- RFUtv looks at the importance of restarts with Catt, Farrell and Launchbury
- "It's something we prepare a hell of a lot" – Catt
The biggest Tests can be decided by the smallest of margins. Look no further that the inches which separated David Strettle from a career-defining last-minute try when Wales last visited Twickenham in the RBS 6 Nations.
But in the search to capitalise on the finer details ahead of the 2014 edition of England versus Wales this Sunday, it would be remiss to lose focus of the fundamentals of winning rugby matches – where on the pitch you can apply pressure on the opposition and how quickly you can win back treasured possession.
That is why England now regard restarts as the third set-piece, joining the scrum and lineout as the building blocks of the game. A simple glance at their frequency adds weight to this analysis.
During England’s RBS 6 Nations opener against France there were 14 occasions for the game to be restarted after points were scored or a half needed to be started, while there were 12 scrums. Against New Zealand last autumn there were 13 restarts and 11 scrums.
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Fly half Owen Farrell, the man who kicks the ball to the opposition at set-plays, speaks with increasing authority on the game and outlined in simple terms why they are important. “After you score points and you come back [to your half] and get the ball kicked to you, you can’t give the other team the ascendency,” said the Saracens man. “You’ve got make sure you turn a positive into another positive and that’s the way you build momentum in a game.
“Likewise, if you’ve conceded points you want to get back on track as soon as you can and restarts are an opportunity to get the ball back and get some pressure on.
“The forwards put a lot of work into it; it’s an unbelievable skill to figure out where the ball is going and get a man up that far in the air to catch it. I know I couldn’t do it.”
But why have restarts become seemingly more important in today’s game? Within Farrell’s words a first suggestion emerges: a modern understanding of the impact of emotional momentum. Building what the 22 year-old calls “positives into positives” exponentially ratchets up the stress on the opposition – and what better time to do that than after they have just conceded points.
Another suggestion appears from one of Farrell’s admired teammates, towering Joe Launchbury. The six foot seven inch lock guards one of England’s wide channels on restarts, ready with a trusted pod of lifters to collect the wider, flatter kicks to the touchline.
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Fitter, bigger players and exhaustive video analysis have resulted in highly organised defences that are hard to break down, which means playing the territorial game has only become more important.
“The way the game is now it is often pretty tight so playing in the right areas of the field is extremely important,” said the 22 year-old. “We work very hard on exits – getting out of our 22 and our half – which is where the restart really comes into it. If you don’t secure your ball there it can be very difficult to get out of your half for quite a while after that.”
“I obviously missed the one in France and then a minute later and with the bounce of the ball we were under the posts. About 20 minutes before kick-off you know whether you’re kicking or receiving and especially as a second row you need to get your head on it.”
England practice restarts in some form each time they train, with Mike Catt leading on the strategy in the team’s integrated coaching set-up. With the broad options to kick long for territory or to kick closer to the 10-metre line compete for the ball, the attacking skills coach outlined how the decision is made.
For the 75-Test England back, it’s about giving his players an armoury of options which equip them to maximise the situation in front of them: “It depends on what the scoreboard is, what the weather conditions are and whether they’ve got good kickers themselves. You work out how you can pressurise a team and get some good mileage out of it.
“If they’ve got tall backs you don’t go there but if they’ve got a short wing you might be able to go to a Luther Burrell or Jonny May who are good in the air. So it’s pretty much about seeing the picture and then playing accordingly.”
It’s all about applying pressure, because as Catt says “when team is under pressure, that’s when points come”.
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Kick-returns – running the ball back after collecting a kick – are the important thing, with a high proportion of tries scored when there is the opportunity to run at an unconnected defence.
“It’s from the kick returns that you can really go and expose sides,” said Catt, who started a Test in every position accross the backline except scrum half. “It depends on how many numbers they’ve had to put into the breakdown, who is kicking the ball, how disjointed they are.
“The stats show that a lot of tries are scored off kick-returns, so what you do is pressurise the opposition, they kick badly, then it lands in the hands of your Fodens, your Browns, the guys who can really open up defences.
“It’s something we prepare a hell of a lot but it’s also about making sure that all the players understand it.”
Restarts are a crucial factor in emotional momentum and territory and possession in a tight game, while they are also one of the best opportunities to score tries. Get them right against Wales on Sunday and England will go some way to securing a first Triple Crown since 2003.