The death of the block play?

BY DAN

In a wonderful piece for Today’s Tale, Sam Perry did an excellent job of ‘trendspotting’, pointing out that the era of the block play was perhaps on its way out. Before we get going. Read the piece. Please. I’ll wait here.

What’s the block play? Well as Sam aptly describes it: 

“This play, which sees the ball sent “behind” so-called decoy players (decoy is a generous term; it is more an exercise in subtle obstruction). As Perry notes, the structure “has come to symbolise robotic attacking structures that are proving ever more painful to watch.”

Here’s an example, albeit form the Super League.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about for quite some time. As Perry notes, while not exactly an endangered species, there’s plenty to suggest that good sides are relying on this structure less and less. Perry argues this is because the play is now slower, and easy for good defences to read. This has seen a rise in creative ball players and a reduction on the use of predetermined structures to score. Perry contrasts the rise of Luke Keary and the relative stagnation of the Penrith Panthers, and argues Cameron Munster is another that fits the new way of working. I would also cast the dominance of BJ Leilua and Jordan Rapana on the Raiders’ right edge as another example of the rise of creative league.

So why has this come about? 

For Perry there has been some subtle changes to refereeing approaches that have helped kick this off. Others have argued that the reduced interchanges have created the fatigue necessary for creativity and talent to win out over coaching. 

I also wonder if this more of a part of the ever-swinging pendulum in the battle between offence and defence. My theory is that one of the biggest impacts of professionalism on rugby league could be seen in improved defence. Tackling techniques improved, and, more importantly, defensive structures actually became a thing.

Go back and watch 1980s rugby league. The A, B and C defenders (the first three defenders off the ruck) were often the only defenders to move up to tackle. The rest of the defensive line was a mish-mash of guys moving, standing and even basket-weaving while they watched the action in the middle. Halfbacks were often loitering as some sort of sweeper behind the defensive lines. Fullbacks spent more time picking grass at the back than in the defensive line, rather than often in the line tackling as they are in the modern game. In short, there was plenty of space.

If you want proof just check out this highlights clip. The first try – a chip and chase by Laurie Daley – showcases exactly what I’m talking about.

In these circumstnaces the attacking football popularised by the Canberra Raiders and Brisbane Broncos sides of the era could flourish simply because there was so much space. Back then sending players back on an angle into the ruck area was considered the work of genius. The kind of sweeping offensive movements that are commonplace today were orchestrated brilliance then. One could argue this peaked with the Parramatta Eels 2001 team which scored nine-hundred-fucking-points in a season (I don’t agree with that bit, but that’s another story for another day).

Over the 2000s sides became dedicated wrestlers, defensive lines became airtight, and greater fitness from athletes that had been training as professionals from their early teens meant that finding ways through became difficult. In short, the Melbourne Storm happened. 

Coaches came up with the block play as a way through this newly robust defence. For the record this oversimplifies what was a very fluid relationship. It wasn’t as simple as ‘defenses got good and then block plays existed’. They were clearly building at the same time, perhaps both reinforcing each others existence – almost like defenses got good so block plays existed so defenses got good so block plays existed. 

Now after coaches have drilled block-play defence into their players for the past 15 years, there’s been a need to find new ways through. In the past few years the block play has become less and less important, until this year when it is no longer the dominant mode of attack for good sides. More emphasis is on getting dominant matchups a bit of space (think how much early ball Latrell Mitchell gets) or excellent ball-players multiple options, inside and out, at the line. You’ve heard it called ‘playing what’s in front of you’ or ‘eyes up footy’. The important part is that improvisation, skill and creativity is more important than the drilled structures of the training paddock. 

This revolution is making life difficult for spine players that don’t offer multiple skills. The ability to threaten the defence with unstructured play requires you to offer multiple threats. Luke Keary and Cameron Munster can play ‘eyes up footy’ because they’re a threat to do just about anything. Each can scythe through a line (though in very different ways). Each can put an attacking kick (though Keary is clearly stronger in this than Munster). 

And it’s not just halves. Creative hookers are increasingly important. Josh Hodgson and Damian Cook are very different players, but both offer a multitude of threats when they have the ball in hand. While many would consider Cook primarily a runner, this season his ability to get out of the ruck and create has been a critical part of the Bunnies attack. And outside of Leipana, Hodgson has consistently been the only consistent attacking weapon for an improved Raiders side in 2019.

Old style hookers who take the metres after a quick ruck, and otherwise just try to get their forwards over the advantage line are quickly becoming a hinderance rather than a help. Offenses with no creative and improvisational ball play from their hookers are sputtering across the competition. Ask Newcastle if they could something more than Danny Levi’s ‘solid’ work. Jake Granville, for many one of the best hookers in the competition in 2015, is now losing minutes to Kurt flippin’ Baptiste. Halves who don’t offer much in improvisational or creative football are in a similar boat. 

So where to from here and how far can it go?

Sam is right. The movement away from structure has begun. That’s not to suggest we’ve abandoned the block play altogether. As long as rugby league exists it will be a mainstay of attacking play. It’s as much part of rugby league as the pick and roll is part of basketball. But I hope this emphasis in more direct, more creative and more innovative attacking approaches can continue.

Give me more Damian Cook spotting some space and taking off. Give me more BJ Leilua ignoring the pleads of his halfback in order to take on the short side with Jordan Rapana. Give me more of Luke Keary chipping for an unmarked Latrell Mitchell. That’s the best rugby league.

Let’s just hope the pendulum takes its time on this swing.


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