phase.

        It had its downsides in that the 15 couldn’t be used at the end of the line, but it meant we conserved energy quite nicely as we weren’t switching sides all the time, and could overload a particular channel very very easily. I like that philosophy, in broken play it should just be everyones a support player. And I feel thats where the All blacks often excel. That ability to play instinctively on the break is just a joy to behold.

  3. I just about followed the article but you lost me in the comments! I will have to come back to them when my brain recovers and I have a day to work through them!

    Brilliant stuff!

    • Up to Steve mate. I wrote it at the same time and its ready for release but with the site being on the slow burner at the moment i can’t say.

      • Do you have any good resources (books, websites, youtube, etc.) you would recommend to learn more about tactics and strategy?

        • Sorry mate. Most of my insights and opinions on how to play were coach taught and what i learnt from experience. If you want a couple of good rugby books, id recommend Total Rugby by Jim Greenwood and One Step Ahead by Rod MacQueen.

          Very few places will give up trade secrets and the details of attacking patterns, but Total Rugby is probably the closest you’ll get to it in terms of skill development and improvement for coaching philosophies. As for One Step Ahead, that book and The Art of War changed my entire perspective on how Rugby could and should be played. Would recommend those two more than any!

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