Principles of Defence – Part 1: Go Forward

There’s a North American sports cliché that sometimes gets bandied about in rugby circles as well that defence wins championships. Mine is a simple philosophy that maintaining possession and executing a determined, coordinated attack wins games. If we keep the ball and score more points, we win. Simple as that. I spend a lot of time teaching players how to attack using the principles of going forward with determination and intelligence, maintaining continuity and support through effort and communication off the ball, and keeping pressure on the defensive team such that they aren’t able to get organised and focused on stopping us. If defence truly does win championships in rugby, it’s not just about defending one’s goal line; successful teams use those same four principles against the attacking side to win possession back from them.

Going Forward Key Concepts:
· Deny time and space
· Make contact on our terms
· Keep attackers in front

In attack, going forward gives us the initiative and ability to determine play on our terms. The same is true in defence: we deny the opposition time and space to attack by taking it away. Challenge players to ‘attack’ on defence; never sit back and wait. The team in possession will step around and/or pick their gaps. It’s also poor tackling technique to sit on one’s heels and simply take the hit – that’s if the ball carrier doesn’t simply step around the frozen defender.

I hear a lot of coaches at various levels these days yell “Line speed!” to their teams – urging them to come up quickly. I’m of the mind that this speed can be varied depending on the situation – an attacking team can play their hand too early and then play right into the defence’s hands by getting their decoy runners ahead of the ball carrier. But generally speaking, quicker is better so long as the group in front of the ball is coordinated. I’m avoiding the word ‘flat’ here, too, as I don’t believe it has to be rigidly so as long as the unit in front of the ball is relatively level and aren’t offering gaps that can be exploited. If an individual or unit comes up too fast, a clever distributor can fire a long pass behind or over the line to a well-timed strike runner, or simply kick behind them. Too slow, however, and the attacking unit will have plenty of space and time to dictate play on their terms. Lastly, coming forward in defence offers a better chance of keeping the attackers in front. Having to turn or chase to make a tackle isn’t as ideal as squaring up and completing a dominant tackle that gives us a better chance to steal the ball.

Principles of Defence – Part 2: Continuity

Continuity Key Concepts:
· Quick re-alignment
· High work rate off the ball
· Build from the inside-out
· Communicate responsibility early

Hopefully, establishing continuity in defence is not something that has to be sustained for a long period. Remember, the aim is to get the ball back as soon as possible. The defending team can initiate pressure on an attacking team with aggressive ‘go-forward’ but current law interpretations favour the attacking side at the tackle contest. Defenders must therefore establish continuity – re-building their defensive line as quickly as possible – to halt the attacking side’s momentum and find their chance to force a turnover.

Workrate is vital to continuity. The defending team must work harder off the ball than the attacking team to present them with an unbroken and layered defensive line. This will allow them a better chance at stealing the ball, forcing a mistake, or causing the attacking team to kick possession away.

Several factors dictate that building the defensive line from the inside-out is the best course of action. Quite simply, the touch line acts as the ever-present ’16th defender’ and it takes time to move the ball away from the tackle contest, so there’s more time to adjust out wide. Most importantly, though, we want to deny the attacking team the ability to simply pick and go or snipe around the fringes of the tackle contest. Significant gains in ground here cause confusion as there isn’t as much time to react as when the ball is moved wide. Offsides are also likely when the attacking team’s continuity is consistent and the rate of recycling possession high. Defenders panic and get drawn in, both physically and with their attention (i.e. ‘ruck inspecting’ – looking inward and not at what’s going on in front), creating opportunities out wide for subsequent attacking phases. As such, defending players should shore up the gaps around a tackle contest first and then adjust to what’s going on elsewhere.

Principles of Defence – Part 3: Support

Support Key Concepts:
· Defending in units of three provides strength and support
· Communication provides focus, cohesion and opportunities

Possibly the most crucial element in team defence is support. Defence is much more than individuals making tackles. It must be a coordinated effort that’s focused and determined, but flexible. Three defenders level and coordinated with each other in front of the ball form a perfect unit to stop a strike run, providing greater focus and security for all defenders in the action area. The defender at the centre of this unit has responsibility for the ball carrier but can be assured that the channels inside and outside are protected by supporting defenders in this group of three. These roles are a mixture of zone and man-on-man styles: supporting defenders must maintain appropriate spacing to prevent the ball carrier taking a gap and they must remain square with potential attacking threats who might receive a pass or offload from the ball carrier.

