England’s kicking game, France’s abysmal defence and what Wales need to do to counter the English threat

It doesn’t seem that long ago that the knives were out for Eddie Jones as his England team fell to another chastening defeat. Sport is a fickle business though, and just 2 games in to this 6 Nations, England are sweeping all before them and seemingly on an unstoppable route to a Grand Slam.

One prominent feature of their attacking game is their use of kicks behind the opposition’s defensive line – particularly to the corners, to force mistakes and find open space for their wingers to attack.

In England’s 2 games to date, they have scored half their tries (5 of 10) directly from kicks. If you add in another try in the France game that came one phase after a great probing kick in to space and the penalty try that also came from a kick, we can say that 70% of their tries were from accurate and effective kicking.

This article will look at what England are doing, how poor France were in containing the kicking threat and what Wales can do to counter the tactic.

1 minute: May try 

It took just 1 minute for England to notch up their first try in the game against France.

may france 1 try.gif

It’s good play from England. After the turnover, they immediately transfer the ball to one of their creative players (Eliott Daly) who makes good ground through the middle, before kicking over the French defence and allowing May to win the sprint.

Let’s now focus on the French defence and specifically how they defend the space behind their defensive line. This was 1 minute in to the game but we can already see the gaping weaknesses in the French defence that blighted the rest of their performance.

France have the ball. As they lose it in contact, watch the movement of the French players, in particular 9 (Parra), 15 (Huget) and the two wings (11 and 14).

may try still 1

parra huget movement.gif

The clip shows that Parra immediately retires to defend the space at the back on the right and Huget points to their left flank to take up a deep position there. At the top of the screen 14 (Penaud) pushes up, while 11 (Fickou) starts to slowly walk backwards.

This tells us that France defend with two at the back, the scrum half and the full back. So far, there are no big problems but as Daly makes more ground Parra (defending on the right) has a choice to make – does he keep retreating to cover the space behind him, or does he come forward to meet the Daly threat?

parra pushes up.gif

As the clip shows, he ends up being caught between the two decisions. He doesn’t quite trust the players in front of him to deal with the Daly running threat, so he stands his ground and prepares to close in for a tackle. By standing his ground he then opens up the space behind him, and Daly places a clever kick right in to this undefended zone.

parra space still

Parra doesn’t have the pace to turn and keep up with May and once the balls stays in play a try was a certainty.

Parra’s decision to hold his ground is understandable given the ground Daly had made and the fact France only had forwards trying to make a tackle on Daly. The main issue is the space behind Parra, and this should have been covered by Huget, who was also supposed to be defending the space at the back.

Huget is primarily a wing, so perhaps his poor positining and anticipation stems from his lack of game time in the full back role, but as the attack went down France’s right hand flank, he should have been moving across to support Parra, with Fickou on the near-side Wing filling in Huget’s old position in the back-left slot.

The camera angle doesn’t give us a great view of Huget’s movement as the move develops, so we can just pick him up as Daly chips the ball on the right. From the moment Daly picked the ball up, England attacked down the centre and the French right hand flank and yet Huget has still to make it to half way across the pitch.

At the top of the still we can see Penaud (14) is tracking his wing back (May) but get’s badly done for pace (or general interest!) and easily loses the race back to the ball. Fickou has barely moved from his wing.

huget positining still


21 minutes: kick that eventually leads to May’s 2nd try

This is very hard to defend against. England have a scrum about 40 metres out from the French line towards the far touchline.

We don’t get a great view of the French setup in its entirety, but the still below shows where the French backs eventually align to defend the scrum. Huget is very wide and deep, while 10 (Lopez) and 14 defend the short side against two English attackers. Effectively they line up 1 to 1.

21 mins set up.jpg

Watch the movement of Youngs (England 9) and Parra around the scrum as the move develops.

21 mins kick.gif

When we talk about details being important at test level, this is the sort of thing that we mean. England had the put-in to this scrum, so Parra would normally be defending on the far side, which would give him easy access to attack Daly when he took the ball.

Instead, Youngs moves around to the open side and Parra follows him. Not only does Parra follow him, but he takes up a position in the defensive line and then has to track back to support Penaud. The fact Parra follows Youngs means that when Daly gets the ball he has plenty of time to pick his spot and execute a perfect kick, again hitting that space behind the winger.

As Daly gets the ball, let’s look at the French positioning.  Lopez (10) has gone to meet Daly, Penaud (14) has dropped back already to scramble back and Parra (9) is tracking the ball. Huget (15) is out of the game because he is defending so wide.

chip back still

The kick was executed perfectly, staying just infield and forcing France to clear from their own try line.

What could France have done better? Parra could have stayed on the far side of the scrum and taken Daly, so allowing Penaud to sit deeper or alternatively he could have retreated behind the scrum and covered the area behind the wing.


28 minutes: chaos from a kick leads to May’s 3rd try

England have had multiple phases on the French 22m line without really making much headway, when a stray Youngs’ pass from the base of the ruck results in Slade putting up a high kick. As the kick is made here’s the French positioning in the back field.

28 mins kick still

We now see the familiar sight of Parra (9) in the sweeping role, but this time he is the only player defending the space at the back; Fickou on this side is still stuck on his wing, while Huget (15) – perhaps thinks he is back on the wing, hugs the far touchline behind Penaud (14).

