Archive for June, 2010

While watching a game the other day which featured a friend making a rare appearance at fly half, I noted after the game that she was standing way too deep at scrum time which allowed the defence to get up to and behind the tackle line before her team had time to do anything with it.  I’ve been a supporter of the fly half – at least – lying flat in attack for a while and suggested she do so more often.  I checked myself from suggesting she do so all the time, however, reminding myself that whilst acting as first receiver in Touch the other day, I botched a perfectly good opportunity to launch an attack by being flat.  I don’t think I was too flat – just that it wasn’t the right time for it, as the defence ended up being fairly well organised and on the front foot.  The hurried shocker of a pass I threw stayed with me as I’d also been telling the backs for the past week that they were too flat and should lie a little deeper.  So which is it?  Play flat.  Lie deeper.  I think the answer is ‘depends’ – not very helpful, generally speaking, but giving the benefits of each and in which situation will probably make choosing a lot easier.

This past year or so, England’s clinical fly half Jonny Wilkinson has returned to being a regular with his national team, but has copped a fair bit of criticism from predecessors Paul Grayson and Stuart Barnes as being too deep.  The obvious benefit this allowed him is to have time to kick and to think about what to do.  In commentaries, they continually said that he needed to play closer to the gain line and right on the 5m players are supposed to remain at during scrum time.  The problem with the fly half lying too deep is that the rest of the backs will lie deep.  I’m finally starting to see most teams get out of the old habit of aligning 10-14 on a constant 45 degree angle, which always forced the wing to cover a tremendous amount of ground, instead, having each back lie a little more forward than the last (called a ‘saucer’ alignment by some).  But a fly half standing 8-10m behind the scrum, rather than 5m, is still forcing the rest of the backs back that much further as well.  What this does is pushes the tackle line further back, meaning that the attacking backs are less likely to even make the gain line, let alone cross it!  Standing flatter moves the whole group forward and gives them a better chance of making and crossing the gain line.  Speed of thought and speed of execution is crucial.

‘But doesn’t that just give the attacking players less time and space to think?’ I hear you asking.  In theory, yes, but the same is true for the defensive team.  As Barnes says in his article for the RFU Technical Journal:  “Once you have mastered the passing skills, you will find yourself standing flatter and flatter when you want to keep the ball and attack through the middle. Defences love an extra second to readjust. You can deprive them of that second when you are on the gain line.”  If you’ve already got a plan in mind and/or support runners who know the plan or are good at reading what the defence is offering them, then you have an advantage.  The defensive team now has less time to read what you are doing and with less time to adjust, you might find yourself waltzing past un-ready defenders clutching at you or your supporting players at pace.

So what does a fly half need to be able to play flat and benefit from the advantages it affords?

  • The ability to scan and make quick decisions
  • The ability to get into the right position and attack quickly
  • Speed of thought and effective communication of intent
  • Speed and accuracy of passing
  • Scrum half who can pass quickly and wide
  • Supporting players who can time their runs well (Bonus if they can help the fly half with decision making via communication!  I stress this in lesser-experienced teams.)
  • Quick ball is better than slow ball (but even with slow ball, a flat decoy is a tempting target for several defenders, and an opportunity to put runners away if their timing is good)

Standing a little deeper is a must when a deep kick is needed, but one can pull off a great ‘kick pass’ to the wing while standing flat (a la Stephen Larkham or Quade Cooper).  Standing a bit deeper might also be necessary if the fly half isn’t making a short pass and needs a tiny bit more time to wind up and fire a cut out to the outside centre or full back, for example (also making it less likely that such a long pass would be intercepted).  I’ve not yet decided on taking the ball standing or while running.  I think that might depend on the preference of the fly half, but the first time I really noticed the effectiveness of playing flat, the fly half in question (England’s Charlie Hodgson) cleverly mixed that up as well.  Against Canada probably seven years ago now, he started the game taking the ball very flat and standing still – letting his powerful backs make useful angled runs off the defenders rushing up to hit this nice static target.  In the second half, it looked as though Canada re-focused and realised that they had to contain these runners and they lessened their focus on Hodgson.  He then took a few passes moving and sniped through the holes the unexpecting Canuck defenders gave him.  Having an eye for such gaps and the quickness to exploit them can really tear defences apart, as someone like Stephen Larkham made his career on.  Note in the following clips how the relative ‘flatness’ at which he takes the ball allows him to take these gaps as defenders haven’t the time to adjust.  He appears to be running onto the ball when going himself, starting a bit deeper and taking it flat; and taking it flat and standing when sending support runners into the line.  It also helped him, as in the Hodgson case above, that those defenders also had to consider the attacking threats outside him in both situations.  Getting around and behind the defence so close to the previous breakdown might be easy for cover defence in some cases, but with the entire defensive structure compromised support runners should be able to find new attacking options as defenders close down on the line breaker.

I will examine some specific attacking lines later that both ball carriers and support runners can take to expose what I call ‘vulnerable space.’


Barnes, Stuart.  RFU Technical Journal.  http://www.rfu.com/TakingPart/Coach/CoachResourceArchive/TechnicalJournalArchive/~/media/Files/2009/Coaching/Articles/TechnicalJournal/2005/3rdQuarter/Advice20for20aspiring20fly20half.ashx

Cottrell, Dan.  Better Rugby Coaching.  http://www.betterrugbycoaching.com/Article-153–1–More-coaching-tips-to-create-space-for-your-fly-half

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