Adapt or Die: The NRL’s attacking revolution

The Melbourne Storm felt unstoppable in the early part of this decade, not just because of the quality of their players but also from the almost scripted precision of their attack. Everything seemed so well rehearsed and repeatable, their plays were not complex but torturous as they ran the same shapes at the defence over and over until they spotted one small mistake or misjudgement. If Rugby League was played by robots this is how it would’ve looked, every player knew where to stand, where to run, where to pass and their attacking ethos was more built around about suffocating their opponents rather than blowing them off the park. The Storm weren’t the first team to adopt this way of playing but they seemed to popularise the idea in the modern NRL; play high-possession, low error football and score points through the repeated use of the block-play.

The block-play is relatively simple, the idea is to always give the ball-handler two options; a lead-runner going through the defensive line or a sweeper behind him. It forms the basis of the majority of an NRL attack, here’s one from the Bulldogs earlier this year with a typical back-line;

From dummy-half they run a block-play with a decoy runner going through the line before hitting the halfback sweeping behind him. It’s then repeated for the halfback who hits the sweeping five-eighth before running the same shape again with the fullback in the sweeping role. The purpose is to continually force defenders to make decisions as the play unfolds, to ensure the decoy runner, ball-handler and sweeper are all covered should they take on the line. For years the block-play has been the most effective way to generate points and linebreaks, but it’s starting to shift.

One of the most captivating elements of sport is the battle between offence and defence, batting and bowling, pitching and hitting. Both sides are constantly adapting to the game; as offence innovates and finds an edge, the defence usually evolves in response. Rugby League is not immune to this and as the block-play has formed the staple of every attacking set, defences have found ways to blunt its effectiveness. Defensive structures have evolved leaps-and-bounds over the last couple of years with teams being specifically drilled on how to handle block-shapes. While not every teams defence is identical they are based on similar principals focused more around sliding as a team and less about individuals covering their man. On the goal-line most defences aim to move as quickly as possible off the line to contain the ball before stopping, setting and sliding with the sideways movement of the block shape.

The one deficiency of the block-play is that for the most part it all travels in the same direction, sideways, and defences are using that to their advantage by sliding with the play and reducing the chance of any individual defender becoming isolated. In this alignment if there is a misjudgment, there is always a cover defender close-by closing any space the play might generate.

The results are rather jarring, teams with a heavy focus on block-plays are finding themselves struggling to consistently generate points as the swarming sliding defence covers their sideways movement. A team like the North Queensland Cowboys who found great success with the low-error block-play based attack only a few years ago have fallen off a cliff as they’ve failed to adapt;

Other teams that still have their attacks firmly based in non-variable blocks are also struggling. The Bulldogs have very little attacking flair outside of the block shape and currently sit last in points scored. The Panthers under new coach Ivan Cleary moved to a more rigid attack at the beginning of the season and have spiralled from a healthy 20.9 points per game in 2018 to 15.6 this year.

Despite how ominous this might seem for the state of the NRL, like always the more innovative teams have found ways to adapt to the changing defensive landscape in search for a more consistent way to generate points. While a sliding defence has the advantage of being able to handle sideways movement, that’s also it’s fatal flaw. When the whole defence is moving in the same direction they become exceptionally vulnerable to any players cutting against the grain in the other direction like the following play;

Instead of hitting the decoy or sweeper in the developing block-play on his outside, Benji Marshall finds Corey Thompson running an inside-line, catching the entire South Sydney defence flat-footed as they prepare to slide to cover the block.

Wests Tigers are an interesting example, under Ivan Cleary last year they struggled mightily to score points averaging 15.1 per game in 2018. This season they’re averaging 20.3 points per game and a large part of their success is breaking out of the classic block set-up.

Another example is this play from the Broncos they run frequently;

Here the decoy, Tevita Pangai Junior, cuts a hard angle against the direction of play opening up space as the defence on the outside continues to slide and the inside defence has to stop to cover the decoy on the change of angle.