The kick isn’t particularly good but the combination of Parra failing to catch it and the defensive disorganisation results in a fairly simple try for May (after another chip through in to space).

28 mins try.gif

This is truly shambolic stuff. Leaving aside Parra’s poor attempt at catching the ball, it’s the lack of communication and organisation between Parra and Huget that is France’s downfall in this move.

Huget’s initial positioning is wrong, but as he sees Parra come forward to take the ball he should have one thing on his mind, which is to go back and fill the space Parra vacated. Instead Huget follows the ball and gets sucked even further forward.  A clever kick then identifies the space that Huget should be filling and it’s a simple try.

Not even a casual, accusatory glance inside from Huget can disguise this was very poor defending from an experienced test player.

This try came from a combination of a high kick – where the full back (or sweeping player) comes forward to take the ball, followed by a grubber kick through in to the space vacated by the sweeper. Let’s call it England’s 1-2 sucker punch. Hold that thought.


38 minutes: More defensive apathy and disorganisation leads to Slade’s try

It gets worse for France. As we head towards half time, France kick the ball away and Owen Farrell puts up a high kick in midfield. France fail to deal with the kick and from the resulting grubber through the defence, England move the ball wide for Slade to score.

38 mins shambles.gif

This try sums up France’s lack of organisation, decision making under pressure and general apathy towards defence.

As Farrell’s kick goes up, France have 3 players defending the back field, with Parra just out of picture, Picamoles at the top of the screen and Huget walking back nearest the camera.

38 mins try still.jpg

If we look at what happens when the ball comes down, we can see the root of France’s problem for this try.

picamoles drop.gif

Picamoles makes a hash of catching the ball (France barely took one catch from a high kick all afternoon), but who is this that appears at the breakdown as Lawes takes the ball on….it’s Parra!

So France did have 3 players covering the back – Picamoles has come forward in an attempt to take the catch, Parra for some reason has followed him in and decided to stay at the breakdown, rather than retreat to sweep again…..that must mean Huget (or perhaps one of the wings) has filled the space at the back? Let’s look.

38 mins chip still

After setting up the ruck, England – through a nice kick from Ben Youngs identified the space behind the French defensive line and Farrell and a few others flood the gap. Huget is nowhere to be seen and we can just catch Fickou making some attempt to scramble back.

It’s good awareness from Youngs but where is Huget?

Here he comes, slowly retreating to fill the space he should have filled a lot earlier.

huget slow 1.gif

Hang on. The clip above shows him coming in to shot with 39.07 on the clock, and he’s just crossed the 15m line.  If we go back up a few stills we see him at 38.55 walking back after Farrell’s high kick. In 12 seconds he has barely covered 20 metres. So what happened to him?

The answer comes from re-winding back to 38.14 when France had possession 30 metres out from their line and Lopez passed the ball to Huget. Huget ignores his wing in acres of space and smashes in to the English defenders. He may have been slightly injured in that tackle (or more likely fatigue), but to buy himself some time to recover he flops on to the next ruck!

huget slow 2.gif

Later, when Farrell puts up the high kick, Huget is virtually in the same spot at that breakdown, and we see him slowly walking back. It seems like he didn’t have the fitness or desire to get back in to the 15 position where he could have prevented the try.

If we step back and look at this try, we see it’s the England 1-2 sucker punch tactic again!

A high ball isn’t caught by the opposition and the grubber kick through hits the space that the player who attempted to catch the ball vacated. It’s that same pattern again; bring the sweeper in for the high kick, then chip in to the space left behind. Simple but effective.


What this means for Wales

This 1-2 sucker punch tactic has caught Wales out in recent times. In last year’s 6 Nations England v Wales fixture, Wales failed to catch a high kick, the ball then fell to Owen Farrell who put through a grubber kick for Jonny May to run on to. Exactly the same approach as we saw in the France game.

gif may try

Wales’ weaknesses for this try were also a carbon copy of Frances; a catcher fails to take the ball and the supporting back field player gets drawn towards the ball and fails to defend the space he has been assigned.

There are two areas for concern for Wales in relation to this kick tactic. The first is that Leigh Halfpenny, arguably the best defensive full back in world rugby, still isn’t available to play following concussion related problems stemming from the autumn internationals.

His likely replacement, Liam Williams, offers a more offensive threat but doesn’t have the same postional sense or discipline to make the right defensive decisions at the right times.

The second issue is that although Wales generally has an excellent defence, if there is a weakness it’s around the decision making of the back 3. This article looked at some of the poor decision making over the last season or two, and in game week 1 of this 6 Nations we saw George North again fail to make te right decision in defence, which led to a simple French try.

Wales will however have much better organisation and desire to win than France.  They also usually defend with 2 players at the back – usually the full back and the outside half. If the outside half pushes up – for example Biggar kicks high and long, then it’s usually the job of the scrum half to drop back in to Biggar’s vacated position.

Wales impressive back line blitz also reduces the chances of the ball going wide, which allows the full back to stand more centrally and sweep behind the defensive line. We often saw Huget standing 5-10 metres from the touchline when defending deep. This opens up the field in the centre of the pitch to the chip kick.

