Brian Ashton: Two No9s can really put the quick into quick ball

Tackling the issues
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The Independent Online

Having enjoyed a succession of wonderful games last weekend, I felt a huge sense a gratitude to the Heineken Cup for reaching parts of me the Guinness Premiership has so far failed to reach.

The character and focus shown by London Irish in their immense victory over the holders Leinster in Dublin; the breathless battle-back by Leicester, seemingly on the canvas at home to Ospreys only to force a sensational 32-32 draw; the gripping contest of Test quality that saw Northampton withstand a typical Munster offensive at Franklin's Gardens thanks to the vision of Shane Geraghty and a mighty performance by their forwards.

Everywhere you looked there was drama, quality and excitement generated by Europe's premier club competition.

For me, however, there was also one of those illuminating moments, as if a light bulb began to flash above my head, jolting my memory, forcing into focus the ragged edges of a concept that had long lain dormant.

Watching Toulouse defeat an admittedly understrength Sale, I was hauled to the edge of the sofa as Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and Byron Kelleher repeatedly operated as if Stade were playing with two scrum-halves.

Hardly surprising they have that ability since Elissalde played scrum-half so often for France, while the former Otago and Waikato half-back Kelleher was a respected All Black between 1999 and 2006.

What returned to the fore in my mind was the fact that here is a weapon of considerable power to wield against the increasingly choking defences of the modern game. Yet the concept is far from a fresh development.

Frédéric Michalak and Elissalde often operated this formidable double act for France during the years leading up to the 2003 World Cup. And I remember vividly how Austin Healey and Matt Dawson could switch roles for England. Healey, out on the wing, would become scrum-half when play was in his zone while Dawson, who actually played fly-half for Northampton more than once, would remain infield and therefore closer to the tackle area when it happened away from the wing. Kyran Bracken, the former England captain and a Lion at scrum-half, led the England Under-16s at fly-half. He also went on to swap roles when playing for England with Healey.

You can go back over the years and unearth similar examples, but never have we needed such a weapon more, not least as proof that you don't need to tamper with the laws of the game to effect positive change.

This season, Ryan Lamb and Paul Hodgson interchanged cleverly as Irish beat Gloucester 40-10 at the Madejski Stadium. But then some people may not be aware that fly-half Lamb played scrum-half to Danny Cipriani's stand-off for England Under-19s, or that Hodgson often swapped roles playing in the 2002 Under-21s World Cup.

There are several considerable advantages to adopting this tactical ploy.

For example, imagine being able to facilitate delivering quick ball from the tackle area time and again, made possible by the fact that, instead of your scrum-half racing all over the field in pursuit of the ball, you have two scrum-halves in terms of servicing that tackle area; there's always someone closer to the game's key area.

Once you achieve this duality, you become able to maintain the pace and tempo of the game that you want to achieve. Player takes ball into the tackle-area, presents ball... and often you wait for the scrum-half to arrive before the phases continue.

With players fitter, faster and so well organised, every second you afford the opposition before punching home the advantage of your possession becomes equal to lost yards. The dreaded expression "slow ball" is one defences long to hear.

You could make an immense impact when able to sustain an attack on your terms, rather than having to repeatedly deal with lost momentum and the very fast closure of gaps that occur when an attack is held up.

Most defences operate effectively over a width of between 35 to 40 metres. Stretch your defence wider than that and opponents will penetrate the resultant gaps. Now, imagine being able to switch the focus of attack to 40 metres away from the tackle area with just two passes.

Very often, the ball will be moved 10 to 12 metres from the tackle area which allows defenders to home in quickly, regroup even if you have executed some play in midfield to reverse the attack's direction. The lack of width favours defenders.

Get it really wide with accuracy, however, and defences will ultimately snap like weary elastic. You can only cover the width of a rugby pitch so often before the team in possession find space.

Toulouse exposed this more than once against Sale, who found it really difficult to defend against what was effectively two scrum-halves.

There will be a number of gifted individuals capable of slotting in at both scrum-half and fly-half. Get them both operating both roles at key moments and you automatically pose new problems for defences, enhancing the dynamics of the game without the use of artificial tamperings.

Counter-attacks due a comeback

Sighs of relief were heard all round when most of the desperate Experimental Law Variations were abandoned. But I’m beginning to wonder if everyone in rugby is aware of that. It’s as if the ELVs have gone, but not the fear they generated, the wretched aerial tennis that resulted in badly conceived tactical fiddling.

I can understand, to an extent, the anxiety early in the season as teams try to readjust, particularly when so much remains to be clarified about the tackle area. Coaches fear conceding penalties inside their own half.

But whatever happened to the counter-attack? Munster executed a beauty last Saturday, Keith Earls fielding a kick, haring across the back line, accelerating around Chris Ashton and firing a lovely kick off the outside of his right boot up the left just as he was tackled. Saints were caught with shorts around ankles as David Wallace collected the kickahead to score before Phil Dowson could reach him.

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