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Archive for August, 2011

In the last couple of articles I talked about how to get your defence organised.  I extended the discussion from technique to tactics, stressing that having more defenders on the front foot, ready and focused is how a team starts shutting down the attack and winning the ball back.  If a defending team is still trying to get set – not even looking up yet to see what’s in front of them in terms of threats – all the initiative is with the attacking team.  So what does one do when faced with a team that’s not committed to the ruck, is standing on the front foot in greater numbers and ready to pounce?  As described in my analysis of the Biarritz v Ulster screen shots, simply starting a wide attack comes with much risk as chances are that your first or second receiver could get caught well behind the gain line and the support committed to the last ruck will have to retreat significantly to help out.

If you’ve got flashy backs with good handling and speed and they’ve shown not to be the best of tacklers somewhere in the backs, it might be worth a shot.  But a safer option is to organise a few forwards to re-start this ‘slow ball’ situation with a powerful drive into the defensive line.  The tactic in question is often referred to as a Pick and Go or Pick and Drive, both of which involve a player playing the ball from the base of the ruck, never leaving a low body position, and driving into a gap into the defensive wall with at least one team mate assisting the drive.  This is an especially good tactic close to the goal line as it is hard for a solitary defender to resist the power of two attackers with a low centre of gravity driving in unison on one spot.  Note the Chiefs doing this expertly in this clip:

This is also an effective means by which to assist a player who’s not gone into contact looking for an offload and especially if his / her body position isn’t going to allow them a solid go-forward drive, as in this series of photos:

The ball carrier has gone into contact a bit high and side ways. She has two defenders to face who should dominate the ensuing tackle contest.

The first support player has 'hammered' onto both the ball and the body to secure possession and maintain a forward drive. The second player has 'latched' on to the first and is helping the forward drive.

Forward momentum dominance brings them to ground even before the referee declares it to be a classic 'maul', and a solid seal is created over the ruck by the two supporting players as they continue to drive over the ball carrier.

In the first photo, without support, the ball carrier was likely to have been caught behind the gain line with defenders in a dominant position over top of her, ready to steal the ball.  With support ‘hammering’ and ‘latching’ to both secure the ball and maintain a forward, drive possession was not only maintained, but they gained quite a few metres in the process.  If you look at the third photo, you can see that a few defenders have had to retreat so quickly that they’ve opted to turn around.  None are on the forward foot ready to go.  A quick ball to the left from this ruck would catch them disorganised and on the back foot – a great attacking platform.

From a relatively advantageous position, the defence is now faced with having to get back on side, reorganise, and scan for threats.  Again, if the ball is already OUT before this is done, then the defence will under more pressure and the attacking team has regained the initiative.  I’ve heard some criticise this tactic as teams often gain little ground, and some even get caught behind the previous gain line!  I’d argue, however, that the point here is not to gain ground, but to disrupt and manipulate the defence so that the next phase can be run against un-ready and disorganised defenders.  In the above case, just three players were involved in this, leaving 12 to be part of the next phase.

Where I see fault in pick and drives as a tactic is when teams use too many in a row – and sometimes that can just mean two!  If momentum is there and defenders are not, then there’s a strong chance for that coveted line break which will turn the entire defence.  In most cases, though, teams are drilled to protect that area (as discussed in the Defensive Organisation article) at all costs, and so numbers will converge on that spot – opening definite opportunities elsewhere.  With my teams, usually two good pick and drives is enough to cause utter disarray in the defensive line and give us some opportunities out wide.

In the following clip, the Welsh have organised themselves quite well at the tackle contest and are on the front foot.  Instead of playing too wide, the hooker steps in to pass to a pod of players standing just outside of the A-B ruck defenders (a weaker, and more useful spot to hit it up at this level).  Quick possession is secured and moved to another forward just as the Welsh are setting up and the All Blacks elect to try the short side, again quickly, which not only causes the Welsh to retreat even further, but opens width for more than 2/3rds of the All Blacks to go on the fourth phase.

