2016 was not a good year for the Springboks.

In their attack, I couldn’t work out what they were doing, what their game plan or structure was.

Defence? Questionable by the ability for first phase tries to be scored against them. And in general, I was struggling to see any form of structure behind their play. But, the SARU made a wise choice, held an Indaba, and sought help for the under-fire Head Coach, Allister Coetzee.

They brought in the famed Brendan Venter, responsible for the start of Saracens dominance in the Aviva Premiership. He was joined by Franco Smith, an attack coach who knows what he’s doing. And suddenly, we start to see the emergence of attacking play that we didn’t see in 2016. This came to the forefront in the series against the French. This was of course; the 1-3-3-1 System.

It cannot be denied that it has improved the Boks immeasurably, however, if they become too dependent on it, it will not be enough against the best. And by the best I mean the All Blacks, my beloved England, and Ireland.

A lot of it has to come from the way these teams now defend.

1-3-3-1 becoming more common

There are two attack patterns that are commonly used across the Southern Hemisphere. These are the Kiwi 2-4-2 System, and the 1-3-3-1 used by the Boks and Australia. It should also be noted that the Northern Hemisphere is not immune to this pattern. The 1-3-3-1 pattern is often used by Ireland and France.

This is not to say that the 1-3-3-1 pattern isn’t ever used by the All Blacks, it is, and very effectively (in the right situation). However, the 1-3-3-1 is a pattern used most effectively where the plan is to keep the game relatively tight. It’s best used when teams don’t intend going from touchline to touchline. Instead, teams that wish to go anywhere from 3-4 phases across the field whilst planning for the next attack.

The 1-3-3-1 setup.
The 1-3-3-1 setup.

The reason behind this is that a 1-3-3-1 breaks the field into more pods than are required for a wide-wide pattern. This is primarily due to the distance between the pods.

Say you have gone wide with a three-phase move across the field, and now want to reach the other touchline over one phase. You’ll, of course, have pre-programmed plays to do so. The following is an example of how this may work…

  • 9 passes to the 10
  • 10 passes to the 1st3 pod
  • 1st “3 pod” passes to the 15 (waiting behind)
  • 15 passes to the 2nd3 pod
  • 2nd3 pod” passes to the wing

What I have just described occurs over one phase.

Giving defence time

Due to the way the field is broken up, the passes between the pods and behind them may not be long enough to get around the fulcrum of a rush defence in time. This allows the defence to either read the play and smash through the “3 pod” screens. Or, allows the rush defence used by Ireland, the All Blacks and England, to catch the offence on the inside of their umbrella shape. This means the ball may only be reaching the 15 (in the example above), and therefore cuts off the 2nd3 pod” and space out wide.

Too cluttered?

Basically, the 1-3-3-1 structure is too cluttered in a wide-wide attack. It is geared towards three or four phases across the field, rather than one to quickly exploit space on the far touchline. If there was space on the opposite touchline, getting the ball there in one phase allows you to exploit it better. Exploit it more quickly.

Because the 1-3-3-1 is more geared towards 3-4 phases, across the field, it allows the defence to contest rucks, gain more time to number up and nullify that space on the opposite touchline. If it was to be effective as wide-wide, the amount of depth that the 2nd3 pod” and outside backline requires is difficult to maintain. The depth needs to be held to allow players to run effectively onto the ball from the prior passes. This means that even if the ball does get to wide channels the defence has ample time to drift. This stops the attacking team making enormous inroads.

With this setup, you essentially have 5 layers of depth:

  • A “3 pod” as the first receiver
  • A 10 behind this pod as the second receiver
  • The second “3 pod” off the 10 as a third
  • And a playmaker behind as the fourth receiver to feed it out to a backline

All of these players/pods have to be in a position of depth to run onto the ball or receive it from behind a pod. As such, each layer of depth only allows greater time for a defence to drift.

The Springboks

Now, the Springbok management has been aware of this. You can see it in the first three minutes of the 27-27 game between the Springboks and the Wallabies.

The Springboks only used the first “3 pod“, and then went wide immediately through a line of backs and one forward decoy runner. All of whom made inroads. At this point, the second “3 pod” wasn’t further down the line. It was on the blindside touchline to the blind of the 1st 3 pod. The one forward on the openside helped secure the ball, and then using the same line of backs, they moved the ball back to the other touchline immediately. They secured the ball using the set of forwards close to the touchline, passed out to the “3 pod” again, before going wide immediately to the backs. It was in effect, a punch-wide-wide pattern.

They repeated this process and made over 40 metres doing it, but it had two flaws:
One, The Wallabies do not employ the Farrell-style defence like the ABs do, and as such, they were allowed to go wide.
Two, the Springbok backs were standing quite deep, and as such, were caught out wide before they made any try-scoring breaks.

