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Archive for the ‘Defence’ Category

This is the second post related to my quest to simplify what I do at training. If you didn’t see the first post, which has activities for attack, follow THIS LINK.

A re-cap of the areas for improvement and design principles …

Areas for Improvement:

  1. Athlete-Centred
  • Their needs … requires assessment; ask them, but provide options (don’t know?)
  • Their wants … open or from a list of choices
  1. Representative
  • Percentage of action can be a guide.
  • What do they really need now / for the future?
  • MUST look and feel like the real game: starts, boundaries, numbers, variation, equipment, rules. Pressure, timing, realistic information vital to skill development.
  1. Repetition (without ‘repetition’)
  • Balance between ‘getting reps in’ and providing randomized problem solving
  • Activities: static, transition, multi, broken
  1. Constraints-led
  • Providing opportunities to explore, discover, adapt/adopt
  • Constraints are NOT limitations but invitations
  1. Challenge Point
  • Finding optimal ‘learning zone’ (40-60% success?)
  • May need differentiated activities to meet needs of all
  1. Self-Determination, Discovery
  • Discovery is most impactful and robust form of learning
  • Focus on outcomes. Guide more than instruct. There are ‘wrong’ ways, but there are many ‘right’ ways. Clear objectives will keep them focused. Give time and trust them.
  • Question more than tell; questions should not be a guessing game or a regurgitation of cliches; consider Bloom’s taxonomy and don’t be afraid to leave for later
  • Mark Bennett’s “Rule of 3” (individual, peers, coach)
  • James Gee / Amy Price … missions; challenge, clue, cheat, change
  • Early or mid-activity debriefs (teachable moments) more impactful than after-action

1 v 1

Procedure:

  • Attacker and defender stand face-to-face, retreat to own line and come forward
  • Attacker is passed ball, tries to evade
  • Defender comes forward, tracks, wraps safe and strong; aims to drive back or out
  • If defender cannot, can still ‘win’ by wrapping from behind and pulling back

Adaptations:

  • Closer = more contact
  • Wider = evasion
  • Full Contact = incl. supporters to jackal and ruck

1v1

1 (+?) v 4 Unit Defence

Procedure:

  • 4 defenders and same/fewer attackers start on opposite lines
  • Coach/extra player passes ball to one attacker, and defence comes forward; supporting attackers do a down-up before moving to support
  • Defenders aim to take away space, make a tackle, and win the ball back

Adaptations:

  • Narrower channel for forwards
  • Wider channel for backs
  • If focus is more on defensive pressure and coordination, can remove full contact and go wrap = down
  • Can join two together, playing the ball from one group to the next group

1v4

Multi-Directional Unit Defence

Procedure:

  • Three defenders start in the middle of a large playing area (cone in the middle is their rallying point)
  • Attacking teams on the sides take turns trying to score a try on the other side
  • They must announce themselves before moving forward and must wait until the defending team has returned to the rallying cone in the middle
  • Defenders can stay in for a set number of attacks or aim to hold off a target number

Multi D

Defensive Pressure Game

Procedure:

  • Evenly-matched attackers and defenders face off in a large playing area
  • Attackers start with a tap at centre and have 10 phases to score; the value of the try decreases by one point every phase, starting with 10 points from the onset
  • Defenders touch/wrap to not just stop them, but win points for themselves:
    • ball carrier caught behind gainline (1pt)
    • pressure or create turnover (knock-on, thrown forward, into touch, intercepted – 5pts)
    • try scored (intercept, turnover recovered and scored without being caught – 10 pts)
  • When caught, ball carrier goes to ground and offside line becomes length of their body; defenders can move forward on play of the ball

Def Press

Whole Team Game:

See: Limited Phase Ruck Game in the attacking activities section … can provide various objectives and/or points as per the Defensive Pressure Game above.