Wales can also look at some of the tactics used by England and adopt them for their own use. The kick from the scrum in behind the winger was particularly effective and very difficult to counter, if the kick is accurate and the right length.

Expect more of the same offensive kicking from England in Cardiff in 2 weeks’ time, but Wales can’t complain they haven’t been warned. It’s now down to Wales to work on the organisation around defending these types of kicks in order to nullify England’s attack.


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Ireland v England Review: England win the kicking dual and Manu Tuilagi – worth a gamble?

England’s Kicking Game

The first few minutes of the game were a precursor for how the rest of the contest panned out. England’s forwards and inside backs were aggressive and dominant on the gain line and their half backs won the kicking contest.

After the early English try, Ireland kicked a long restart. England caught the ball and played one pass in field to open up the kicking angle. Ben Youngs then plays two exquisite kicks which took England from the own 22m line to inside Ireland’s 22m.

This is the sort of accurate kicking that has been a hall mark of Ireland’s pressure game over the last few years.

youngs kick 1.gif

England’s 3rd accurate kick comes after just 5 minutes as Owen Farrell puts up the high, angled cross-field kick to land on the winger’s head, that is becoming a real trademark of both Farrell and Jonny Sexton.

If the kick was too short then England would have been under pressure as Ireland would be coming on to the ball; too long and it’s a comfortable catch and Ireland would kick long back down the field. The accuracy of the kick should be applauded.

farrell high angled kick

The next passage of play is interesting. The initial kick from Farrell isn’t a great one, but Henshaw kicks long and infield, meaning he has to chase the ball to get his team onside. When England run the ball back and set up a ruck in midfield, we can see Henshaw trying desperately to get back in to the full back position, while Earls vacates the deeper wing slot he took up after Henshaw chased the ball.

As Slade grubbers through the gap Henshaw gets to the ball late and is forced on to his left foot, where he slices the ball.

henshaw slice GIF.gif

What should have happened is Earls (on Ireland’s right wing), should have moved in to the full back position when Henshaw kicked forward and stayed there, allowing Henshaw to defend in Earls wing position.

This would have given Henshaw time to recover from his sprinting and allowed Earls to take up a position further infield and better cover the Slade kick.

A couple of minutes later and England’s kicking game give them a try.

daly try poor ireland defence.gif

Henshaw is again taking up a very strange position, very close to the far touchline, meaning there is no cover in the back centre field for Ireland.

Regardless, the kick is so good, with the end over end tactic causing the ball to stand up just as Stockdale tries to play it, we should put this down to an excellent kicking attack. It looks easy but this is a difficult skill to execute well.

It’s that man Ben Youngs again in our next clip, with an inch perfect 40 metre box kick right near the touch line that gives England a huge territorial gain and also the throw to the lineout. This is exactly the sort of pressure game that Ireland have perfected over the last few years.

youngs great kick.gif


Manu Tuilagi

Tuilagi burst on to the rugby scene with a bang in 2011, with his powerful frame ripping huge holes in the opposition defence. Against New Zealand in 2012, in what was arguably England’s greatest ever performance in modern day rugby, Tuilagi was a bundle of explosive energy that the All Blacks couldn’t handle.

Fast forward 6 years to last weekend’s Ireland v England fixture and the Leicester star made just his first England start in 5 years; quite incredible for a player who is still only 27 years old and has such undoubted natural talent.

The intervening years haven’t been kind to Tuilagi, with a serious of hamstring and knee injuries severely limiting his game time. Some of his absences were more of his own making as he received a 5 week suspension (reduced from 10 weeks) for punching Chris Ashton in the face, while away from the pitch he was arrested by police for jumping in to Auckland harbour from a ferry after the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

Tuilagi hasn’t been far from the headlines and in 2015 he was found guilty of two counts of assaulting a police officer. In 2017 Tuilagi and Denny Solomona were sent home from an England camp after allegedly returning to the team hotel drunk in the early hours of the morning.

For all the controversy that has followed him, Tuilagi’s talent hasn’t been questioned and in last weekend’s Ireland fixture we saw what England – and rugby, has been missing on the pitch – along with the odd reminder of what a combustible character he can be.

After just 40 seconds of the game England played a relatively quick lineout over the top to Tuilagi on the charge. He was well tackled but the approach set down an early marker that England were going to be direct and physical.

tuilagi charge.gif

In the second example, we see Tuilagi and Slade have switched centre positions, allowing Tuialgi to come from the 13 channel against the grain. Murray misses a tackle on him, but it’s again his ability to stay on his feet in the tackle that creates the momentum.

tuilagi scrum run.gif

For all Tuilagi’s offensive strengths, there has always been a question mark over his defence. Like a number of players with a Pacific Island background, Tuilagi loves looking for the single big tackle that dominates the carrier, but can sometimes struggle with sticking to more structured defensive alignments and making tackles that aren’t big, head on hits.

In the first example, we see Robbie Henshaw running the ball back at the English defensive line. Henshaw has little support and a strong tackle could well see him isolated and the ball turned over. Instead some decent footwork from the Irish full back sees him easily step around Tuilagi and release the pressure.

tuilagi missed tackle.gif

The second clip shows exactly the sort of situation that Tuilagi loves. He reads the long pass is on and anticipates well the flight of the ball, putting in a big hit on Bundee Aki.

tuilagi big tackle aki.gif


Tuilagi does have a tendency to lose his discipline and give away silly penalties.

