Coach's insight: Counter-attack - organised chaos
In a recent discussion with a youth coach, he explained to me how his side rarely got clean ball to launch an attack from their scrum or lineout.
In what probably seemed unrelated to him I asked if he opposition had kicked much ball to them, to which he replied they almost always kicked from their own half.
What baffled me as our chat went on was that during his training sessions he had worked on technique, structure and plays for his scrums, lineouts and back-plays but had not even touched on his best source of possession.
If someone with no knowledge of rugby looked at the scenario where one of your fastest players can claim possession with 10-plus metres to the nearest defender and ample players in support, what would they think you should do?
Counter-attack clearly occurs in every game and its success is often down to the skill-set and inventiveness of individuals.
However, given some training time a coach can certainly increase the incidence of line breaks from support players and the sustainability of the attack beyond the initial counter. Where teams lack structure a counter-attack can catch your own team off guard and leave you isolated.
Here are some coaching considerations when developing a counter-attack strategy:
What environment do you create for players? Do you encourage creativity and inventiveness?
This requires some thought as opposed to giving a direct answer. If you have found yourself screaming "kick it" or "take it in" to your full-back, how much scope have you given them to explore?
Also, what is your attitude to mistakes? To be creative you must have the freedom to try things, and many of them will fail.
Giving a structure is about giving the players a scope to play but maintaining a process to their decisions - this allows the coach to set some parameters.
Counter-attack is not always on, and as such the players need some agreed triggers which puts players on the alert to take up attacking positions.
An obvious opportunity is the box-kick that has been over-cooked - in this instance it might be that the trigger is if a box-kick is caught with the tackler seven metres or more away (allowing running or passing options).
The trigger directs the action of the support; a good contestable box-kick should trigger the support to get close in support of the catcher; no contest should invoke the attackers into wider positions to receive a pass or run in support.
As opposed to having a particular prescribed action, this is about moving the support into positions to create a number of options.
Some of the more familiar ones is a full-back dropping into a position about 20 metres infield from the catcher; this allows the whole pitch to be opened with one pass.
Usually the No 13 needs to work hard to get into a position outside the full-back; in Ireland's case this would launch a counter-attack line of Tommy Bowe - Rob Kearney - Jared Payne - Simon Zebo.
Whether you want other players closer to the breakdown to work back to the catcher or into a wider channel is a matter of preference and will form the direction your attack continues.
This is where a coached structure can really pay dividends. From many scrums or lineouts your players a aligned in the direction of play or their individual support roles, the same detail in counter attack can ensure the opposition never recovers a good defensive line.
When a team chases their kick they may commit centres and wingers to the breakdown, bring their half-backs into the full-back position and move forwards into the midfield defence - the key for the attack is to maintain this disjointed defence and exploit the mismatches.
As such it is key the breakdown from the counter is resourced very effectively with the minimum number required, giving little time for the defence to re-organise.
Most teams will then adopt a structure of width in the attack, with retreating players taking up wide positions; again, this stretches the midfield defence, creating space for the mismatches.
If you have as many counter-attack opportunities in a game as you have lineouts, it's worth rehearsing them to the same extent and observe the results.