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I set myself a challenge this year of keeping the number of activities I use down to a minimum so we’re not wasting time teaching athletes a new one every few sessions. I think these cover all the bases for novice and experienced players and are adaptable enough to include more or less contact, space, players, etc.

For Defence activities, click THIS LINK.

First, some design principles …

Areas for Improvement:

  1. Athlete-Centred
  • Their needs … requires assessment; ask them, but provide options (don’t know?)
  • Their wants … open or from a list of choices
  1. Representative
  • Percentage of action can be a guide.
  • What do they really need now / for the future?
  • MUST look and feel like the real game: starts, boundaries, numbers, variation, equipment, rules. Pressure, timing, realistic information vital to skill development.
  1. Repetition (without ‘repetition’)
  • Balance between ‘getting reps in’ and providing randomized problem solving
  • Activities: static, transition, multi, broken
  1. Constraints-led
  • Providing opportunities to explore, discover, adapt/adopt
  • Constraints are NOT limitations but invitations
  1. Challenge Point
  • Finding optimal ‘learning zone’ (40-60% success?)
  • May need differentiated activities to meet needs of all
  1. Self-Determination, Discovery
  • Discovery is most impactful and robust form of learning
  • Focus on outcomes. Guide more than instruct. There are ‘wrong’ ways, but there are many ‘right’ ways. Clear objectives will keep them focused. Give time and trust them.
  • Question more than tell; questions should not be a guessing game or a regurgitation of cliches; consider Bloom’s taxonomy and don’t be afraid to leave for later
  • Mark Bennett’s “Rule of 3” (individual, peers, coach)
  • James Gee / Amy Price … missions; challenge, clue, cheat, change
  • Early or mid-activity debriefs (teachable moments) more impactful than after-action

 

Tool Box Drill

Procedure:

  • Ruck area with ball straddles 5m line
  • Defenders start at back cones
  • Attackers aim to get over gain line using full ‘tool box’ of options
  • Numbers should be even or +1 attack
  • Teams alternate left/right, each side having different widths

Adaptations:

  • Touch = high pressure, skill, timing
  • Wrap = allow for tight spaces, contact options
  • Defenders can be delayed with a down-up upon arrival if attackers need help

Tool Box

4 v 2 / 2 Open Field Attack

Procedure:

  • 4 attackers start in the middle of a deep and wide playing area
  • 2 defenders wait at each end, moving forward when attackers start in their direction
  • Attackers aim to score as many tries as possible in a set period of time (competing against other groups)

Adaptations:

  • If numbers aren’t balanced, extra attacker first, extra defender next

4v2

One-Two Punch Scenario

Procedure:

  • A group of attackers start with backs to the playing area
  • Defenders align themselves differently each time in the middle of the playing area
  • On scrum half’s call, attackers turn and decide on first phase to either break through on set up next phase
  • Only get two phases, so need to be purposeful
  • Defenders can be a mix of bags (stop attackers by holding forward progression) and those without (stop attackers with touch or wrap)… can be wrap/touch and coloured shirts if not with bags

1 2 Punch

Limited Phase Ruck Game

Procedure:

  • Two evenly-matched teams square off and play touch/wrap for a limited number of phases (3-6 causes teams to be purposeful in their approach, and is common average for amateur teams)
  • Can start from lineout, scrum, or tap penalty; should be refereed to ensure laws followed
  • When contact is made, ball carrier must go to ground. Defender(s) making touch/wrap must also go to ground, but can jackal if no support has arrived once back on feet.
  • Can require one or two attackers to secure ‘ruck’ or allow to make that choice; defenders not involved in the tackle can come through gate to contest possession.

