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 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 1st “3 pod“
- 1st “3 pod” passes to the 15 (waiting behind)
- 15 passes to the 2nd “3 pod“
- 2nd “3 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 2nd “3 pod” and space out wide.
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 2nd “3 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.
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.
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.
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.