In this first clip, an innocuous chip from Ireland turned in to a penalty advantage after Tuilagi stepped across to block the chasing players.

tuialgi penalty.gif

The second example, shows Tuilagi identifying the prone ribs of Jacob Stockdale and driving his shoulder in to them with force. It doesn’t look like there was head contact but the TMO should really have reviewed this and as a minimum it was a yellow card against Tuilagi and a penalty.


It will be interesting to watch Tuilagi’s development during this 6 Nations. Can he remain injury free, fit and out of trouble off the pitch?

If he can, do his on field exploits with the ball outweigh some of his defensive frailties and moments of poor discipline.  In a World Cup semi-final he could be the sort of player to give you a winning edge….or perhaps be the person to give away a penalty that loses England the game. Would you risk him?


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Do Minutes Matter? Minutes Played this Season by 6 Nations Starting XVs: England’s Starting Team Have Played 25% More Rugby Than Ireland’s

Do minutes matter? If so, by how much?

The relationship between minutes played and team performances was a topic we looked at in some detail last year, starting with the date that players returned after the Lions tour and culminating with a look at the minutes played over the season for Ireland and England’s leading players.

What did we learn?

  1. Ireland’s leading players (selected in the final Lions test), returned to action at the start of 2017/18 season far later than England’s
  2.  By the end of the season England’s team that started the 6 Nations decider against Ireland had played on average, 319 minutes more rugby than their Irish counterparts (nearly 4 full games)
  3. England’s leading players play a lot of rugby, particularly when compared to their Irish equivalents
  4. England’s players made far more appearances in the Premiership than Ireland’s did in the Pro14


There is no doubting that Ireland are a top team with a number of outstanding players, but how much advantage did they gain from playing fewer minutes over the season?

On the eve of the 2019 6 Nations we thought it would be interesting to see if last season’s patterns have continued, or was last year a one-off given the demands of the Lions tour.


Average Minutes Played in Starting XVs

We now know the starting XVs for the opening weekend’s 6 Nations games.  The chart below shows for these starting selections, how many minutes on average each nation’s players have played so far this season, across domestic rugby, Europe and test matches.


The figures are stark. England’s starting team have played on average 208 minutes more rugby than the Ireland team they will face in Dublin, which equates to about 2.5 rugby matches.

This may not sound like a huge amount but to express it another way, England’s players have played 25% more rugby than Ireland’s.

Of course there are explanations for some of the differences – Conor Murray has been injured for a large part of the season, but then so has Billy Vunipola.

France have also played a large amount of rugby and it is no coincidence that the two nations which have a private ownership model – England and France, are the two teams that have played the most rugby.

If we dig in a bit further to see where the numbers diverge between Ireland and England, we get the following diagrams.

These show the breakdown by competition of the minutes played in the season and the % of the total minutes.

england starting xv minutes breakdown by competition.jpg



The main difference between the two sets of figures is the amount of rugby played in each respective domestic league; Ireland’s players have played 323 minutes in the Pro14 on average, while England’s have managed 552 in the Premiership.

If we switch to analyse the number of games played in the season to date by the starting XV we get the following results:

Scotland and France – 15.3

England – 15

Wales – 14.2

Ireland – 12.3

Ireland’s players have also appeared in the fewest number of games – 22% fewer than England’s.


Average Minutes Played in Match Day Squad

The data in the previous section looked at those in the starting teams for the opening game of the 6 Nations.

If we now expand that analysis to look at the wider match day squad of 23 we get a similar pattern but with a slightly smaller spread of minutes played:

France – 978

England – 941

Wales – 907

Scotland – 898

Ireland – 819

The gap between Ireland and England isn’t as pronounced as the starting XV analysis but we are still looking at England’s 23 playing 15% more rugby than Ireland’s.


Does it Matter?

Managing player work load is certainly a major factor in the success of test teams, but quantifying the benefit is a little too tricky.

In the final game of last season’s 6 Nations Ireland looked bright and effervescent, while England’s key players looked stodgy and bereft of power and energy. But we shouldn’t be surprised, given the speed with which England’s Lions players returned to play and the amount of rugby they were made to play through the 2017/18 season.

On the basis of this data, the patterns are consistent with last year and it will be interesting to see of England’s form can be maintained through the 6 Nations.

We will look in more detail at the numbers in future weeks but pulling out a few examples; Elliot Daly has already played 19 games and 1472 minutes and Owen Farrell has appeared for Saracens 17 times (1295 minutes).  Both Sexton and Stockdale have played less than 800 minutes each so far.

The contrast is stark.

Games aren’t decided by minutes played statistics, but if your team is well rested and is able to peak for key games it makes winning a much easier task.


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New for 2019 – the Illegal Maul is Back!

Time flies. It was nearly 3 years ago that we wrote an article stating that most mauls in the professional game were illegal, citing some common tactics that were being used that were not permitted in the law book.

These included the ball carrier in the maul disengaging from the maul and “shifting” to the back of the maul where they were afforded more protection from the opposition.

