Defence in rugby tends to be a reactive process. Defenders have to wait until the attacking team plays the ball and there are plenty of cases where defenders can over-run the play, giving easy opportunities to attacking players. Any time, however, that the defence can be proactive and not compromise their intentions, they can get an edge on the attacking side.
The following are tips and cues that can provide that proactive edge. They must be communicated to teammates so adjustments can be made or can provide vital decision-making information.
- Listen! Teams often call out their intentions and even coded words/phrases tend to be simple enough to figure out.
- Pre-pass movement / alignment. A team’s movement between phases suggests where they are going to strike next and their alignment – deep, flat, stacked – can suggest what they are going to do. Defenders must also look out for players swinging from one side of the ruck to the other, hoping to create an overlap or come from deep.
- Assess player abilities. Whether you’ve played this team before or not, it helps to learn about the abilities of one’s opponents. Are there slow / fast, weak / strong players? Have you noticed players who are poor at catching / passing or indecisive when they get the ball? The weaker ones should definitely be targeted!
- Watch out for key players. Teams tend to prefer giving their best players as much ball as possible. Do we need to double-down on such players or accommodate in another way? Maybe an individual is the type who doesn’t like to be pass so can be swarmed and choke tackled?
- Take note of body language. Before or after the ball has been played from the ruck, subtle (or overt!) body language can indicate what is going to happen. Some players give away their first move by the angle of their hips or with a look to a teammate. Kickers tend to sit deep, stand still and look down at the ball before kicking. Some players might be stood still and even with hands on hips if they know they are not being used in the next move.
- How to deal with strike / decoy / support runners? A communication strategy and a second layer of defence should be a must. “Got your inside” lets a defender know there is help close-by. “Push” lets a defender know he can take the next man out because the line is shifting and that player has anyone who cuts back. A sweeper moves on the inside of the ball behind the defensive line and picks up linebreaks or short kicks. This person is also better positioned to assess decoy runners and second-man plays, helping players in the front line pick the correct target. Many decoy runners do not ‘sell’ hard enough, letting the defence ignore them (or at least leave them to the sweeper) in an attempt to catch the strike runner behind her support.
- Pattern of play, strategy. Defenders should quickly get a sense of what teams are trying to do in attack. Most teams these days stick to a pattern of play, even a simple one like flow or same way, continually playing from one touchline to the other. If the defence can figure this out, then they can get the jump on a subsequent phase and overwhelm attackers.
- Kick potential. In addition to the kicker’s and chasers’ physical ‘tells’, tactical and strategic situations should give defenders an idea if a kick is likely to happen. Most teams will kick when inside their 22m area. Teams might resort to a kick after many unsuccessful phases in the middle of / their half of the pitch and especially if a player who’s been known to kick finds himself in trouble without any support. Wingers who are isolated are also likely to attempt a short kick.
- The hips never lie. While people are running their hips almost always dictate the direction they are headed. Defenders must keep an eye on hips and not be fooled by ball or head fakes. Even explosive side-steppers still keep their hips in the same general direction. Steppers tend to cut back when they notice a defender has over-ran them, failing to track their inside hip. Many usually get on their toes just before making a move. Part of being a great stepper is getting defenders to freeze in this moment. This is how defenders get beat. Treat that cue as a sign to kick into a higher gear to smash that player before a move can be made.
- Pass quality. Even capable players throw bad passes from time to time. Bad passes require receivers to stop, jump, or stoop to catch them. They are not running forward any more. Floated passes or passes off-target are an invitation to sprint forward because the receiver is vulnerable.