Peter Bills: Does the miss-pass still have a place?

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The Independent Online

The miss-pass: key to opening up rugby's modern day defences or an attacking liability?

Time was, when the miss-pass was an obviously viable, indeed valuable part of an attacking team's armour. Throwing the ball out wide, missing perhaps two players to surprise the defence, was an exciting option for the team in possession looking to make serious inroads into a defence.

Yet modern day defences have rendered this tactic far less attractive. The reason is obvious: in the modern game, the respective back lines are invariably lined up opposite each other, man on man, with space at an absolute premium. Very often, if the rush defence is employed, that minimal amount of space and time is restricted even further.

That results, all too often, in midfield players taking the safety-first option and going into contact to recycle the ball. Sometimes, it can take nine or ten such phases even before the first chink of space opens up in the defence.

But wasn't the miss-pass supposedly thought up to overcome just such a scenario? Not really. For throwing such a pass under such circumstances risks almost certain interception. The danger is, the defending team rushing up, especially out wide where the idea is to come from outside inwards thus cutting off the likely development of a side's intended back line move and forcing it to turn inside where the securest part of the defence awaits. Such defenders are perfectly capable of seizing a high, floated miss-pass. Thus, such a tactic has become a liability, a serious danger to the side in possession.

Against a broken, disorganised defence it may well be a very different story. But how many times in the modern game do we see a team's defences really torn apart? Very rarely. In those circumstances, of course it would be propitious to hurry the ball out wide where space exists to exploit. But not if there are still sufficient numbers closer in where such a pass can be intercepted.

Another problem with the miss-pass, especially where it is lofted, floated over players' heads, is that it doesn't seriously test a defence. Defenders can simply drift across, watching the flight of the ball. By the time it lands in the hands of the outside centre or wing there is invariably a defensive reception committee waiting to take both man and ball. Thus, it appears to have minimal benefit except in rare cases in the modern game.

Yet there is a reason why it could and indeed should still be utilised as a very useful attacking weapon. As with all such things, the element of surprise is key; doing it every other time a side gets the ball, is pointless. There would be no surprise factor whatever involved under such circumstances.

The trouble is, to be supremely efficient and at its most dangerous as part of the attack, the miss-pass has to be thrown not to a player but into space. If a player has to stand still to catch such a pass and then start running, chances are he will get virtually nowhere for the defence will swallow man and ball with ease.

No, speed and space are the only propitious factors whereby maximum advantage can be gained from use of the miss-pass. For example, if the inside centre makes as if to throw a short pass to his No. 13 but instead fires the ball behind that player into space which the sprinting full-back or even blindside wing is hurtling towards, then the miss-pass can start to spell serious danger for a defence.

Of course, speed is of paramount importance. Running into space at full pace and taking the ball not only threatens the defence because it is an unpredictable, unexpected angle of attack but also because the receiver is going at such speed there is every chance he will break most tackles.

But to throw such a pass at space, not at a player, is a highly skilled art, requiring great timing and precision. Get it wrong and the ball goes to no-one. Worse still, it may very well be snaffled by the defending side which then counter attacks with the previously attacking side's full-back out of position.

Yet such passes can be delivered accurately. Current England coach Brian Smith was one of the best players I saw at this art. Especially in his days at Oxford University, Smith could transfer the point of the Oxford attack in a flash with one perfectly placed miss-pass which flew past both centres to his full-back steaming up into space to take the pass at top speed. It became a major attacking weapon for Oxford during Smith's days.

But do modern day players have the skill, vision, courage, timing and precision in their game, not to mention the ability to throw a spun pass some considerable distance off either hand, to utilise this potential arm of attack?

Perhaps the answer to that is the increasing rarity of the tactic on a successful basis.