This sort of planned and determined structure is a simple way to achieve the ultimate goal of disrupting and manipulating the defence so that subsequent attacks can be launched against an un-ready and disorganised defence.

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In the previous article, I discussed how the defending team should ‘attack’ so as to take away the time and space available to the team in possession.  The issues discussed provide a focus to the shape of the defensive line as well as a sense of urgency.  The line must come up fast, but together so as not to ‘shoot’ up or leave ‘doglegs’ that clever attackers will angle for.  I also stressed that while the defensive line should be ‘flat’, it should not be absolutely ‘flat’ so that there is at least small degree of depth to the line to prevent kicks over the top, to be better placed to cover line breaks, and to be able to launch counter attacks more quickly.

In this final article on defensive structure and execution, I will add something for those teams that are already doing this well but that could use greater focus with regard to individual responsibilities.  Why even greater focus?  One of the great factors in winning the Attack v Defence battle is the quest to have more of your players on their feet in a given phase than they do.  Referencing back to playing to the principles of the game article, one could consider the ruck a ‘failure’ to achieve all of those (arguably apart from continuity if the ball has emerged on the attacking side) and as such the defending team should NOT look at the next phase as simply preventing the other team from scoring, but see it as an OPPORTUNITY to win the ball back.  Well structured and continuous attack is what wins games in rugby, but organised and determined defence will win us the ball back and allow us to then enjoy possession.  So I tell my players that not every ruck needs to be contested – the tackler and one person to have a go is often all that needs to happen when the team in possession has ample support present.  The attacking team usually sends double that into contact – even at the highest level! – to ensure possession and have numbers in the tackle contest to resist any sort of counter ruck.  If one does the math, we should then have more players in defence than they have to attack and here is where we should determinedly aim to win the ball back even before a tackle takes place!

Borrowing again from the excellent NSW Rugby document “Effective Team Defence” from their Coach Education Series (2004), the following diagram lays out specific roles for those three players in front of the ball (at least) who are crucial to the integrity of our defensive line.

Before I even start discussing the roles, note how the diagram infers a slight stagger to the defensive line and how D3, D4, and D5 are aligned on the inside of their opposite numbers.  This demonstrates a classic drift defence, which seeks to shuffle the attacking team to that imaginary, but vital 16th defender, the touch line.  I believe that slight stagger also invites the wide attack, but as I’ll outline in the positional responsibilities, cuts off inside passes once they run out of room.  This sort of defence, sometimes called “open gate”, is often seen in sevens.  It’s lower risk than the outside-in “blitz” defence, but still requires much discipline should a dangerous winger get the ball in space.  But our hope is to shut down the attacking team at this midfield junction, and here’s how:

1. D3-D4-D5 are going to ‘attack’ as a unified defensive wall providing no clear holes to the attacking team.  Obviously their roles, and the roles of other players in the line will change if the ball moves, but for this explanation, let’s assume that 12 is going to take the ball to the line.

2. D3 is in what the Waratahs call(ed) the Hustle Channel.  By maintaining his line speed with the rest of his D4 and D5 team mates, he’s likely to force the attacking 10 to pass the ball on.  He needs to maintain this pressure at least until the ball is passed again so there’s no chance a pass inside can breach the defensive line.  In ‘hustling’ the ball away, he forces the attack wider, hopefully flatter (i.e. with less time and space in which to attack as they wish), and away from their source of support.  One of my biggest pet hates is players who run sideways with the ball as they’re effectively doing this for the defence!  Ideally, the defenders will each become the ‘hustling’ player within a flat defensive wall, forcing the ball / players to be shipped wide and eventually into touch.

