Offloading in rugby is an art form. It is a fantastic, attractive sight to see. It is to rugby what one-touch passing is to football, or the drop-shot is to tennis. A team known for offloads will invariably be associated with flair, skill, excitement – they’re worth the entrance fee.
The French teams of the 1980s and ’90s were renowned for their ability to find a way to get a pass out of contact.
Videos of floppy-haired Frenchmen humiliating any team in the world can be easily found online. The most famous of which is perhaps L’essai du bout du monde (the try from the end of the world) from 1984, against the All Blacks no less.
For a time during the mid-2000s – during a period when defence reigned supreme over attack, and defensive orientated sides like Wasps were on top in Euorpe – offloading was in fact considered one of the most effective ways to attack.
Blitz defences were a new tactic adopted from rugby league and teams were still trying to figure out how to unlock them. Offloading was one of the methods touted as a means of getting through a defence such as this.
Defence in rugby relies on an organized line and dominating contact areas. Offloading is a relatively simple way to beat flat defences. If a ball-carrier can get his arms free when being tackled and manages an offload to a support runner, the entire defensive system breaks down – the line has been breached and the defence go into a scramble.
There are many examples of this method of breaching a defence, but the most illustrative example came in the second test of the 2005 Lions series against New Zealand.
From a scrum on their own 10m line, Aaron Mauger took switch off Dan Carter, freed his arms from the tackle, offloaded to Tana Umaga and ten seconds later the All Blacks cross the line to score. It was a simple, but devastatingly effective move. It showed how easily an offload can cause a line-break when done accurately.
More recently, Sonny Bill Williams has become famed for his ability to offload out of contact and set up line breaks. The combination of his speed, footwork, strength in contact and his high skill level with the ball in hand mean that he is able to take the ball into a collision, win that collision, and get a hand free and into a position to offload to support runners.
It is not a guaranteed line break but it is a threat teams must adapt to, and the worry about his offloads are likely to draw in defenders and create space elsewhere.
In the 2011 Super Rugby season, Sonny Bill Williams, then playing for the Crusaders, had the most offloads of any player in the competition. In second places was Quade Cooper from the Reds. With 54 and 42 offloads respectively, they were far above the next best offloading player, who had 30 throughout the season.
Interestingly, the Crusaders and the Reds were the two teams who made it to the final of the competition that year.
But it is difficult to determine if there is reverse causality at play in this instance. Did they have more offloads because they had a few extra games in making it to the final, or did the high number of offloads contribute to getting them to the final? It is hard to know.
There were obviously moments in that season where their players offloading brought attacking success for both teams – in the semi-finals alone, both Williams and Cooper created tries with an offload; Williams to Robbie Freuan, and Cooper to Ben Tapuai.
Notably, in that same year, the ACT Brumbies were the team who finished the 2011 season with the most offloads, yet they had their worst season in over a decade, and have since improved massively, while playing a far more conservative form of rugby.
But the success or failure of a team is obviously not dependent alone on how often they offload. It is merely one tactic that can be used in attack. But it is a particularly potent weapon, so why do Ireland under Joe Schmidt not use it?
A lot has been made of the fact that Ireland under Schmidt do not appear to offload out of the tackle very often, and the stats seem to back up this perception.
Ireland only played one game in 2014 in which they threw more offloads than their opposition, and that was a heavy defeat of Georgia.
Furthermore, there was not a single game all year in which they threw a double-digit number of offloads. For context, NZ averaged over 13 offloads per game in their November tour, despite losing three of their four games?
So what would explain Ireland’s reluctance to utilise the offload? The preceding paragraphs have extolled the virtues of the offload, but have not discussed the drawbacks in any depth.
The drawbacks would have to be significant enough to shift a coach’s tactics away from them. So what are they?
The most obvious negative is that offloads are risk-laden – far more so than other attacking tactics. Although an offload generally is a short pass, for several reasons there is a greatly increased risk that something could go wrong during an offload.
In contrast to a short pass before contact, the ball could be knocked off its trajectory during a collision by a swinging limb with the closer proximity of players.
Furthermore, the offloading player will likely be falling or off balance while attempting the pass, so their control of the ball will not be as good. Finally, the timing of the offload is more difficult than the standard pass as players are moving faster in smaller spaces.
It is clear that Schmidt is a risk-averse coach by nature, and the level of analysis he is famous for suggests that he likes to leave little to chance.
In an interview with Brendan Fanning following Ireland’s victory over Australia, Schmidt said of Nick Phipps first try,
“If you are not [in control of yourself and the ball] then there is a real risk that the offload is going to go awry or it’s going to be untidy, and as we saw 17-0 up (against Australia), one offload goes awry…and he’s gone.”
But there may be another reason for his distaste for offloading. As we all know, Joe Schmidt sings at the church of accuracy, particularly breakdown accuracy. When a player is taking the ball into contact and the support players think he may offload the ball, there will be a moment of hesitation while they figure out if the ball-carrier will offload or not.
The body positions for taking an offload and carrying the ball is very different for the body position required to clear out a ruck. In the first, the supporting player would remain upright and not break stride, in the second they will dip their hips and shoulders and shorten their stride in preparation for clearing an opposition player out of a the subsequent ruck.
This moment of hesitation caused by uncertainty about the actions of your teammate could potentially be the difference between a successful clear-out and slow ruck ball, or worse, a turnover.
It is always impossible to be certain what the opposition will do, but is possible to know what your own team will do.
It is possible that Joe Schmidt has instructed his Ireland team to sacrifice the benefits of offloading for the benefits of ruck-time certainty. Faster clearouts mean a shorter amount of time to get the ball onto the next phase, making it harder for the opposition to defend.
Ireland are not a particularly large or powerful team by international standards. For this reason the breakdown is the key to Irish success when they are attempting to run the ball. The added certainty for support runners of knowing that they will be clearing out a ruck and not receive an offload may seem insignificant.
However, the extra half second gained in getting the ball into the scrum half’s hands could be the difference two passes later between whether a centre running at a defence on the back foot or a defence that is moving forward.
Joe Schmidt knows that the margins are fine in international rugby, and that it is the vital little things that make the big things happen. Breakdown speed is a vital little thing.
Alan Dempsey, Pundit Arena