Try analysis: Chiefs vs. Southern Kings, 12 Mar

The Chiefs broke away from the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth towards the end of the first half of last weekend’s Round 3 match, having made hard work of the opening half an hour. Their defence of the Kings’ driving maul, some uncharacteristic handling errors and the concession of soft penalties allowed the home side to keep in touch until Damian McKenzie touched down on 32 minutes. They added four second half tries to their three in the first, and Charlie Ngatai’s midfield break on first phase ball to open the scoring in the second period exemplified what the New  Zealand franchise have tried to do in attack so far this Super Rugby season.

Having fullback Damian McKenzie as a second option at first receiver in the backline allows the Chiefs to move Aaron Cruden wider into the midfield on attack, an area where he can be so dangerous due to his evasive skills and angles of running. On the play leading to Ngatai’s try early in the second half, they employed a different method to create the same effect: a situation which allows the fly-half to attack the ball at pace in wider channels. In this case, from a lineout on the right touchline just inside the Kings’ 10m line, they used Brad Weber as the de facto first receiver with a clever set piece variation.

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The Chiefs set up a 7 man lineout with a pod of 3 ready to jump at the front: Johan Bardoul is the jumper, with props Mitchell Graham and Siate Tokolahi his lifters. This structure – along with the positioning of scrum-half Weber relatively close to the touchline – attracts the attention of the Kings’ defence towards the front of the lineout. The away side’s remaining 4 forwards are in a flexible formation at the rear, with both Michael Allardice and Taleni Seu as potential jumpers bookended by lifters Sam Cane and Michael Leitch.

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The move begins on Seu’s cue: he moves into position behind Allardice to be lifted at the rear by Cane and Leitch, and as he turns Weber starts his run towards the tail. The Kings have only a single lifter in the pod opposing Seu, and openside flanker Chris Cloete – in position as the first help defender if the ball is shifted quickly beyond the 15m channel – is drawn towards the line by the movement of the Chiefs blindside.

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The first Kings defender has been taken out of the game before the ball enters the field of play, and by the time Rhys Marshall releases his throw – designed to sail over the head of the tail jumper – Weber is perfectly positioned to hit receive it at pace. Allardice almost gets in Leitch’s way as the number 8 moves to his position as the rear lifter, but the Japanese international is able to recover well in time to complete a convincing lift.

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At the point Weber catches the ball, he already has a two metre head start on Cloete, who has to turn and chase him; the scrum-half is able to take the throw and in effect become the Chiefs’ first receiver in the backline, running at Thembelani Bholi and forcing the Kings’ midfield – who had focused on Aaron Cruden and Seta Tamanivalu as the main threats to their defence – to compress. It’s also worth noting Sam Cane’s commitment to support play in this situation: having completed his job as the rear lifter on Seu, before his fellow back-row forward has touched the ground he has already turned to follow his scrum-half.

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As Weber receives the ball, Seta Tamanivalu runs a hard line back towards Louis Fouche in the Kings’ 10 channel. As he hits the 1om line, he arcs subtly towards the fly-half’s outside shoulder, and the inside shoulder of 12 Shane Gates. With the scrum-half taking the ball at pace, and his centre running a hard dummy line between the opposition 10 and 12, the Chiefs have attracted the attention of 3 defenders with only 2 attackers; by holding the drift of Gates for just a second, they have given Cruden enough separation to get on his outside shoulder.6

The pass from Weber is beautiful, and Cruden is able to run on to the ball with great pace. We can see already how outside centre Stefan Watermeyer’s body (at the top of the image above) has already turned infield towards the opposition fly-half. He naturally begins to sag off, attempting to buy time for his midfield partner to drift far enough to realign himself opposite Cruden. However, the Chiefs 10 forces Watermeyer into making a decision to act by the speed at which he cuts down the space between them, and the angle of his run towards the 13’s inside shoulder:

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Watermeyer does not commit fully to either possible option, neither attacking Cruden nor decisively drifting onto Ngatai in the hope that Gates will fight back and cover. He ends up in no man’s land when Cruden passes the ball, and can only make a vain attempt at an interception as the Kings’ defence is outflanked.

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Ngatai is able to take the gap on the 13’s outside shoulder and go under the posts untouched.

On the surface, this looks a soft try to concede: the ball-carrier is at no point tackled or under threat of being tackled before the try is scored. But how could the Kings defend this differently? When Cruden catches the ball, Watermeyer has two options: either step up on the fly-half when it is clear that he is not shifting the ball immediately and force the attacker’s hand with aggressive line speed, or trust Gates’ drift onto Cruden and shadow the movement of Ngatai. However, in the case of either option being taken by the Kings’ 13, the defence would still likely have been exposed (through no fault of the centre). If Watermeyer steps up on Cruden, Vulindlu must step in on Ngatai, and the Chiefs have numbers up on the outside:

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Ngatai, McKenzie and Lowe would be matched up against Vulindlu and Visser; with the Kings’ fullback already in the line, there is no second line of defence to beat. Equally, if Watermeyer drifts and trusts Gates on his inside, the half step of separation which Cruden already has on the opposition 12 likely allows him to take the gap on his outside. In the event that he’s brought down or slowed by the defence, support runners Ngatai,Fisiiahi and Weber are structured in an almost perfect diamond formation offering full range of options for an offload or pass. The flood of Chiefs runners around the corner on the strong side has forced Visser to Vulindlu’s outside shoulder, and there is little cover coming across.

In reality, therefore, this is a move expertly designed to create space by taking defenders out of the game with subtle movement, and the Chiefs’ excellent attacking skills execute it perfectly. Cloete is drawn into a position where he cannot help out in defence by clever movement at the lineout, Bholi is forced to stay narrow and face up against an attacker he was not expecting, and the Kings’ midfield was not able to drift in time with the opposition’s attacking movement due to the running lines of Weber and Tamanivalu. The presence of Weber zipping round the corner is where he is at his most dangerous, and Cruden thrives off the extra space in the channels outside those usually occupied by a fly-half: this set-piece sequence allows the Chiefs to put themselves in a position where each halfback is playing the role in which is he most threatening, thanks to the simplicity of excellent throwing and passing skills and accurate running lines and depth.

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