The anatomy of a successful attack is shifting, and where once the focus was on the repeated hammering of rigid sideways plays, suddenly variation and unpredictable options are proving more successful. The biggest example is how Melbourne, one of the biggest proponents of structure in years past, have innovated.

Melbourne currently average 26.4 points per game, the best in the NRL, and pending the result in the last game of the season could have their best attacking year ever. There’s no publicly available catalogue of whether trys are scored from block-plays or not, but looking at Melbourne’s 3 highest scoring games this season provides a solid reference point;

In Round 9 at Suncorp Stadium, Melbourne scored 11 trys against Parramatta, of those 11 only 3 were born from passes originating from block-plays

In Round 17 at AAMI Park, Melbourne scored 6 tries against Cronulla, of those 6 only 2 were born from passes originating from block-plays

In Round 20 at Suncorp Stadium Melbourne scored 7 tries against Brisbane, only 3 were born from passes originating from block-plays

Melbourne are having one of their most successful attacking seasons on record without relying on block-plays to score the bulk of their points. In a league where scoring has been trending down year-on-year, Melbourne’s attack is humming. While part of their offensive success can be attributed to dynamic players like Cameron Munster, who can generate points by himself, they’ve also unshackled him from the confines of structure. Melbourne often look at their best when they find Munster in unscripted, unpredictable situations; where he holds the ball and slices back against the direction of play trying to isolate defenders;

The Storm also play the defence better than any team, they understand the benefits of using angles to exploit the opportunities provided to them. One of the biggest ways they’ve achieved this throughout the season is through running angled runners near the ruck against the direction of play. When defending the goal-line modern defences are coached to fly-up off the line as fast as possible to close-down any developing plays on the outside, however the markers in front of the play the ball have to remain stationary to cover the dummy-half, and it’s those markers the Storm target through deceptive ball-playing. When their outside men fly-up off the line it creates a pocket of space for Cameron Smith where he can take the ball, drift across field and then find a dynamic ball-runner cutting against the grain to catch-out unsuspecting markers like he does here with Christian Welch;

Melbourne have been running this exact play all year and it’s consistently generated points, here’s another one with Brandon Smith;

And another one with Jahrome Hughes;

The foundation of Melbourne’s attack is built upon variation, often they’ll set-up the same way on every play but then at the last moment flip-the-script on the defence. On this play they find Cameron Smith at first receiver shaping up for what looks to be a typical block with 2 lead-runners developing on his outside and Munster lurking as the sweeper;

Instead of hitting Munster, Smith sees an opening and fires a face-pass to Asofa-Solomona forcing the defence to stop their slide and contract inwards. Munster never stops his sweep and continues his line waiting for Asofa-Solomona to attempt an offload, and when he does, the defence is in complete scramble. Variation and unpredictability are finding their way back into Rugby League.

In Round 11, a high-flying Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles played host to the Gold Coast Titans at Brookvale Oval. When asked about the game beforehand coach Des Hasler said he was very concerned, a laughable statement given the fortunes of the two clubs up until that point of the season. The reason behind the statement however was far from laughable, when asked why he was concerned Des put it simply; ‘they’re unpredictable’. The Titans won by 18 points.

While the Titans are a bad team Des’ comments speak volumes, the most concerning proposition for a team is defending the unknown. It’s this unpredictability that’s leading a revolutionary change in the way NRL teams attack. The landscape is shifting, where once defending the scripted shape of a well-run block-play looked virtually unstoppable, suddenly it’s the opposite that looks more threatening. Teams who are able to consistently present challenges to the defence outside of the confines of rigorous structure are thriving and those who have failed to change are drowning. This innovation happens often in sport, and when it does coaches are presented with two choices; adapt or die. Rarely do these revolutions go without any casualties and unless there’s a big shift in the off-season, it looks like some coaches are choosing to die.