TOKYO, 3 Oct - After 18 matches in this World Cup wingers had been the most prolific scorers with 28 tries, rising to 37 if you include the third component of the modern back three, the full-back.
This is no freak statistic: once several phases of forward carries into contact have tied up the defence in the middle of the pitch, gaps appear out wide as attackers start to outnumber defenders. What is more, an organised defence will tend to concentrate on the area immediately around the breakdown and fail to account for players waiting in wider positions.
When attackers outnumber defenders, we call it an overlap. If there are five defenders and eight attackers on one side of the breakdown, for instance, we say there is a three-man overlap. And the best place to exploit that overlap is out wide.
One way to overcome such a numerical disadvantage is to force the attack to make more passes. The more the attackers have to pass the ball, the more likely they are to drop the ball, so the defenders may leave the three outside attackers unmarked. The attack, in contrast, wants to move the ball wide quickly before the defence can drift across and cover the wide attackers.
In the clip below, Ireland have six defenders to five Japan attackers so this is not an overlap. However, the Irish defence is very narrow and bunched towards the centre of the field, so although there is not a numerical advantage there is still a player - Kenki Fukuoka - standing on the wing with no defender in front of him.
The goal for Japan is to get the ball to Fukuoka before the Irish defence can get across. To do this, inside-centre Ryoto Nakamura throws a miss-pass over the head of Kotaro Matsushima, straight to the penultimate player, Timothy Lafaele. Japan now have their overlap: Lafaele and Fukuoka against Rob Kearney. By moving the ball out wide Japan have used up all Ireland’s defenders and allowed Fukuoka to run in unopposed.
The example below, from Japan's opening match against Russia, shows how attacking teams can break down a seemingly organised defence.
Defences tighten up in the midfield to prevent easy tries being scored through the middle. Defensive coaches obviously do not want to allow any tries to be scored against their team but when they are scored they want the attack to have worked hard for them by forcing them to go all the way to the wing to score. In this case, Russia succeed in forcing Japan to the wing.
The Japan try is scored thanks to the excellent offload by Lafaele in midfield. His flipped pass draws the widest defender, Vasily Artemyev, away from the winger Kotaro Matsushima. Artemyev has to leave the widest attacker on his own because Japan have an opportunity to score through the middle. Artemyev steps in, Will Tupou passes to the newly unmarked Matsushima and Japan score, pictured above.
Like the try against Ireland, Japan have not had to go through any defenders, they simply move the ball wide until there are no defenders left to beat.
If teams try to pass wide one player at a time they will struggle to score. Without an overlap, narrow defence, or an exceptional bit of skill they will often find themselves simply going from side to side. This is not challenging for defences. It also makes turning over the ball easier because there are fewer attackers out wide to win it back once you are tackled.
Tries scored out wide are usually a symptom of excellent work done by the forwards in the midfield. Strong carries draw in defenders, creating the space needed out wide for the wingers to strike.
Expect to see rugby’s poachers score more tries at RWC 2019 as the players inside them put them in the position to succeed.