Regardless of techniques, tactics, or strategy, there are a few essential things all players must have on defence…
Trust in your abilities.
Making your tackle is vital to team defence as it means the rest of your team mates can focus on their individual responsibilities. Miss yours and someone has to drop theirs to cover you. I feel that quite often missed tackles are a result of lack of focus. Trust that you know what it takes to make an effective tackle, be determined to win and dominate the tackle contest, and your team mates can rely upon you in unit / team defensive situations.
Trust in the player(s) beside you.
Knowing that the person beside you can and will make her tackle allows you to focus on ‘the next thing.’ Rugby is a dynamic game, and continuity is one of the main aims of a successful attack. If the person beside you has declared responsibility for the ball carrier, and you can trust her to make the tackle, then you can focus on shutting down the attacking side’s continuity potential. This could simply mean getting over top of the tackle to steal / challenge for the ball. Or if an offload is likely, you could step into that passing lane – whilst STILL being lined up with the person you’re responsible for! – and either prevent an offload or even intercept it. Or it might allow you to move more quickly into a post position so that you can disrupt the attack on the next phase. Trust within such close ‘units’ maintains the integrity of our defensive line and allows players not making tackles to do the ‘next best thing’ in shutting down the attacking team.
Trust in your team.
Trust here takes both abstract and literal forms as you maintain a belief in our common goals and cohesion, along with your individual and collective abilities as players. Even where abilities are mixed, you can maintain trust that all can do the basics well – which itself is good enough for success – or that others can be trusted upon to make the ‘big play’ when it matters most (especially as many such players feed off the faith their team mates have in them). That sort of faith and support builds a positive team culture. In general, team trust in defence ensures that we, at all times, maintain unity, focus, and determination to win the ball back as quickly as possible.
Whoever is set first has the advantage. You do not want to be jogging to the offside line when the ball has emerged from the ruck. It’s always better to be ready and waiting when the ball comes out, presenting the attacking team with no clear options.
Being ready and displaying body language that says: “We can’t wait to hunt you down!” is intimidating. Defenders must have the mentality that they own the gainline and want to stop attackers on their side of it. They must play on but not over the offside line and be ready to come off the line with authority and purpose.
Urgency is especially important when an opportunity presents itself. Defenders must stay connected as they come forward and not get ahead of one another, but a bad pass or a dropped ball is an invitation to kick into a new gear and swarm the receiver / ball.
It can’t be stated enough that being set first provides defenders with the initiative and this is true for every single phase. Defenders must re-align as urgently on the tenth phase as they did after the first phase.
Defence is about getting the ball back as soon as possible. No ifs, ands, or buts. Too many teams look at defence as making tackles in hopes of preventing attackers from crossing the goal line. Sure, we don’t want the opposition to score but every phase should look at ways of winning the ball back legally. Defenders must anticipate and recognise situations where the attacking team might be vulnerable to turning over the ball.
Tacklers and their supporting players must dominate the contact area. One or two players is usually enough in the modern game to win, pressure or slow down the ball. This also buys time for defenders to get set for the next phase. Some teams do pour a lot of players into their rucks, making it futile to send in one or two to ruck. These are moments to really focus on the word ‘controlled’, fanning out and looking for turnover targets on the next phase.
Within the ruck, though, the ball can be poorly presented, inviting a counter-ruck to drive over and win it for the defence. The same is true when attackers start leaning on rucks or arrive so quickly to the breakdown that they had no opposition. Both are great times to flood the breakdown with aggressive defenders to win the ball back by good old fashioned shoving.