We used the example of South Africa in the 2015 Rugby World Cup (see below). Watch as the Springbok hooker (2) joins the maul, the SA 6 disconnects from the maul and re-binds behind the hooker. Completely illegal but a coached tactic.

maul shift.gif

The other common approach was for players (on the side with possession) to join the maul in front of the ball carrier. The laws say that if you want to join a maul you must do so at the back feet of your side of the maul.

The maul was becoming so dominant as an attacking weapon World Ruby decided to act and in 2016 they introduced law application guidelines around the maul.  These guidelines outlawed the player from sliding to the back of the ball and reiterated the law that the ball has to be passed by hand to the back of the maul, if a team wants to move the ball away from opposition defenders at the maul.

The clip below from the 2017 Lions tour to New Zealand shows how this guideline resulted in the ball being physically transferred to the back of the maul.

legal ball shift lions.gif

Referees also started to penalise players joining in front of the hindmost foot at the maul.

The 2019 Maul 

As is often the case in rugby, the coaches are one step ahead of the law makers and officials and this season has seen a return to the dominance of the maul as an attcking weapon.

Here we will highlight 3 tactics that are adopted by elite teams to gain an advantage at the maul – all of which are illegal, but are usually not penalised.

(1) Protecting the Catcher

This isn’t a new tactic but it is so infrequently penalised that it has effectively become permitted at the professional level.

A jumper usually has two players supporting him by the legs to get greater height to catch the ball. Once the catcher has caught the ball and is starting his return to the ground, the 2 supporting players step in front of the catcher to protect him from the defenders.

Here is an example from the recent Racing 92 v Scarlets game. Watch how the Racing 92 forwards get in front of the carrier to block the Scarlets defenders.

racging illegal maul block.gif

If we freeze the image at the point where the Racing 92 catcher hits the floor we can see 3 of his team mates in front of the ball acting as blockers.

racing block still

Racing 92 scored directly from this maul.

(2) Backs Joining the Maul 

Bristol’s coach Pat Lam highlighted this issue as his side recently lost to Exeter Chiefs courtesy of 2 tries from close range driving mauls, pointing out that Exeter’s tactic of backs joining the lineout maul before the lineout is over is illegal.

Let’s look at a Saracens try from the weekend’s action against Glasgow Warriors and delve in a bit deeper.

saracens backs joining maul.gif

You will probably have noticed from the clip that blacks centres (12) and wing (11) join the maul.

The first step is to determine if the lineout has indeed ended.  This is what the law book says:

laws ending a lineout

None of the criteria in 37.a has been satisfied but 37.b is applicable – a maul has formed. Looking back at the clip we can see that both 12 and 11 black join the maul before the back foot of the maul has moved over the mark of the lineout, therefore they have joined the maul before the lineout is over.

We can also see that black 12 (black 11 is out of shot) moves towards the lineout before the lineout is over (because it hasn’t completely moved over the mark).

This tells us two keys things; Saracens backs have moved within 10 metres of the lineout before the lineout has completed and they have joined the maul before the lineout is completed.

Let’s see what the laws say about backs during a lineout? Section 18.35 and 18.36 say:

lineout offside laws

18.36 says that if the ball doesn’t go beyond the 15-metre line players must retire to their offside lines ie 10 metres from the lineout. In the clip above the ball doesn’t go beyond the 15 metre line so Saracens’ backs should remain 10 metres back until the lineout is completed.

Not only do Saracens players encroach within the 10 metres but they also join the maul before the lineout is completed.

It’s an illegal ploy that referees should be more savvy to.

Backs can join a maul, but only when the lineout is completed.

Finally, here’s Exeter using the same tactic in last year’s Premiership final.

extere backs join maul.gif

(3) Forwards Leaving the Lineout 

This is another tactic that is quickly gathering pace with the top teams but is arguably illegal.

The still below cam from the Saracens v Glasgow game and we can see that the Saracens (black) catcher has taken the ball and is coming back down to the ground.

The image shows that 3 of the Saracens forwards have left the lineout and are already binding together in a “mini-maul” which they then drive through the catcher to provide instant momentum to the maul drive.

Law 38.29.d says that once the ball has been thrown in to the lineout a player can:  “Leave the lineout so as to be in a position to receive the ball, provided they remain within 10 metres of the mark of touch and they keep moving until the lineout is over. Sanction: Free-kick”

This law should allow forwards to peel around the lineout to take the ball on the run, but is it really designed for a mass exodus of players to pre-bind against each other and prepare to drive in to the catcher?

It’s a fair argument to say that they are not in a position to “receive the ball” because they are bound to each other.


Does This Need Fixing?

Yes, the momentum has swung too far in favour of the team throwing the ball in to the lineout, so games are once again being dominated by tries from lineout mauls.

As ever, the laws are already in place to combat the tactics; they just need to be applied.


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Premiership Rugby and European Failure; is the Threat of Relegation Holding Back England’s Best Clubs?

Let’s rewind a few seasons.

From 2012/13 to the end of the 2016/17 season Europe’s top rugby competiton – the Champions Cup, was dominated by French and English teams with all 10 finalists being from the English Premiership or France’s Top 14 competition.

There were a number of reasons given for the Anglo-French hegemony, one of which was that the competitive nature of the English and French domestic leagues meant that when it came to Europe, the cream of the Premiership and Top 14 were already used to playing high quality, high intensity games and this could be carried over in to Europe.