Against teams that keep the line speed coming, as was seen against the All Blacks in Albany, the ball reached the backs, but the defensive line was already upon them. This results in them being caught behind the gain line, which in turn stops any attacking chance to the wing.

The 2-4-2 alternative

The 2-4-2 system requires a little more skill to implement and it looks as though the All Blacks are working towards perfecting it.

Rather than having 5 layers of players standing at different depths with the 1-3-3-1 pod system to get the ball wide, you’ll have the “4 pod” in the middle of the field. This pod plays very flat off Barrett after the ball has gone wide. The backline further out to the open-side of the “4 pod” can stand very flat off the “4 pod” due to the wide forwards in the 2-4-2 system usually integrating with the backline. This creates a flatter line. Flatter in the sense there are only two layers of players at depth to each other.

But hang on you say? If the line is that much flatter, surely the rush defence would smash them before the ball ever got wide? And as was shown by the Lions Tour, this did happen. However, another benefit of the 2-4-2 system is that it is operated by Smith and Barrett, both excellent long passers.

Beating a rush defence

The way to beat the rush defence is to stand your backline outside of the “4 pod” a little deeper. Essentially play 2 out, and don’t be afraid to hit the fringes with quick ball to try and stifle line speed before moving it wide. The 2-4-2 System isn’t as cluttered and allows longer passes to be used.

The Lions did a very effective job of shutting the All Blacks down.
© Copyright photo: Andrew Cornaga / www.Photosport.nz

This means in a wide-wide pattern, the passes you could have in a 2-4-2 are:

  • 9 passes to the “4 pod
  • 4 pod passes to the 10 who is behind them
  • 10 passes to the backline and out to the wing

The ball always moves faster than the man, and therefore by throwing miss-passes across the field, you are cutting out players. Cutting out players gets the ball wider faster. Faster than the defence is able to cut off. The 2-4-2 System means in 2 passes technically you can get across the field, and therefore, with good use of decoy runners and the right levels of depth, it is very effective for playing expansively and getting around press defences.

This is why I feel the All Blacks have an extra string to their bow. And in a game where the press defence is becoming very very popular, teams are going to have to learn how to beat it. The 1-3-3-1 is too cluttered to do so. And as the old adage says, “Adapt or Die“.

Allister is going to have to pull another rabbit out of the hat to keep the Springbok game moving forward.

Photos: www.photosport.nz


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.


  1. Great article. I think the biggest thing from your article to step up to the 2-4-2 there has to be a better skill set. The South African skill set is improving, and only when they have got to a level then they can start to implement additional systems.
    Skill is not always only based in extra training, but also belief. South Africa are not there yet, to start believing they can do the things New Zealand can do with the ball.
    It is almost like the AB’s operate on a muscle memory level, and this gives them the opportunity to play heads up Rugby and so they can adapt.
    I agree with you South Africa need something more.
    I have learned so much with the videos and articles from this site.

  2. Conor I am so impressed with your articles, this is the kind of thing I love to read- as someone who doesn’t understand rugby to this degree its exactly what I am looking for. Cheers!

    • Hi April,

      Thank you very much for your comment! Always awesome to hear people are liking and picking up bits about the game from them.

      Loved your article on the NZ Media as well. I love articles by Gregor Paul, Marc Hinton and many other NZ writers. But after a trend I saw on a string of articles insulting teams and individual players, I refuse now to click on any link that has one particular NZ writer listed as the author out of principle, whom I think is a perfect example of what you’ve described.

      We have them as well in the Mail as you so aptly described. Claiming England are the next World Beaters, are going to smash the AB’s. These guys are not learning from prior mistakes (2015 RWC), and it just screams of plain idiocy.

      But again, thanks very much for the compliment! 🙂


  3. Actually there’s a secret behind the 2-4-2 set up. If you look, somtimes the “4 pod” splits into 2 pods, with some of the backs working behind, like that rugby league screen pass shape where the forward that recieves has the chance to either pop to another forward or use a back to make a block pass. This allows them to adapt when the situation requires to be more vertical than wide, mostly when you have backs like SBW to hit the midfield. So you can have two phases in the midfield to create that LQB (lighting quick ball) that really creates the overlap to attack weak shoulders in the wide, that means a perfect situation to look for an offload or even a clean break.
    One of the greatest problems with Blackeder’s Crusaders was that they were too lateral with that system. But Hansen phylosophy along with Wayne Smith’s Game Sense aproach give them more weapons to mutate that shape when they need it. The greatest difference between the All Blacks and the rest is not about skills, is about decision making. It’s not about knowing how to shoot but knowing when to.