Adaptations:

  • Can alter points system for desired outcomes, alternating teams for a set number of goes (example: tries from kicks worth more)
  • To incorporate offloads into touch game, give carrier one-step/one-second to do so before requiring to go down
  • Can play to ‘super powers’ of various types of player:
        • Power players require a double touch / tap
        • Elusive players get three extra steps if tagged/wrapped from behind
        • Distributors win ‘free phase’ (not counted against limit) if they / player passed to get over the gain line
        • Support players win ‘free phase’ if call for an offload

 

Rapid Fire Touch

Procedure:

  • Two teams (3 or 4) start in the middle of a playing area. Attacking side taps and runs.
  • If defender(s) touch/wrap ball carrier, or attackers knock-on, throw forward or go into touch, defenders take possession and run to nearest goal line (all must cross!). They start attacking immediately.
  • As initial attacking team leaves, the next group waiting at the side enters and act as defenders.

Adaptations:

  • Can make ‘double touch’, meaning that ball carrier tagged by one defender can keep going (but not score) until touched by a second defender

Rapid Fire

Kick and Counter

Procedure:

  • One team starts play by kicking off to the other with a drop kick
  • Teams in possession have 3 seconds to run and pass, but must kick the ball within that time (called out by the referee) or concede a turnover
  • If a player is touched/wrapped by an on-side defender in this time, they also concede a turnover
  • Tries are worth 5 points, penalty / drop kicks at goal (if playing full field) worth 3 points (could even allow penalty goals if playing half-field!)
  • Referee necessary to call time and make sure players are on-side, otherwise abiding by the laws

Kick

 

 

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In my first post related to the recent Wasps v Leinster match, I looked at Wasps’ defensive issues around the breakdown. In this post, I will examine some issues they had away from the breakdown that led to Leinster tries. My analysis and tips to avoid the issues will follow each clip.

CLIP 1: Recognition and Changing Tactics

Here we see Leinster make great use of Johnny Sexton’s signature move – the loop. He’s used it countless times for Leinster and Ireland, so right off the bat, Wasps have no excuse for failing to adjust to it.

As the ball is passed, we can see that Wasps are evenly matched with Leinster, each having four players. Sexton has turned his whole body to pass and is already following the ball. This is a clear indication that the loop is a possibility, if not a certainty given the personnel involved. When the clip pauses again, we see that the Leinster forward has passed back inside as soon as he’s received the ball. The Wasps forward mirroring Sexton should be calling for a push here because the loop is now clearly on, but his two teammates have dropped their backsides and frozen on the big forward. He’s completely out of the play now so, instead, they should be pushing beyond him to pick up Sexton wrapping around and the outer threats. The lankier of the two (#6) rushes up but Sexton makes his pass. The bigger defender is too slow to catch up and the winger is left to face a three on one. Before I move on to the next issue, if the player mirroring Sexton had called a push defence, the three players outside him could have stayed connected and contained Leinster toward the touchline.

Wasps’ winger starts jockeying backwards to buy time for support to arrive and his fly half does show up to help. What they fail to do, however, is actually get connected to hold the Leinster attackers there or force them wide with a drift. The winger is still backpedaling while the fly half comes forward, getting himself into no-man’s land. Leinster’s prop makes a great dummy and pass around him to free his teammates. If the fly half had better communicated to the winger, they might have stopped the attack there.

Simply, defenders need to anticipate / recognise attacking threats and communicate options / changes to stop those threats. As soon as they lose their coordination and connection (i.e. keeping shoulders in line with each other to create a defensive wall), attackers can easily pick holes to get around, through or behind them.

CLIP 2: Tactics, Responsibility and Trust

Teams that attack with a conservative one-out, same-way pattern are typically hoping to occupy the defence in an area to create an overlap in another area. By pounding up the middle, they hope to eventually find a moment when they can outflank the opposition out wide. Defenders need to fold around the breakdown quickly, with the outside defenders moving further out to maintain line integrity toward the touchline. Players work quickly and communicate responsibility in transition to ensure gaps are covered. It’s easier for the folding defenders to come around the breakdown to the near side and push teammates out, rather than run behind those defenders and get wide themselves.

