Kick-offs tactical importance in sevens

World Rugby recently talked about Project restart, you do not need to be an aficionado to identify many of the variations that make rugby sevens such a different spectacle to the 15-player format.

It makes sense that space will be created by removing 16 players from the action while keeping the pitch the exact same size.

How other law variations impact on sevens are much more subtle, however. Take the restart, for example.

In rugby sevens it is the team that has scored which restarts the match with a kick-off on halfway. That could be interpreted as an attempt to level up the playing field and ensure that both teams have an opportunity to get their hands on the ball.

But, the best players in the world have refined their restart skills to such an extent that the kick-off has become an attacking weapon — for the team kicking the ball away.

Whereas teams in 15s will often kick-off deep into opposition territory, sevens restarts are more likely to be hung up high towards the 10 meter line in order to give the kicking side’s players a chance to chase it down.

“Sevens is all about possession, so when you’re kicking off you want to regain the ball,” Black Ferns star Kelly Brazier told World Rugby.

“Probably 95-98 per cent of the teams on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series are trying to kick pretty much just to that 10 meter line to try and regather the ball, rather than in 15s [where] it’s quite often kicked deep to try and get them to kick it out.”

Brazier added: “It’s obviously a massive part of our game and the more tries you score, the more you kick off. And, I’m obviously lucky to be a part of a team that scores quite a few tries.

“So, that’s definitely a focus point for us: how do we score and then regain the ball? So, we definitely have sessions that are spent on regathering that ball and working on the kick-offs, timing with different kickers, and those sorts of things.”

‘A CHALLENGING SKILL’

It is the same on the men’s World Series, where the most proficient teams have a restart retention rate of around 40 per cent, meaning they regain possession twice for every five kick-offs they take.

According to Marcus Watson, James Rodwell was once England’s “go-to guy” on restarts. Rodwell is now part of the Great Britain coaching team and will pass on his considerable knowledge in this area to both the men’s and women’s teams on the road to Tokyo 2020.

“The amount of times he’d get his big fingers on the ball, sort of bat them back and win us important ball was huge,” Watson said.

“There’s nothing more, almost, devastating in defense [than] when you haven’t touched the ball and the team’s scored two, three tries just from kick-offs.”

Ruaridh McConnochie admits that he had to re-learn how to catch the ball from restarts when he made the switch to Bath and 15s following Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018.

He had been used to batting the ball back rather than catching it in sevens. He profited most memorably from this tactic at the Emirates Airline Dubai Sevens in 2016, when he scored a try deep into injury-time to secure a nail-biting 24-21 quarter-final defeat of Scotland.

Trailing 21-19 following Ollie Lindsay-Hague’s late try, England captain Tom Mitchell declined the conversion such was his confidence in his team’s ability to regain possession at the restart.

“He thinks that we’re better off him coming back and winning the restart back, rather than him going for the touchline conversion, potentially missing and ending the game,” McConnochie explained.

“So, he turns down the conversion and then we’ve basically gone on to win the kick-off. A few more bizarre events happen in the game and we end up scoring the winner in that [injury-]time period and knocking Scotland out in the quarters.

“That’s probably one of my most memorable occasions, actually, for England. It was a seriously tense moment, a high-pressure situation, but you’ve got to have those cool heads at that time.

“And, getting the kick-off back isn’t as easy as it looks sometimes. Some of the guys… Harry Glover out there makes it look very easy. But, it’s a challenging skill.”