    • Hey Brian, Thanks for the comment.

      I mentioned the interplay between the 4 pod in one of my previous articles, I confess though i’ve never seen the Screen pass interplay between two “2” pods done in the middle of the field. The closest I’ve seen is a “4” pod player passing behind the screen to a back using the two players in the 4 pod to the left of him as decoy runners. I have seen the play you described in 2014 against the Wallabies when the AB’s came from behind to win, (Mackenzie’s last game in charge), but it was done on the 15 metre line.

      One thing I’m curious about what you mean though, do you mean that the 2 “2” pods should go into contact and interplay when there is already a wing overlap? Or that they should go into this system to create an overlap? As if there’s already an overlap. The best option would be to shuttle the ball on from the 4 pod immediately as to allow less time for the defence to contest at the ruck, and number up on said overlap. Have you got a Youtube Vid of this play in action at all?

  4. Here’s an example of the that split during the last game against boks
    Coming back to the middle:


    Smith chooses to use the forwards as a screen and passes right to Barrett. Then he passes to the other two forwards and this shape happens:


    Two forwards and a back running from behind (Scott Barrett, Laulala and Mckenzie).
    What I meant was that sometimes you need to work a little more the midfield to create the space in the width. Test rugby defences are better in the one-one tackle situations. You can go wide only hitting once the middle, but sometimes you are not able to involve defenders in both ruck and blindside to really hurt in the wide/same way you are attacking. That flexibility is what makes them unpredictable.

  5. Nice! Thanks mate. I’ll be honest I’ve never seen this formation before. I agree with most of your points in principle, and I may be totally misunderstanding here, but in the scenario above. The boks are relatively well numbered up. My argument is if out wide the All Blacks had a 3/4 on 1 overlap. The removal of midfield contact, and Barrett shifting onto Mackenzie, rather than Laulala in this case would be better. As the space could be exploited quicker and the Boks wouldn’t be able to contest the “Laulala ruck” and buy time for the defence to number up on said overlap. Is that contradictory to your view or have I got the wrong end of the stick here? From my own perspective, on this, the All Blacks are still relatively flat, and this would be good for Wide-Wide, but I don’t think you could use both pods for just screens. I think at least one of the forward pods (Preferably and admittedly the second) would have to act as a receiving pod to hold the drift.

    I don’t see it working if it went from Smith – Barrett – MacKenzie personally, as not only would Mackenzie have to stand deeper than he was, but once the passes are delivered, the Boks defence can just drift off and start numbering up now that the two pods are offside and out of the attack. I like the fact that Beauden passes flat to Scott, who we can then see commit the defence by taking the ball super flat in two hands and then passing behind to MacKenzie. Stops the drift as well.

    The only thing I would change in this formation however, is Laulala’s line. I know in the 4 pod the pop passes are usually literally 1 metre to the left and right to exploit gaps between defenders. But in your second image. If Laulala was 2-3 metres further out and took a harder inside line. His line would take him to the right of Kitshoff and lead him to running the inside shoulder of D7 just outside him, which would commit D7. If Mackenzie moved out behind Laulalas new line and received the pass at the same depth he is now, D8 has moved forward to try and cut off the wide option, and there is a dog leg right there that a player with MacKenzies acceleration could massively exploit. What do you think?

  6. You are right about going wide instead of hitting the midfield. That’s why they are human. We are looking that specific situation with time to analyze. They have less than a second to see all of that. Remember that Scott Barrett is a lock. Wayne Smith always talks about the gain line and the LQB (fast rucks). That’s one of the All Blacks main principles. First they spread and force the defence to spread as well. And then they start cutting it with fast rucks when they don’t see the chance to go wide. They look for a quick ruck that splits the D to force them to doubt, to create pressure from the attack and of course numbers. That’s their pace, they want to control the pace.
    During that sequence they started from a really wide ruck. For a defence that means less responsibilities, they can be more aggressive because you only have one side to care about. That’s a thing that Owen Farrell said during an interview. He was explaining the Saracens rush defence a couple years before Hurricanes showed it and every team started to copy it. Another rugby league idea brought to the evolution of professional rugby union. First with Phil Larder (2003 England’s defence coach) and today with actual England’s defence coach, Paul Gustard (fun fact: they’re both from Leicester Tigers’ school).