Frequent and specific communication between defenders in small units enhances focus and aids in creating opportunities to steal the ball. Most teams have calls which launch them forward when the ball emerges from the set piece or tackle contest but communication between small units before and after the ball has been played is more important. Vocal support enhances the physical presence of a player, providing a clear focus for the unit in front of the ball and to build trust. It can even serve to throw off the concentration of attacking players to have defenders shouting out instructions to each other. They should at least be nominating their responsibility so team mates can take care of other threats (ex. “I’ve got first receiver!”, “I’ll take red boots, you take the bearded guy!”, etc.). Other relevant pieces of information allow the unit to be even more effective. An individual can call a double hit to stop a larger player or to strip the ball while the tackler goes low. Someone might recognise a numbers advantage and declare s/he’s shooting up for a blitz or intercept, allowing team mates to adjust to cover the gap that defender leaves. An interior defender can call a push, telling the would-be tackler to slide out to cover an overlap and that the inside gap is protected.

Start by getting players into the habit of adopting the simple act of calling ‘My tackle!’ in small sided games. This allows teammates a number of opportunities to steal from or stop the attacking side, or plan for the next phase. It also enhances determination and accountability on the part of the declared tackler, and establishes vital trust among the supporting defenders. It’s an all-too-common scenario where defenders over-commit to the tackle area – especially after a big line break is stopped – allowing the attacking team the opportunity to go wide on the next phase. Early communication allows arriving players to know that the crucial jobs around the ruck are sorted so they can move into the next most important positions. Realistic games with even numbers – or numbers favouring the attacking side for greater pressure – ensure defenders have to be on their toes. With so many visual cues to consider, they may have to be reminded to speak, but drilling communication into your team with standardised phrases will help them establish more effective defensive units. With the ball carrier shut down and the tackle made on their terms, defenders will have a better chance at stealing the ball or winning the tackle contest.

Physical and vocal support should also come from at least one, if not two more layers of defence behind the ‘front line’. The obvious source of this is the full back, acting as both the last line of defence but also the coordinator of defenders in the outer areas of the field. Full backs must shadow the fly half and then stay on the inside of the ball as it is moved, staying deep enough to field kicks without having to turn but ready to come up and work with the wide defenders if needed (typically, the full back takes ‘last man’). Working in conjunction with the fullback are the wingers, who typically lie deeper than the main defensive line to prevent / field kicks and be in a better position to support the full back for deep kicks. Wings on the far side of the play should also be ready to cross-cover if a fullback joins the end of the line or has to deal with a line break. They should also be cognizant of wide threats, telling defenders to pull left or right as needed.

The middle layer in this three-layered defensive system is the responsibility of the scrum half who, I feel, is often under-utilised in this role. All scrum halves are used to barking instructions in attack, but it’s not as often that I hear them doing the same in defence. With the full back and wings marshaling defence out wide, the scrum half ensures the A-B-C defenders are in place and focused. They can also call out immediate and emerging threats the same as an NFL linebacker. As with full backs, I advise scrum halves to stay inside the ball and follow it across, staying about 5m behind the defensive line to pick up short kicks or line breaks made by attackers cutting back inside. Other players can take up this role, especially when there’s a significant over-lap, sweeping or scraping behind the main defensive line when safe to do so. My rule of thumb in these situations is for players in the main line to hold until the ball has moved two attackers away. If the defender inside the one covering the ball carrier leaves, the opportunity to pass or step back inside is there for the attacker. This goes back to the ‘defence in threes’ concept discussed earlier.

Putting it altogether into a simple metaphor, teams should think of their defence as a strong and unbroken wall across the entire pitch. To extend the metaphor …

· Build and re-build the wall as quickly as possible between phases
· Own the space – ‘This is our territory!’ and the wall is its marker
· When attacked, it may buckle or bend, but it cannot break
· As players move, they must stay connected. At least three players make for a good ‘moving wall’.
· Individuals must be ready to plug gaps in as play unfolds, especially when on the back foot or moving wide.