It was suggested that the threat of relegation meant that England and France’s teams had to consistently perform at a high level, whereas the teams in the Pro14 were hamstrung by having to play poor quality opposition for a large portion of their season.

Fast forward to last season’s Champions Cup, and we see a very different picture; with just a single English team in the quarter finals (Saracens) and the Pro14 contributing 3 of the 4 semi-finalists.  Leinster beat Racing 92 in the final.

This season’s tournament has followed the same pattern with Saracens being the sole Premiership Rugby quarter final qualifier and the Pro14 contributing 5 of the 8 places.

The collapse in form of the Premiership’s best teams has brought out the pundits to postulate a number of reasons for this trend – one of which is that the threat of relegation harms the ability of England’s teams to compete in Europe.

What was recently held up as an advantage for England’s top teams is now supposedly holding them back. Let’s look in to this claim in a bit more detail.


The Comparison with the Top 14

The Premiership has been successful in Europe while having relegation in place – this is the first counter argument to the claim that relegation is holding back England’s teams.

The second argument is that the French league also has relegation but it hasn’t suffered the same collapse in form that we have seen from the Premiership clubs.

Last season the Top 14 contributed half of the quarter finalists and this season both Racing 92 and Toulouse have made the knock out stages of the competition. That’s 6 teams in 2 seasons, compared to England’s 2 (Saracens on both occasions).

The Top14 has 14 teams in it, compared to 12 in the Premiership but it also has 2 potential spots available for teams to be relegated, whereas the Premiership has just one.  In both leagues the bottom team gets automatically relegated, while the Top14 has a playoff system for the bottom but one placed team where they play D2’s 2nd placed team.

This means there is a far greater threat of relegation for the Top14’s teams, coupled with the fact that it is a widely held view that the French D2 has a greater number of teams that have the ability to step up to the Top14 and compete in the top division.


Premiership Performances in Europe

Let’s now look at the data for the Premiership and firstly compare the performances in the Champions Cup with the finishing league position at the end of the season, with the theory being that the nearer a team is to the relegation position, the more likely they are to focus on the Premiership and as a result their win rate in Europe will suffer.

The chart below shows the final Premiership league position (at the end of the normal  season before play offs) along the x axis, from 1st down to 12th place, with the % of games won in European pool games on the y axis, from the season 2007/08 to 2018/19.

We would expect to see the teams in the top spots have a higher % win rate anyway, given they are the stronger teams, but the data is interesting.

win rate by fnishing position

As expected, the teams that finished in the first 1- 4 places in the Premiership, have the highest % win rates in the Champions Cup when compared to the teams that finished in the lower positions.

The interesting aspect to this shape is that from position 5 down to 12, there is not the drop off in win rates that we would expect to see. If the threat of relegation was a big factor in teams performing badly, then surely that chart would quickly taper down as we move towards the 12th position.

If anything, performances improve towards the 11th position, but we should note that the data set is smaller in the lower positions because most Premiership teams competing in the Champions Cup tend to finish higher up the table at the end of the season.

Indeed the only team that contributes to the data under the 12th place is Newcastle in this current season – it is possible that they may finish higher than last place but with 2 wins out of 6, they have performed reasonably well given their current league position.


The Gap to the Bottom Place

What the table above doesn’t tell us is how close are the teams in the Champions Cup to the relegation spot.

If we measure the points difference between the team that finished the season in bottom place in the Premiership and the lowest team in the Champions Cup, we get a feel for how great the threat of relegation was for the team in Europe.

As an example, in the 2017/18 season London Irish finished bottom of the league in 12th place. Harlequins were the lowest placed Champions Cup team that season and they finished in 10th place, 14 points above London Irish.

Across the period of study the average points difference was 20.58 points, which is the equivalent of 5 wins in the league, without bonus points. Given a season has just 22 games it’s probably fair to say that, on average, the gap between the relegation place and the lowest position a Champions Cup team finished is large enough to not be a major factor in the team’s European performances.

For reference, the points difference across the 12 seasons were 25, 36, 4, 20, 12, 12, 28, 48, 28, 20, 14, 0 (assuming Newcastle finish in last place).


A Season with No Relegation

What would be a great test of the relegation theory, is if we had a season where there was no relegation from the Premiership.

This hasn’t materialised (yet!) but if you look at the points differences quoted a couple of paragraphs above, you will spot a season where the gap was a huge 48 points between the bottom spot and the lowest Champions Cup team. This was the 2014/15 season where London Welsh were steam-rollered, losing all 22 games in the season and conceding on average 46 points a game.

There may not have been a stop on relegation that season but it was clear that Welsh were going to be relegated from a few weeks in to the season. If the relegation threat theory holds, then the Premiership teams should have performed well in Europe that season given the threat of relegation was effectively removed.

The Premiership clubs ended the pool stages that season with a win rate of 52.38%. This rate was lower than the preceding season (55.56%) and the following season (66.67%) and is only slightly higher than the average over the 12 seasons (51.49%).

The 2014/15 season doesn’t support the relegation theory, but let’s now plot the win rates for each season against the points difference between the relegation spot and the finishing position of the lowest placed Champions Cup team.