    Aaron uses those first 2 forwards to create space for Beauden from that first rush. That gives time and space to see what to do. He saw the D wasn’t aggressive so he passes flat to his brother. Scott is now the playmaker, he has space and a little of time. He didn’t saw that Serfontein was sitting on his legs and he chosed to pop pass. And you are right too about Laulala line. Probably he’s not as experienced as other forwards running that kind of lines. So, sometimes the defence bites the decoys, creating that dog leg for you to run into that space. Other times they keep their shape and push you out. I believe that’s why is all about the decision you make. That’s “heads up” rugby. Not that French flair “heads up”, but the kiwi “heads up”. Having a system that connects every player and every option, and that’s why they are the best.
    That’s Total Rugby.

    Greets from Argentina

    • Good point. I guess I can’t really critique the All Blacks, but i feel that Ben Smith and Brodie Retallick in that position would’ve picked the right option and passed behind rather than gone for the pop pass.

      But the fact the Scott didn’t make the pass behind was as much Mackenzie’s fault than it was his, and maybe that’s because off a little inexperience at this level. (Which you can’t really complain about really). But all around communication is key. In my teams we break the Field down into 6 segments. LC/LB/LA/RA/RB/RC. And after each phase whether on Attack or defence the whole line has to scan and shout where the defence is least congested or our defence is most compromised. Just so the 10/12 know what to orchestrate and where to put the ball and where we have to number.

      But back to the example, if Mac was screaming for it, maybe Scott would’ve given it, rather than going through the motions. I can’t really complain or know even if the call did go up from him. But with more experience at that level, I imagine they’ll make the right call.

      One thing i think the Lions did well was not spread their defence, to keep it tight in that sarries way and rely on line speed to cut off that outside channel. Explains why the interplays in the midfield didn’t work as much. Too many numbers in that midfield. P.S: Loving this conversation and discussion mate. What i think the 1014 is all about. People from all over the world, able to simply talk Rugby. Greetings from England also!

      • I’m here to learn and if I can, to teach. One of the things i love of this game is to share the knowledge. Game is evolving, rules are changing and we must think it from a different point of view.

        Here’s a thing I’ve working and thinking after seeing some stuff teams did last season. It’s about the game of forwards with the backs in the width. Here’s a pic of Lions using an attacking shape when going wide in something that looks like a 2-4-2 or probably a 1-3-3-1 with both wide forwards in the same side.


        You have a playmaker (Coetzee)
        And multiple passing options

        1->A lead receiver/runner (Kriel) who can run an angle or double round with the playmaker (that’s a tactic I saw in Ireland, there is an article in the web calling it the “Sexton loop” where a forward makes the loop pass)

        2->A backdoor option (Vorster) to exhaust that side using the lead runner as a screen to fix the defence.

        3->A flat winger (Skosan) to go wide from a miss pass if there’s a big overlap.

        #->A support runner (Marx) that reads the passing option (if they go short with the lead runner or if they go wide with the backdoor option)

        4->And an inside back passing option (Mapoe) if there’s an hole in the transition zone (there’s an article around the web too that shows how cheika ball uses the space between the first 2 or 3 defenders after a quick ruck in the midfield)

        That’s a pretty nice multilayer attacking. That’s a tactic I will like to implement. It’s a way to attack after that 4 pod hits in the mid.
        It’s like creating a mini backline using the forwards as centres.

        Hope you find it useful and also improve it.

        • Hey Brian,

          In regards to teaching, its brilliant you want to take that step. Just talking to you its obvious that you know your rugby and have a good feel for the game, so i think you’d be successful if you wanted to go down that road. Everyone has their own brand of Rugby they want to teach. I’m very detail based and incredibly keen on efficiency in our decision making and attack, whereas some coaches coach differently to me i’m sure.

          In regards to the shape you attached, there is a lot of variation in it. I’d understand it’d be needed post 4 hit as the time to organise it could be huge. However, it could be very effective dependent on what option you want to pick. In terms of my views, its nowhere near flat enough, and personally, I’d rather one heavy forward decoy runner running short of Coetzee, and one forward embedded in the line with the two backs with Skosaan flatter to Coetzee for the Miss Pass. Coetzee needs to be taking the ball flatter though. That defence will not be shooting out. That is a hold and drift from the defence through and through. When the ball goes outside that 13 rush, (which Coetzee has managed to do) he should be running straight at D1/D2 outside the rush to draw the men and stop their drift. That leaves 1 last defender whom Kriel can target as a decoy runner or loop as you say (Though more depth would be needed for this). Then the Ball can either be passed behind to the flat line, or, miss pass straight over to Skosaan, with Marx available for the inside pass following through. Both of whom would have the space to exploit.

          All of it however stems from the work of the inside men. Off any phase, your space on the wings comes from the work done by the inside men and Coetzee/Kriel should be taking the ball flat to the line to commit the last defenders before having the ball going behind. Gives them less time to react to the play and gets us over the gainline quicker. That’s just my style, but find it works for Outside runners.


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