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FEATURE – How important is the breakdown?

07 February 2013

  • RFUtv looks at the breakdown with Rowntree and Wood
  • “Run in there as fast as you can and hit somebody with your head” – Wood

In the increasingly technical chess match that is modern Test rugby, it’s refreshing to hear an old-fashioned willingness to “run in there as fast as you can and hit someone with your head” is considered the crucial factor in winning matches.

England’s attack sparkled in the last two games at Twickenham, with 38 point hauls and four tries in each of the comprehensive victories over New Zealand and Scotland. But as Mike Catt, whose 75 England caps were spread across every position in the backline except scrum half, says a back division is only as good as the quality of a ball they are provided with.

Taking last Saturday’s victory over Scotland as an example, an unambiguous picture emerges after a look at the areas where possession is contested. Totting up the lineouts (24), scrums (13) and restarts (14), the ball was battled for 51 times, while data from England’s analysts shows there are between 200 and 250 breakdowns in a typical Test match.

Therefore, it’s unsurprising that Graham Rowntree describes success at the tackle area as “everything” in winning games at the top level, and every level for that matter, of rugby.

England Forwards Coach Graham Rowntree, who leads on the breakdown

Photo: Getty Images

Reviewing recent matches, Rowntree, who leads on the breakdown in England’s integrated coaching set up, said: “If you win that contact area, you win the game, the intensity of our breakdown is winning us games.

“There are more breakdowns than anything else, so we need to coach it as much as any part of the game. It is a mind-set, but there are some technical things that we’ve improved on.”

A good person to ask about what you need for success at the breakdown is someone who, by their own admission “spends all their time at the bottom of rucks, it’s where I’m happiest.” Tom Wood topped England’s ruck attendance stats with 39 against New Zealand and 45 against Scotland and he said attitude is the key.

“It’s a collective will, the breakdown is not a science,” he said. “You can work on the technicalities all you like but ultimately you’ve got to be able to run in there as fast as you can and hit somebody with your head.”

And therein lies the difficulty in planning training sessions. As the Northampton Saints man explains, judo holds and the specifics of manoeuvring opponents around become useless if someone weighing 20-stone runs in and bashes you as hard as they can.

“To really get anything out of training, you have to be full on,” he added. “It’s difficult to work at real intensity because the emphasis is on being fresh for the weekend.  If you’re physically and mentally fresh you can apply it at the weekend and it’s all about applying it on a Saturday.

“We work on it a lot here, we work on our steal technique but it’s largely about reinforcing a mind-set and then making sure you apply it.”

IRB referee Alain Rolland

Photo: Getty Images

But England are far from tearing round hitting breakdowns unnecessarily, with contact area training sessions focusing on decision making and striking a balance between the requisite intensity and preservation of bodies for game day.

Rowntree said: “You’ve got to want to tackle, you’ve got to want to clear out, and on the back of that the best teams these days are very accurate in how they arrive at the breakdown in terms of not flopping off their feet and clearing the threat out of the area.

“Players need to read what’s in front them so we coach various techniques. I don’t want guys to lose momentum as they enter to clear out,  not stopping on the ball, so that means we’re making decisions a few steps away of how we’re going to get rid of the tackler and assistant tackler.”

But the players are not the only ones making decisions at the tackle area, with demonstrating what you are doing at the breakdown to the referee virtually as important as doing it. It is important England are armed with the knowledge to make good decisions, as Wood explains.

“There are some pretty contrasting approaches to the games from referees,” he added. “Graham Rowntree regularly gives presentations on what his cadence is like in the scrum, how does he ref the breakdown, will he allow you any side entries, is he going to allow you to stick on the ball or is he going to whistle you the moment you do something wrong.”

The man himself elaborates: “The players have to understand what the referee wants, so we spend time specifically analysing what they want and what their traits are. For example, on our defensive breakdown we want to show good release as a tackler to give the referee a good picture and then he’ll think England are clean and they want to have a positive attitude to the game.”

England scrum half Ben Youngs uses quick ball against Scotland

Photo: Getty Images

And a final word on the result of all this work at the tackle area from the man closest to the action and its main beneficiary, scrum half Ben Youngs. The Leicester Tigers man gorged himself on the quick ball served up by England’s indefatigable forwards Wood, Chris Robshaw, Geoff Parling and Joe Launchbury, throwing two pinpoint scoring passes in the Scotland victory.

England’s ruck speed was less than four seconds in that game, the swiftest for some time, and talking about fast ball Youngs said:  “We want to be world-leading at the breakdown.

“We want to play a fast, enjoyable, off-loading game and to be able to do that it comes to how hard you  carry and winning the breakdown and getting that dominance. With quick ball we can play on top of the opposition.”