3.  Let’s say that 12 has taken the ball to the line, and that D4 is going to at least wrap up the attacker.  TRUST is incredibly important if we want to play efficient defence.  If D3 and D5 do not trust D4, then they might squeeze in to ‘help’ make the tackle, providing passing / offload opportunities to 12’s supporting team mates.  [I’ll discuss this type of anticipation in attack in a follow-up article!]  At the point of contact, they must have a quick scan and ‘mirror’ what’s in front of them to prevent the ball carrier from finding one of his support runners with a pass.  D5 especially has the largest responsibility in the Jam Channel, to ensure first that the outer support player is covered.  Even when playing an inside-out defence, this player must still be SQUARE in both hips and shoulders with that person so that he isn’t able to beat D5 around the outside should a pass occur.  If the threat isn’t there, he can step up a bit in hopes of intercepting an offload, or can establish a ‘Post’ position at the ruck and call other defenders over … the following diagram will offer some possibilities for both players:

This is our three-player defensive wall in front of the ball that has to maintain its shape until the tackle is engaged.

Indicated by the red circle is our defensive wall, including the tackler in the middle, a defender on the inside in the Hustle Channel (who presumably was instrumental in seeing 10 make a deep pass to 12) and one on the outside in the Jam Channel.  In this case, it is fairly obvious that 12 is going to smash into them, and there are plenty of defenders on both sides so they’re excused in being a bit condensed.  Indicated by the blue and green circles, however, are the two threats that the Jam defender and Hustle defender have to be aware of.  Should the Hustle defender step in too early to help in the tackle, and 12 get an offload to 10 (green circle) on the inside, he could slip right through the middle.  The Jam defender also has to be wary of the player of the player circled in blue who’s coming in fast to support.  As discussed in the previous article, which used a series of photos to demonstrate shape, this team is well situated to cover any line breaks …

But as the ball had started from a ruck fully 10m away from where it now is, the defending team will want to make this the tackle they dominate and from which they regain the ball.  With immediate threats not present, and ‘Hustling’ and ‘Jamming’ defenders on both sides, the two such players in the red circle should be able to step in and try a double tackle and rip the ball or jackal over the ball once the tackle is made or establish a quick ruck to win the ball.  This is the sort of decision that individual players must make for themselves in the split second that contact is initiated.  I like to train this, at a basic level, with a 1(+2) v 4 drill whereby an attacker has a go at 4 defenders in a confined space, with two late support players.  The defenders must take away the space while maintaining their shape and communicate / decide on their roles as contact is initiated and the tackle contest unfolds.  Then, hopefully, they can apply this level of trust, discipline, and communication into a full game situation, still at training so we can work on this concept in a more realistic context and make corrections as needed.

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This is a follow-up to my recent article on Defensive Organisation, focusing now on how the line should advance – and indeed it should! – and player roles once the ball has been passed from phase play.  No matter what style of defence a team adopts, as soon as the ball is played defending players must move forward to deny the attacking team the time and space they’ve allowed themselves through depth and width.  I demand that my team take an ATTACKING mentality when playing defence, as it’s an aggressive word to stress how we want to exert PRESSURE on the team in possession, to achieve our goal of winning the ball back.  Conversely a team which takes a ‘defensive’ approach, and allows the opposition to come to them are giving their opponents all the initiative to do whatever they want, not to mention how hard it is to track and make a tackle while flat footed – or even retreating!  (I’ll speak about my issues with ‘jockeying’ in a later article.)

The buzz phrase over the last few years has sought to focus teams on maintaining a ‘flat line’ defence.  I try to avoid this as I do not want my team to take that phrase too literally.  Indeed, if there are players out of alignment – whether ‘shooting up’ too early in advance of their team mates, or lagging behind creating a ‘dog leg’ in our defensive line – a clever attacking player will either attack the space or put someone into it.  But the risks of playing absolutely flat can be almost as costly.  Often I see teams which only have the full back in a position of depth when they yell “Up!” and come forward on defence, with the wings up flat with the other backs and no ‘sweeper’ in behind.  What I demand of my players is that the players in front of the ball – at least three, more if there are more attackers in the space around the ball.  This ‘wall’ is the only flat line I really care about because it provides pressure and offers no clear holes to attack.  With the other players still coming up, but lagging behind ever so slightly, we have several DEFENSIVE LAYERS that can cover line breaks and kicks over the flattest and hardest pressing part of the line.  Take note of this in the following screen captures from a game between Biarritz and Ulster:

Here we have a defensive line which is flat and 'attacking' the team in possession as they play the ball. Despite there being no attacking players in the 9-10 channel, the defending team still has A-B-C fringe defenders in place.