If the relegation theory holds, then we would expect to see the win rate increase as the points difference increases; the threat of relegation would be removed and therefore performances in Europe should improve.

win rate v points difference graph

The shape of the graph does show that as the points difference between the relegation spot and the lowest Champions Cup team grows, the win rate increases. This is the first piece of evidence we have looked at that supports the relegation theory, with the caveat that we don’t have many data points to compare the relationship.

The data point on the far right of the chart is the 2014/15 season we discussed above.  The data point with the 2nd highest points difference was in the 2008/09 season, when Bristol were 36 points adrift of Wasps who finished in 7th place.


Does Relegation Matter?

If we look through the evidence presented here, we can see that there are 4 arguments against the “relegation hampers the Premiership teams in Europe” theory and just one supporting it.

We know that the Premiership has been successful in the recent past with relegation in place and we have the Top14 teams still performing well in Europe even though they also have relegation from their league.

When we analyse the data we can see that outside the teams that finish in the top 3/4 places, there isn’t a big drop off in win rate by those teams that are supposed to be competing to avoid relegation.

Indeed the analysis of the points difference between the relegation place and the lowest Champions Cup team in the season that London Welsh were effectively relegated, doesn’t show an uptick in European performances as we would expect.

Supporting the theory, we can see a relationship between win rate and the gap down to the relegation place.

Our view is that relegation doesn’t directly play a major part in the Premiership clubs performances. The bigger issues are around player welfare and minutes played, squad size and the salary cap (England’s financial control in this area may be contributing to the recent drop off in performances) and the balance in emphasis on the league over Europe.


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Pro14, Premiership, Top 14 and Super Rugby Twitter Followers by Team. Where Does Your Team Come on the Twitter Followers League Table?

Twitter followers for the major professional leagues as at 6th January 2019.



(1) Total number of followers.

The only changes in order compared to 2018, is that Connacht and Cardiff Blues have switched places in 4th and 5th place and the Scarlets have moved above the Ospreys to take 7th spot.

pro14 total followers


(2) Number of new followers gained between January 2018 and January 2019

pro24 new followers nmumber.jpg


(3) Number of new followers gained between January 2018 and January 2019, as a % increase

pro14 percentage increase


Gallagher Premiership

(1) Total number of followers

Exeter have jumped 2 spots by overtaking Saracens and Harlequins, to take 6th spot.


London Irish were relegated at the end of last season but they held 9th spot in 2018 with 45,100 followers and have increased that by only 400 in the intervening 12 months.

Bristol Bears come straight in to 9th place.

GP total followers.jpg

(2) Number of new followers gained between January 2018 and January 2019

Bristol Bears and London Irish have been omitted from this table.

number new followers gp.jpg


(3) Number of new followers gained between January 2018 and January 2019, as a % increase

gp percentage increase


Top 14

(1) Total number of followers

t14 total followers

(2) Number of new followers gained between January 2018 and January 2019

Grenoble and Perpignan are not included in this table.

Toulouse and Clermont actually lost followers during the year.

t14 total new followers


(3) Number of new followers gained between January 2018 and January 2019, as a % increase

t14 percentage increase

Super Rugby

(1) Total number of followers

Comparing 2018 to 2019, the Jaguares leapfrog the Crusaders, while the Lions and the Reds swap places. The Brumbies drop from 10th place to 12th.

sr total followers.jpg


(2) Number of new followers gained between January 2018 and January 2019

super rugby new followers

(3) Number of new followers gained between January 2018 and January 2019, as a % increase

sr percentage increase.jpg



Consolidated – Total Followers

Including a comparison with 2018 and the number of places moved, where applicable.

1 to 22 total followersdown to 45 totalfinal ttoal


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Wales’ Kicking Game – An Autumn Review

It was an impressive set of results for Wales over the Autumn with convincing wins against Scotland, Australia, Tonga and South Africa.

As ever, Wales defence was excellent and there were flashes of some of their weaker parts of their game evolving, with a couple of top class set piece tries and improvements in the maul defence and lineout.

One area that still needs addressing to take their game to another level is their kicking game – specifically kicking in the defensive half of the field.

We have seen recently how Ireland use the kicking game to apply pressure to the opposition and this is something Wales can learn from; you don’t need to force the play to create opportunities – sometimes these opportunities come from applying pressure to the opposition.

There are 5 main kick types that we will focus on, which are characteristic of Wales’ strategy under Gatland.


(1) Clearing kick from their own 22m 

This is a Gatland favourite – the Welsh clearing kick is aimed to stay in field, rather than find touch. The tactic has been a mainstay of Wales under Gatland but it is a tactic that we find very difficult to understand.

There seem to be 3 reasons Wales do it. Firstly, by not kicking to touch they take the lineout and the associated lineout drive, out of the armoury of the opposition. Secondly, if the opposition run the ball back, there is an opportunity to tackle and jackal the ball and thirdly it increases the ball in play time, which Wales thinks suits their fitness levels.

Our view is that in most cases Wales end up losing about 50% of the territory gained from the kick, through the initial carry from the opposition catcher and are usually forced back on the defensive again, with often an unorganised defensive line. It doesn’t relieve pressure, it invites is back on Wales.

Here are two examples from the South Africa game.

