Exeter Chiefs have become masters of the pick and go

Credit: CameraSport 

The practice of pre-latching crossed the threshold into farce last season, so World Rugby’s intervention is welcome.

As part of the global governing body’s six-point welfare action plan, it will become illegal for three or more players to form pre-bound pods from August 1. But does the tweak go far enough?

Leicester Tigers were one side that continually launched a trident of forwards in phase-play over the 2020-21 campaign. Back in February, on a weekend that saw five red cards across the Premiership, Wasps tighthead prop Kieran Brookes was sent off at Welford Road.

During the first half, he had been penalised for tackling Calum Green without the ball. The sequence in question begins with Tigers scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth feeding first-receiver Lavanini, who is flanked by Green and compatriot Julián Montoya. Note Brookes’ position in the defensive line:

Green and Montoya then latch onto Lavanini some five metres ahead of the gain-line, way before the ball-carrier is tackled. You can see Green’s left arm around Lavanini’s midriff…

…and another angle shows Montoya’s right arm on top of that bind, completing a three-man battering ram:

Brookes shoots in to help out tackler Tom West, who is faced with a three-on-one situation. Brookes is then penalised for taking out Green:

Here is a clip of what Brookes faces:

Wasps

World Rugby has now simplified its definition of a flying wedge. Leicester would have conceded a penalty here. But that did not help Brookes.

After half-time of Wasps’ loss to Leicester, he found himself opposite another trio of Tigers attackers. This time, he moves in front of latcher Luan de Bruin but does not wrap his arms and is sent off after his shoulder hits Lavanini’s head:

Again, Brookes wanted to come in to help a teammate, Will Rowlands in this case, who was faced with the prospect of tackling a flying wedge. But he has a very small target and a pretty dangerous route to it:

From the turn of the year, we had the ludicrous scenario of Premiership referees cracking down on early latching from five-metre tap penalties, yet allowing pre-latching in pick-and-go sequences. Here, in the second half of Bath’s win over Gloucester five months ago, hooker Tom Dunn shapes to take a quick-tap.

Out of shot, Wayne Barnes shouts: “Don’t join early! Don’t join early!” and you can see Zach Mercer (8) slapping away the right hand of loosehead prop Juan Schoeman (1) as Bath’s forwards prepare to support Dunn:

Quick tap

Look at the very next phase after Dunn’s tap. Mercer is bolstered by Tom Ellis (19) and Christian Judge (3) as Gloucester’s fringe defenders wait for him:

Obvious incidences of these ‘mini-scrums’, such as Newcastle Falcons’ close-range formation here against London Irish…

…have been outlawed under World Rugby’s latest law change. However, a one-man latch will still be permitted provided that player accepts the same responsibilities as a first-arriving player to the breakdown – as if that is policed stringently in the first place. 

Exeter Chiefs have became the poster-boys for picking and going, purely because they have been more efficient and coordinated than everyone else in using it as a try-scoring weapon. In reality, this change is unlikely to hinder them too much if their support players keep their balance.

The introduction of a goal-line drop-out, rather than a five-metre scrum, for when attackers are held-up over the try-line may prove to be a bigger deterrent to pick-and-go marathons. 

Jonny Gray’s try in the Premiership final, for example, would have been unaffected by the new pre-latch law because Harry Williams is the only man to latch before the Scotland lock drives at the line: 

Williams, who weighs 126kg, is certainly instrumental in propelling Gray over the line, though:

Exeter pick

Telegraph Sport understands that World Rugby’s breakdown review group – which includes coaches such as Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt and current players Sam Cane and Dan Leavy – did consider banning the pre-latch altogether.

As it happens, even under the new laws, instances such as this two-man midfield charge from South Africa front-rowers Ox Nché and Bongi Mbonambi against Georgia remain legal:

South Africa

Watch out for midfield latching during the upcoming Test series between the British and Irish Lions and the Springboks. Given the importance of gain-line momentum, it is sure to be rife. And dangerous.

World Rugby is intent on increasing the speed of breakdowns. Swift, opportunistic pick-and-gos can still be a weapon without any sort of pre-latch. Look at Tadhg Beirne’s finish against the Sharks on Saturday:

The worry is that in protecting one-player latches, World Rugby missed an easy win – both for player welfare and paying spectators.