As the ball reaches the fly half, the greatest pressure is on the midfield channel.

The object here is to prevent any breach through the midfield and exert pressure on the next receiver, hopefully catching him well behind the gain line (almost fully 10m away!)  Note how there are three defenders in this channel with one lagging behind slightly.  He might have missed the cue, but the line integrity is already good and he can act as a cover defender / get in place for a steal for any big crash into that channel.  It’s hard to spot, but this is a line of pursuit that I give to the scrum half.  His main job is not to make a tackle or even get involved in the ruck, but to cover in case there is a line break or a chip / grubber.  As this is where the next tackle contest is likely to occur, it’s also important for the scrum half to be there to communicate how his team should contest / defend it.  Note how in the first picture there were NO blue players in the ruck at all …

This is a very noteworthy element to modern rugby – that not every tackle contest is actually being ‘contested.’  It’s a controversial point with older players, but often at this level you see just the tackler and one other defender go into many rucks.  The object here is to only get involved in the contests where the potential to win is high.  Too often, defensive teams at the amateur level do as their predecessors did and pile 4 or more players into a ruck that’s already lost, leaving fewer players to face the next attack.  I stress to my team – and especially the scrum half, full back and centre(s) as defensive leaders – that we should only be contesting ones we might be able to win.  What that leaves us for the next phase, as is the case in the above photo, is more defenders on their feet than attackers.  It’s from this next phase that we hope to catch the attacking team behind their gain line and without enough support to win their own ball back.  [Tactically speaking, Ulster might have been better off giving the forwards a short ball or chipping over deep for the centres as it would seem they’re about to be caught well behind where they started!  The defence has all the initiative in this example.]

Contact is about to be made behind the gain line allowing other defenders to take up new positions, crucially, on the front-foot, while attacking players have to run backwards or come from the wide channel to help.

Here, Biarritz managed to stop Ulster 7-8m behind their original start point.  With the tackle made and about to be contested for, that player behind the front group of three can make the call as to whether they want to contest – the Wallabies, I know, use the phrase “Flood it!” to get the fringe players to pile in and drive over the ball.  Should an incredibly timely offload be made to a looping player, the wide defenders will not be too far forward to meet the challenge presented by the over-abundance of white players out there.  [This would be a great call right now for Ulster as their crashing centre is in danger of turning over the ball!]  What I mean by ‘not too far forward’ is that if they had come up flat with the three in front of the ball, they’d probably have to adjust to be onside, which would probably involve a bit of back pedalling given forward momentum of both teams.  If the offload and cut out pass were to come, the attacking team would be able to take advantage of static / retreating defenders – not just their numerical advantage.  And should the ball not be taken into contact, the left side of that front three would start a drift defence to shepherd the attackers toward the sideline.

Had the defending team been absolutely flat in this case, not only were the kick options available, but should the ball carrier step his man or simply run over him to breach the line, what happens next?  This would present a golden opportunity in attack as the full back is no where in sight and the line-breaking centre would easily gain 20+ metres, hopefully linking up with his team mates funnelling through behind him.  Without these layers, it’d probably end up being a 3 v 1 with the full back – and likely a try.  With the layers in place, any potential option is covered.  With regard to training this, a lot of game-related, full field practice is required and with plenty of numbers.  Players have to be in constant communication with each other – as mentioned in the previous article – with regard to who needs to do what and when.  This ‘front three’ pursuing group will change in a heart beat – meaning in these photos above, one of the outer backs would have to step up quickly to join the group already up, and some players from the right side would have to take a pursuit line to end up further across and deeper should the attacking team get really wide and penetrate.  [This is why I love attacking the wide channel, as even if we get caught, the return phase will usually see backs against forwards in the open field!]

I’ll cover those specifics about who does what and when in front of the ball in the next article on defensive organisation.

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