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Monday Morning Fly Half: Victory Loops

There are a lot of ways to win in rugby. To say it is as sample as a few big picture platitudes is to minimize the nuance of the sport. But if I were forced to simplify the makings a victory to the greatest extent possible, I would say that rugby is about executing your loops better than your opponent. That could be anything from running a phase, getting quick ball and running another, to making a tackle, regaining defensive shape, and making another tackle. 

It’s about loops. Did I run my attack phase slightly faster than defense got into shape, creating room for my next attack phase, making it even harder for the defense to get into shape, and so on until there’s a line break? Or, perhaps, did I attack away from my support runner on my third phase, allowing the defense to poach the ball? Did I successfully transition from lineout to maul or did the defense manage to disrupt our maul formation? The processes repeat, the strategies are fairly simple, and the margins are thin. To win is to win your loops.

But there are many ways to execute a better loop. It could be a question of individual brilliance or it could be the result of team cohesion. It could be audacity or it could be simplicity. 

I submit that Atlanta, New York and Houston each showed a unique path to victory this week that sheds light on how they will seek to win their loops for the rest of the season in chase of a playoff berth.

Speed Loop

Atlanta play fast on both sides of the ball. Their loops are speedy and it puts pressure on their opposition, forcing mistakes and fatigue.

So it was with visiting Austin this week, who dropped their fist match of the season in a surprisingly thorough 29-14 loss to the Rattlers. 

The Austin defense, which had not surrendered more than 18 points in match yet this season, was a step too slow for the Atlanta attack. Phase after phase, Atlanta would move so quickly that Austin would be unable to line up a tackle and slow the ball down. The home side took small chunk by small chunk, keeping the ball in Austin territory (60% possession) and keeping the Gilgronis under fire.

Eventually they broke through, pulling ahead to a 16-0 lead. And though the Gilgronis would stage a comeback of sorts, at one point narrowing it to a five point deficit at 19-14, they never truly seemed to threaten. Atlanta line speed on defense, like their attacking speed, kept Austin from executing much of its fancy backfield game. The constant defensive aggression forced nine handling errors to Atlanta’s four. 

In the end, Atlanta were too fast for Austin, who needed more time in both attack and defense than they were offered.

Contact Loop

If I told you I had watched a rugby match between the following two teams, who would you think had won?

Clean Breaks: Team A - 1, Team B - 5

Handling Errors: Team A - 15, Team B - 7

Tackle Success: Team A - 89%, Team B - 87%

Lineout Success: Team A - 92%, Team B - 100%

Scrum Success: Team A - 100%, Team B - 93%

Clearly, this is an incomplete picture (as all stats are). We have only limited stat access in Major League Rugby. But from this snapshot, limited as it is, you might draw the conclusion that Team A’s handling errors and ability to generate line breaks would be their downfall in an otherwise pretty even contest.

But these stats belong to New York (Team A) and San Diego (Team B) from this weekend, when New York edged the visiting Legion 26-23.

How did RNY pull it off? It’s hard to quantify, but in my view, RNY is arguably the best team in the MLR at controlling the point of contact. Led by Captain Nate Brakeley, whose ruck arrival rate is historic, New York does a great job making the most of the breakdown. Because it isn’t as simple as generating penalties, sometimes it doesn’t show up in the stats. But even offensive rucks which should be lost balls end up salvaged by cunning RNY ruck efforts. And counter-rucks, even when they don’t produce turnovers, are used opportunistically to great effect. New York disrupted San Diego’s attack several times by quickly recognizing an under protected ball and bringing the counter-ruck into San Diego’s scrum half. 

This is where New York separated itself from San Diego, and one way a team can give themselves the edge they need to win a close contest.

Ball Control Loop

When Houston beat LA in Week 1, they did it by denying the Giltinis enough ball to work their magic. They plodded, they bullied, they muddled, but they eventually crushed LA under the weight of their consistency.

It was a big win, but it left doubts. Could the Houston attack score without the multiple yellow card benefit it had been given?

Ever since, Houston have been turning up the dial in attacking ambition. So much so that they likely turned it too far, getting away from their strengths of size and physicality. 

This week, Houston struck the right balance. Playing their best game of the season, Houston edged the Seawolves in AVEVA Stadium 21-19. Harkening back to their Week 1 win, they denied Seawolves the ball for most of the first half, frustrating Seattle with consistent, heavy-hitting attack lines. Seattle defended admirably, keeping Houston to only a 7-5 halftime lead. 

Starting the second half was a different story. Seattle flipped the script, controlling the ball and showing how dangerous a side they can be in attack. They briefly held a 12-7 lead after entirely controlling minutes 40-60. 

But in the end, Seattle failed where Houston succeeded - ball control. They turfed a pass while attacking deep in Houston territory, which Danny Barrett picked up and ran back nearly the whole way for a try. A simple pass to his support runner Dillon Smit finished the play and put Houston ahead for good. 

In the end, even with 20 minutes of the game going all the Seawolves’ way, Houston managed 58% territory and 46% possession. For the parts of the game in which they excelled, they played error-free rugby with just the right amount of flare. Seattle had no answer for it. That is the recipe for SaberCat success, and when they get the balance right, they will be tough to beat.