In the 68th minute of this morning’s game in Hamilton, Bulls prop Conraad van Vuuren received a yellow card for a swinging arm directed at the head of a falling Damian McKenzie. The Chiefs were awarded another penalty 2 minutes later and elected for a scrum, forcing John Mitchell’s hand: starting tighthead Trevor Nyakane had to return to the field, and the away team’s head coach chose to sacrifice a midfielder – Burger Odendaal – rather than another member of the forward pack. This had important tactical consequences for the Bulls – they were now a man short in the backline when defending in set-piece situations – and the Chiefs exploited the decision expertly before the end of van Vuuren’s sin-binning to put themselves 6 points clear with 5 minutes to play.
From a scrum just inside the opposition half on the right 15m line, the Chiefs set up with inside centre Johnny Fa’auli at first receiver and Damian McKenzie in the slot behind him, ready to tear away behind the screen of Anton Lienert-Brown. The Bulls responded to this by pushing scrum-half Embrose Papier away from the base of the scrum into a flat line of four in the midfield, with their two additional defenders covering the space in each 15m channel:
In this situation, the Bulls have effectively traded a defender covering the backfield in order to maintain a full set of forwards. In addition, Gelant begins rather shallow on the right wing and leaves a vast amount of space behind him; the left wing is not able to rotate to cover this, as he is covering the short side of the scrum on his own and does not vacate this space.
The presence of Fa’auli – a physical carrier, but able distributor and footballer – at first receiver is a cue that the Chiefs are likely to run the ball: either via a short carry by Fa’auli himself, or a screen pass to Damian McKenzie fading wide. Gelant is forced to stay shallow by the possibility of both McKenzie and his brother Marty – who sets up on the left 15m line – attacking through the channel outside 13, and Fa’auli exploits this positioning by dropping a pinpoint kick off his right over the winger’s head:
The speed with which Marty McKenzie and Solomon Alaimalo set off from deep is crucial, as – having built up pace before the ball is in the air – they are able to outpace Gelant as he turns and collect the ball in space.
Alaimalo’s footwork, two fends and transfer of the ball from right arm to left before reaching out to score are hugely important in this sequence resulting in a try, but he is only on the ball in this space as a result of the Chiefs’ creation of a potential tactical opportunity minutes beforehand. Firstly, they were able to leverage van Vuuren’s yellow card to create an advantage for themselves in general attacking play, which would have existed whether Mitchell had opted to remove a midfielder or a flanker for Nyakane. Secondly – after assessing the decision made by Mitchell – they identified exactly where the change left the opposition vulnerable, and executed a play designed perfectly to exploit this new area of weakness.
Attacking kicking has long been a key part of the Chiefs’ repertoire, and under penalty advantage in the first half they were able to employ one of their key principles in this area to score their first try of the game:
On initial inspection, this looks a rather fortunate score for the home side: Tiaan Falcon expertly threads a grubber through into space off his weaker foot, but Travis Ismaiel identifies early that the Bulls have no one covering and drops back to field the kick. The resulting fumble is collected by Fa’auli, who is able to dive over for five points.
However, use of the short kicking game in attack is not always about creating clear try-scoring opportunities: as Scotland and the Highlanders have both shown recently, merely putting pressure on the opposition with accurate execution and using intelligent principles of chasing and support play can put defences under a lot of pressure and force exploitable mistakes.
In this example, the running lines of Fa’auli, Lienert-Brown and Damian McKenzie – circled below – are the key. The Bulls have crowded the front line with defenders, leaving little space for chasers to get through into the backfield. The Chiefs’ backs, however, pick lines in the space outside Jesse Kriel’s right shoulder:
This means that they are able to flood into the backfield unopposed, and as Ismaiel picks up the ball he is faced by pressure from these three players and Sam Cane (whose precise footwork takes him between the two Bulls second rows) – with support available from only one teammate:
It is not a certainty that this pressure will force a fumble, but the Chiefs’ chasers taking this line increases the chance of this substantially, and means that they have the numbers in this area of the pitch to exploit any semblance of an opportunity that arises.
A more extreme example of this principle was seen in their game against the Waratahs last season, where Stephen Donald finds McKenzie with a chip as the fullback runs through into space on this wider line:
Another good example of Chiefs using McKenzie’s speed on a support line which circumvents midfield traffic – this time in phase play: pic.twitter.com/ErBvKGl9dy
— The Chase (@thechasesport) June 3, 2017