There’s a North American sports cliché that sometimes gets bandied about in rugby circles as well that defence wins championships. While it’s true that league and World Cup finals tend to be low-scoring affairs, I believe that this is as much – if not more so – about teams playing low-risk rugby and opting to play the territory game with the boot as it is about the two best defensive teams being locked in an unforgiving stalemate. 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 the 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.
- 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. I challenge players to ‘attack’ on defence; never sit back and wait, as 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, and that’s if the ball carrier doesn’t simple 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, 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 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 kick behind them. Too slow, however, and the attacking unit will have plenty of space and time to dictate play on their terms. I urge teams to ‘attack’ on defence, coming forward quickly, but ensuring there are no individuals lagging behind or shooting up early (unless we have a numerical advantage and can pull off a spot tackle or interception). 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.