I examined the specifics of what I think is good, and not so good, about offloading from contact in a previous post, so won’t go into to much detail here on the finer points. While watching Toulouse v Ospreys yesterday I saw a fantastic offload by French no. 8 Louis Picamoles to Census Johnston resulting in probably the easiest try the massive Samoan has ever scored.
Here’s the clip:
1. Play starts from a lineout in a game where Toulouse pretty much had forward dominance. As is a common move with teams these days who have a strong pack, Toulouse make a few attempts to exert their dominance. They start with a catch and drive and use their one re-start opportunity to get the ball to the hooker at the back, then restarting their shove. As things break down, the hooker breaks off and has a go. Some might elect to start another maul for an classic pushover, but Tolofua is a massive lad and decides to have a go. Ospreys defence are up to the task and stop him short of the line.
2. The scrum half, Burgess, moves the ball wide to another powerful runner (they have a few!) Jean Bouilhou. The width here is key as teams are always more likely to stack their defenders tightly around the fringes of the ruck, and in three-point stances to be able to stop the low pick and drives (see Sona Taumalolo). Playing to a forward in the wide channels makes it more likely that he’ll be facing a significantly smaller back. Bouilhou misses an opportunity to do what Picamoles does in a few seconds later if you stop at about 0:15-0:16 in the video. He has just two defenders in front of him and a team mate. He cuts back inside, not backing his power and though his team does set up a ruck and retains possession, I’d argue that he could have set up a score in one of two ways.
Simply, he could have attacked the gap between the two defenders, effectively drawing the outer one and passed before contact to the waiting player (possibly the fly half). That close to the line, it’s incredibly hard to stop anyone who gets low enough, and if it’s Dossain, he’s a powerful player who’d be hard to stop. In addition, at 0:16 you can see that the man who’d be responsible for defending the potential receiver isn’t squarely aligned with him. By being a metre or so on his inside, it’d be very hard to effect anything but a side-on tackle, giving the receiver the chance to reach for the line with forward momentum or twist around to score. Defending players within 5m of the goal line is best done when square-on with the ball carrier, and often higher than I’d usually advocate for a ‘perfect’ tackle, so the defender can: A. Stop his forward momentum, and B. Wrap arms to prevent the offload.
The second way Bouilhou might have set up a try for Dossain is performed by Louis Picamoles on the next phase.
3. With the ball bought into contact, we can see the eventual try scorer Johnston parked a significant distance away from the ruck in the lower right part of the screen at about 0:20. He’s a big man and a quick, flat pass for him to run onto might see him charge over the line. But as we see Louis Picamoles creep into a closer position at 0:22 we can see that Ospreys defence are already in low positions and that there are four of them on that short side. Passing only to Johnston, who looks to be standing too high and who probably wouldn’t be charging onto the ball (I’ve seen him play a lot and this is often true with him), might see him smothered by any number of those four waiting defenders.
4. Burgess passes to Picamoles who immediately makes a dart for the space – not any one of the waiting defenders and certainly not square on. By doing this he forces those present into the side-on / legs tackle which, as noted above, is not idea to stop any player – let alone someone of Picamoles’ bulk – this close to the goal line. If you stop at 0:25, you will note that he’s managed to drag the defending forward, as well as drag in both the defending scrum half and winger.
5. For many players, this would be the end of the move. Take the charge with the proverbial ‘blinkers’ on, unaware of where support is, lay the ball back and set up another ruck. Johnston would have to come in to secure the ball and Ospreys would probably try to slow it down and buy time to re-align their defence as they had so ably on the last phases. Instead, whether by presence of mind or by Johnston’s call – or both – Picamoles reaches his big hand around the back of the winger and delivers a soft offload to a waiting Johnston who only has to flop over to score.
6. Players with big hands, like Sonny Bill Williams, are often seen making such spectacular offloads because they can palm the ball and force it in virtually any direction. I suspect Picamoles might be just such a player, but on the reverse angle we can see that he’s cradling the ball between his hand and forearm – which even high school girls I’ve coached can manage. He delicately slides a pop pass to Johnson, who also demonstrates great technique in having both hands up and offering a target.
When I teach this sort of thing to my players, I focus on a few key things that address both going into contact properly as well as thinking about what happens next. First off, I stress that I ALWAYS want players to dominate the contact area such that they can play the ball as they wish. NEVER do I want them to simply ‘run into the trunk of the tree’, which gives the defender(s) the advantage. So, we address the following:
- Move toward defender’s centre line to ‘fix’ him / her in place
- Suddenly move away and attack the space (or ‘branches of the tree’ – i.e. arms – if space isn’t big enough to run into)
- Maintain a powerful running line that preserves space for support players (i.e. running a sharp angle draws in the outer defender and allows the carrier forward momentum; running flat, sideways angle has little to no forward momentum and allows defenders a chance at an easy tackle)
- Keep the body height low so one is hard to stop, but not so low that one will topple forward if dragged down
- Keep in mind where supporting players were – is there a chance for an offload should you draw in another defender? Where would that offload best be made – flat to the side or slightly behind? [Support players MUST be communicating this, as most ball carriers won't be able to see where they are / are coming from once in contact... and as with the previous article on offloading, popping the ball to a defender who's even a metre or more back is counter-productive. The receiver MUST be at or challenging the gain line!]
- Keep a solid grip on the ball, and keep arm(s) free on the way down – an added bonus of teaching players to be confident in contact and to fall on their sides.
- LISTEN and LOOK for the opportunity to make the offload. Nothing makes me more angry watching games where players offload to unready receivers or to no one in particular. Offloads are great, but I always stress IF IT’S NOT TRULY ‘ON’ THEN A RUCK IS BETTER, and that includes the offload to a player who’s deep as you’re more likely to set them up to be tackled well behind the ground you just gained.