If defence is treated purely as a reactive process, the attacking team will always have the advantage. Defenders or groups of defenders, however, cannot have total initiative because of the laws pertaining to ‘ball out’ and offside. One area where defenders can gain an edge is in their organization. If defenders are set before their opponents and have accounted for all potential threats, they have a distinct advantage. Being ‘set’ means there are no obvious opportunities across the entire defensive line, from touchline to touchline, nor behind the line.
Even well-organized and strong tackling teams can get beat during the transition between phases. Attacking teams that use ‘flow’ or ‘around the corner’ patterns hope to outflank their opponents or find a mismatch as they change directions. Each defenders’ workrate, therefore, is crucial during this transition phase. Front line defenders must re-establish their width and plug gaps as soon as possible.
One school of thought demands that the first people to arrive at the ruck from the fringe defence on either side, preventing the attacking team from building momentum through pick and goes or one-out play. The risk here is that, especially during wide attacks or linebreaks, this could pull in players who are best suited for preventing attacks by faster players while the bigger, slower players trundle around them.
Paul Gustard, formerly the defence coach with renowned Saracens club and now (as of 2017) with England, advocates something different. If defending around the corner, it takes longer for players on the far side to wrap around fringe defenders to the other side. He has fringe players back out and re-establish width in the defensive line while players from the previous ruck fold around into fringe positions. Typically, this allows the backs to stay out wide and the forwards to stay in close.
It’s a very useful method to keep people where they are best suited and saves a lot of energy and confusion, but as with all elements in rugby, it has to be treated not as a hard rule, but as a general guideline. If backs are always backing out of post / guard positions, expecting forwards to fill in, even where workrate is high, there might be moments that invite a snipe from a clever player who picks the ball while defenders are transitioning. Therefore, it is important to train players to recognise when it is safe to pull out and invite teammates to fold in or when they should stay put to negate the immediate threat and instruct those players to wrap around and take up wider positions. While it should fall upon every player to recognise this, the scrum half, full back, and wings need to help to organise players around the breakdown and out wide respectively.