‘It’s about being creative but effective… you try to manipulate the defence’

EVERYONE’S AT IT these days.

Hit up with a direct carry in midfield from set-piece and then swing back against the grain towards the touchline and target the tight five forwards as they attempt to organise the defensive line.

With defences very often folding rapidly around the corner, many attacking teams are exploiting these blindside channels to great effect.

Last weekend, we saw Leinster getting in on the act during their Guinness Pro14 win against the Dragons.

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Leinster play off the right-hand side touchline, with scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park starting at the front of the seven-man lineout and dropping out to accept the ball off the top from James Ryan.

Jack Conan starts in the receiver position, but his run out over the 15-metre line [white below] is clever and subtly important.

Conan’s run makes him a viable receiver of the pass from Gibson-Park and therefore lures Dragons ‘tailgunner’ Elliot Dee briefly towards Conan [as indicated in red above].

That means that Dee is delayed in picking up the excellent running line of Robbie Henshaw [blue below].

Dee can’t get a shoulder onto Henshaw and the Leinster centre bursts into the ‘seam’ in behind the Dragons lineout, with the Welsh side’s out-half, Josh Lewis, having to turn in to tackle him.

It’s simple and effective play from Leinster to open enough space for Henshaw to hammer over the gainline on first phase.

As Leinster resource the breakdown through Andrew Porter, Conan, Scott Fardy and Josh van der Flier, we can see some of the Dragons forwards working hard to fold around the corner in defence. 

We can also see that Johnny Sexton, at the bottom of the shot above, is shaping as if to receive the ball from Gibson-Park.

Even before Henshaw has completed his carry, there is important movement going on away from the ball.

Fullback Rob Kearney [white below] is sweeping across into the blindside channel.

Simultaneously, Sean Cronin, Max Deegan and Ed Byrne [all circled in red] are retreating to provide options on that side of the ruck after their involvements in the lineout.

When Leinster bounce back against the grain on their second phase, we can see in the clip below that second row Ryan has worked around the corner to further convince Dragons that the attack will continue on the openside.

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As Gibson-Park scoops the ball and bursts back to his right, he’s picking on a pair of props.

Loosehead Brok Harris [white below] and tighthead Lloyd Fairbrother [red] are tasked with defending that fringe of the ruck.

It’s worth noting what the length of Leinster’s breakdown does here.

While van der Flier doesn’t actually physically impede Harris, the length of the breakdown does mean the Dragons prop’s view is ever-so-briefly impeded as he slides back to the blindside.

Harris is the ‘pillar’ on this side of the ruck now and his role is to mark up that space on the fringe of the ruck – rather than following Gibson Park’s arcing run – but he is uncomfortable and instead tracks Gibson-Park.

Ideally, it would be Fairbrother who deals with Gibson-Park but we can see below that he is worried about the threatening run of Byrne to the scrum-half’s outside shoulder.

The combined effect is that when Cronin switches back underneath Gibson-Park and takes the delicately laid-off pass, he’s running into clear space in the ‘pillar’ area and uses his pace to burst through the line.

The little bit of shape around Gibson-Park is clever from Leinster but it’s also important to note that there are other options for the scrum-half.

The camera angles aren’t great here, but as Cronin bursts through, we can see Deegan [white below] and Kearney [red] in the background.

Jordan Larmour is completely out of shot also coming back down this channel after initially showing just in behind Sexton on first phase.

It all means that the other two Dragons defenders on this side of the ruck, Cory Hill and Rhodri Williams, don’t tighten into the fringe of the ruck, leaving Leinster in ideal shape to exploit the positioning of props Harris and Fairbrother.

Positively for Leinster, there is support play from the other side of the ruck through Sexton and Garry Ringrose, circled in white below, almost ahead of Cronin, whose pace means he doesn’t need to pass and can instead finish himself.

Wide on the left, out of shot, Dave Kearney has provided width on that side of the pitch in a bid to further stretch the Dragons defence.

Leinster ran almost this exact play the week before against Scarlets, allowing Gibson-Park to make a nice linebreak, but this version against the Dragons featured slight tweaks and yielded a very satisfying try.

The man in charge of Leinster’s set-piece attack this season is Felipe Contepomi and he was happy with this effort from his players.

“You try to manipulate defences because nowadays they are so technical and so good that it’s harder and harder to find space out there,” says Contepomi.

“It was a move we looked at and we thought we’d have a chance. We took it and that’s important because we need to take those opportunities.”

Leinster have targeted a big improvement in their set-piece attack as they attempt to be even better than last season.

“I think the guys are understanding that opportunities might not come that frequently throughout a game and we need to take them,” says Contepomi. “We’re working hard to get as good as we can in that area.”

There was another pleasing score directly from a set-piece platform for Leinster in this game, with van der Flier finishing a clever move underneath the posts. 

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Leinster are playing against 14 men in this instance, with Ross Moriarty in the sin bin.

Some teams would put one of their backs into the scrum in that scenario, but the Dragons opt to scrum with their seven forwards.

Leinster intelligently exploit that decision.

Gibson-Park breaks to the left of the scrum [white below] to sell an attack in that direction to the Dragons, with scrum-half Rhodri Williams and flanker Aaron Wainright lured by his movement.

As Conan picks and bursts off the base of the scrum, we can see that Sexton and Henshaw are running flat lines to his outside on the right [red above], providing further distraction for the Dragons.

As Conan accelerates forward, Dragons openside Nic Cudd breaks off the scrum to tackle him, as indicated in white below, but Conan slips the pass back inside to van der Flier.

With no number eight coming off the Dragons scrum, as would usually be the case, van der Flier has more than enough time to finish through the despairing tackle of Jack Dixon turning back in.

The forwards got a late maul try for Leinster in this game from a five-metre lineout, while the Irish province had an intriguing move off a scrum platform in the first half against the Dragons, running a switch into a screen into an inside pass.

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Leinster make a good dent on the gainline in the process and the move looks like a lot of fun, drawing a murmur of appreciation from the crowd at the RDS.

“It’s not about fun,” says Contepomi, “it’s about being creative but effective. There’s no point if you just flick the ball around, turn around, do whatever you want. If you don’t score, it’s nothing.

“For me, it’s more about trying to be as effective as possible, play as simple as possible. The thing is that when you have a set-piece with the scrum, nowadays the defences are so good that you have to be a bit creative and try to manipulate them to buy something by running good lines.

“We’re working hard on it and the boys’ understanding is getting better and better. Even by themselves, they’re starting to see, ‘Oh, we could have gone this way or that way.’ I’m happy the way they’re working really hard, that’s as much as you can ask as a coach.”

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