In the first, Gareth Davies clears fairly long but Le Roux has an easy catch and South Africa can start to attack again.

kick 8 51 mins 22 bad.gif

In the second example Tomos Williams finds very good distance and with a strong Welsh defensive line they tackle Louw in his own half of the field.

kick 12 69 mins 22 good.gif


Our verdict: From deep in their half and when they are under pressure, Wales should kick to find touch, so allowing their defence to reform and perhaps even to steal or pressurise the lineout. 

Where they can put good distance on the ball (find grass in the opposition half), then the kick to keep the ball in play is a good tactic.


(2) Box kick by scrum half in own half 

Wales lost momentum in the 2nd half by too easily conceding possession and territory to the Springboks. Every team uses the box kick tactic but there are 4 possible outcomes that depend on the quality of the kick and the chase:

(1) The kick is re-taken by a Welsh player competing for the ball (it’s usually a winger)

(2) The receiver catches the ball near the touchline and is bundled in to touch

(3) The receiver catches the ball and is immediately tackled

(4) The receiver has time to catch the ball and set up a counter-attack

The objective is option 1, with a sliding scale of desirability down to option 4. 

Here are a few examples from the South Africa game of this type of kick.

In the first Davies’ box kick about 20 metres, North flaps a hand at it but it’s South Africa who pick up possession and start to attack.

kick 7 47 mins box bad

In example 2 (below), Davies kicks long, there is a poor defensive press and Kolbe makes a dangerous break.

kick 6 45 mins box bad

The final example shows Davies’ kick travel barely 10 metres, North again fails to catch the ball and South Africa secure it about 5 metres in front of Davies’ kicking position.

kick 5 box bad

Our verdict: Every team has to have this kick as a weapon in their arsenal. Wales’ problem is that the execution of the kick is often not accurate enough, whether this is because of poor kicking or having wingers who can’t compete in the air for the ball. 

Aerial prowess has never been a strength of North’s and this weakness makes the box kick to compete, a difficult tactic for Wales to effectively employ. North and Adams on the other wing, would be better standing off the ball and tackling the catcher, rather than over running the ball or slapping it to who knows who.


(3) Midfield high kick to compete

Between Wales 22m line and the halfway line Wales will often put up a high kick in the centre of the field, with the intention to try and compete to win the ball back.  This is one of Dan Biggar’s trademarks and when he came on against South Africa he executed the kick on a couple of occasions. 

South Africa make a huge mess of the kick in the first clip and Wales win a scrum for a knock on. 

kick 11 67 mins high bad

There’s not as much depth on the kick in the 2nd example but again the Springboks struggle to deal with it, gifting Wales a scrum.

kick 10 63 mins high bad

Our verdict: This is a very good option, when executed to perfection by Dan Biggar. In both these examples Wales relieve pressure, gain territory and the ball and put the onus back on South Africa to defend.

If executed badly, the kick can either gift cheap ball to the opposition or potentially put the whole team offside. 


(4) Shallow cross field kick with the aim to compete for the ball/kick pass

Here is Gareth Anscombe attempting this type of kick in the first half.

kick 4 cross field bad.gif

On the face of it, it looks like a successful kick but it is a very high risk/low success rate tactic. Firstly, the kick needs to be very accurate, secondly the catcher then has to take the pass (usually in the air) and try and find a supporting runner and thirdly, if the ball spills lose the opposition could have a clear run to the Welsh try line.

Wales ended up conceding possession too cheaply in this example, using a move that has a low chance of success.


Our verdict: The shallow kick/kick pass should only be used in 2 circumstances; around the half way line when the catcher has a clear opportunity to catch the ball and isn’t going to be under pressure, and near the opposition line where a tap down could lead to a try, but there is plenty of space to be able to defend a break if the ball bobbles free. 


(5) High cross field kick towards the touchline to apply pressure

This type of kick is becoming more and more common, with Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell being two good proponents of the approach.  It is usually kicked around the half way line to the 10 metre line, with the target to isolate the wingers or back 3 of the opposition, near the touchline. 

The aim isn’t necessarily to compete for the ball in the air, but to gain territory and try and win the lineout or jackal.

Here are a couple of examples of Wales employing the tactic.

This is an inch perfect kick from Anscombe who puts enough height on the kick to allow North to be under the ball, while still landing the ball just 2 metres from the touchline.

Unfortunately, we get the North flappy arm again, whereas he would have been better just standing off and either taking Le Roux in to touch or picking up any slapped ball from the Springbok full back.

wales kick 1 cross field good.gif

In the 2nd clip it’s Biggar who attempts the kick but it goes too far and South Africa can comfortably take the ball.

kick 9 63 mins diaginal bad.gif

Our verdict: Done well, this is an excellent kick option that puts the pressure on the opposition but also gives Wales a chance to make large territorial gains and potentially even recover possession if the catcher can be put in touch.

Wales need to use this tactic more often.


Improvements for the 6 Nations?

There are certainly elements of Wales kicking strategy and execution that Wales can improve on for the 6 Nations.

Gatland is not going to stop keeping the ball in field off defensive clearances so Wales need to focus on finding more depths on their kicks. Davies needs to improve his box kick accuracy and the wingers need to either learn how to compete in the air or just stand off and be ready to make a positive hit when the catcher touches the grass.

In general, Wales could learn from Ireland’s approach of kicking to apply pressure to the opposition, rather than always trying to use low success rate options that often just concede the ball to the opposition.


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