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Winging it

Jason Taylor talks Sea Eagle tactics that make Gronk's scientific papers look like a child's crayon book. Actually, be warned, this may resemble a child's crayon book after being coloured in....


There are 13 players when a rugby league team takes the field. When a tackle is made, two defending players are allowed to remain standing behind one another, immediately in front of the tackled player in the ''marker'' position. Meanwhile, the fullback is positioned behind the defensive line in order to cover kicks or breaks. With these players being removed from the defensive line, teams are effectively left with 10 defenders to cover the width of the field. Did you know a rugby league field is 68 metres wide?
In the modern day, the game is played under the 10-metre rule, meaning the defensive line must be 10m from where the tackle occurs on every play. This isolates the 10 defenders from the markers, ensuring the defenders' job of successfully patrolling the 68m is much more difficult than it once was. According to rugby league historian David Middleton, the game was once played under the ''zero-yard'' rule, which allowed the entire defensive team, fullback excluded, to stand in line with where the tackle was made. This gave the defending team 12 defenders in the line as opposed to 10 and would have made covering the 68m - or 75 yards in those days - a lot simpler.
Considering the changes this game has gone through over the past century, what I find amazing all these years later is the symmetry in the number of defenders in relation to the width of the field. Ten is the perfect number of players in the defensive line to evenly cover a 68-metre-wide field.
When a player is tackled directly in the middle of the field or on the 50 per cent line (50/50), the defending team will split their line putting five defenders on one side of the ruck and five on the other. See defensive line 1 in the above diagram, which is drawn to scale. When a player is tackled at 60 per cent (60/40), the defensive team will split their line with six on the longer side and four on the shorter side. (See defensive line 2). In both defensive lines 1 and 2 the defenders have the field well covered and should be confident of successfully repelling the opposition. Teams do a lot of practice at getting their numbers right from these types of percentages and all of the players know where they need to be at a 50 or 60 per cent play-the-ball. Tries can, and will, be scored from these positions but they will usually be due to a defensive error or a brilliant attacking play.
This all brings us to Des Hasler and his Manly Sea Eagles. Hasler, along with a few other coaches in the NRL, has got his team working for percentage lines of 55 and 45 per cent instead of the traditional 40, 50 or 60 per cent. If a team will allocate a five-and-five defensive split at 50/50 and six and four at 60/40, then ideally they will need 5.5 and 4.5 at 55/45. What obviously makes this difficult is you can't split a player in half. So vital decisions have to be made on the spur of the moment and, irrespective, one side of the defensive line will be left vulnerable.
Defensive line 3 on the above diagram illustrates what the defensive line looks like when the split is four and six. The four defenders on the shorter side in this formation (highlighted) have three to four metres more to cover than they do in defensive line 2. Defensive line 4 is from the same position but this time the defenders have decided to go with a five and five split.
In this set-up, the highlighted five defenders on the longer side have three to four metres more to cover than the five defenders in defensive line 1. "Three to four metres isn't much," I hear you say. Well wait until someone scores a try in the corner tonight and it is a matter of millimetres as to whether he goes into touch or scores the try. Three to four metres can be a very long way.
For those of you wondering if the teams really work on stuff that is so precise, believe it. My old coach, Warren Ryan, used to talk about the science of rugby league. ''The uneducated only see the bash and barge,'' he used to say, ''They have no idea about the science behind it all.''
Manly bash and barge with the best of them but they also have the science. Look out for a Manly forward getting tackled directly in line with the left or right post (55/45) tonight and watch what happens next.


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