Given that the strategy described above is common in rugby, when the clip pauses, the defenders around the ball carrier could have been better at re-aligning themselves. Leinster’s ball carrier isn’t a major threat and is suitably covered by the defender in front of him, but the outer defender (with the scrum cap) needlessly joins the tackle. Instead, he could have stayed out and protected the gap, then slid out as the two other defenders folded around. His act leaves the next phase without someone who could have shored up their line.

The two folding defenders are in a good position and ready to come forward, but the player outside them (third out, with a beard) is both offside and guilty of ruck-inspecting. He hasn’t properly assessed the threat in front of him until the ball is passed. When the clip is paused again, Wasps are in a pretty good position to defend the unit in front of them, but as the play unfolds it’s painfully clear that they are not coordinated with each other. Leinster opt for a dummy runner + pull back play which could have been forced wide if Wasps had started an aggressive drift as soon as the scrum half passed. The defender with the big hair should have pushed out hard on the receiver, with the bearded defender taking the dummy runner and the fly half looking out for the deep option. Instead, the one with the big hair passively holds his gap, the bearded defender gets caught in two minds (focusing on both the passer and the dummy runner, taking neither), and the fly half pinches in on the dummy runner, allowing the deep option to swerve around him into the gap.

Defenders need to be aware of their opponent’s strategy – and most teams have a clear one these days – so they can anticipate patterns and plays, stopping them before they come to fruition. By working hard off the ball to get into position and not over-committing where not needed, defenders can maintain the defensive line across the pitch and have time to plan for the next phase (to act, not just re-act). As the ball is played, defenders need to aggressively move into position to deny the attacking team options, force them to make errors, and/or get into positions where the ball can be won back. If teams passively go about re-aligning and be exclusively reactive rather than proactive, then good teams will be able to attack as they wish without pressure. Finally, taking responsibility, communicating intent, and trusting teammates are essential components of effective team defence.

 

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Upon seeing last night’s massively lopsided Leinster v Wasps score, I assumed the English club was simply outclassed by one of the most dominant franchises in the northern hemisphere that can often boast a starting lineup chock full of Irish internationals. When I saw the extended highlights, however, I couldn’t help but think that Wasps had some simple-to-fix defensive issues that made Leinster’s job easy.

The following clips will show key moments where issues in Wasps’ breakdown defence allowed Leinster to score, with my analysis and tips to avoid such mistakes following each. (Other footage from this match in a follow-up post will look at some open field issues.)

CLIP 1: Defending the Ruck

At around 5 seconds in the clip, we see Wasps #5 in a moment of indecision as to whether he should stay or move to the other side of the ruck. Having moved across from the previous one, it’s important to note that not once has he got his body square and only briefly did he check over his shoulder to see where the threats were. On the reverse angle, we can see that his movement opens at least 5m of space between the ruck and the next Wasps defender. In addition, there were already four Wasps defenders on the short side covering just two or three Leinster players so he wasn’t even needed there.

Ideally, players should take responsibility for their own positioning and assessing the opposing team’s attacking threats. This clip demonstrates that it helps to have the scrum half patrolling just behind the main defensive line, helping to make sure all of the gaps are plugged and the threats accounted for. Whether or not you subscribe to that notion, defenders must endeavour to stay ‘square’ with the opposition (shoulders facing the opposing goal line) so they can see as much as possible. Rather than turning, Wasps’ #5 would have been better side-shuffling into position. It’s also important to organise ruck defence quickly and with purpose; it’s the shortest route for the attacking team to achieve an easy linebreak if not secure.

CLIP 2: Quick Realignment

A defending team should try to avoid giving away large linebreaks. A good mantra for a defensive line is to ‘bend, but don’t break’. When the attacking team gets deep into your territory, it forces defenders to turn and chase backwards. They expend more energy and have to realign without knowing where the attacking team is lining up for the next phase(s) than if they just had to shuffle backwards / sideways a little bit. In the above clip, Leinster get a nice linebreak from a long cut-out pass and score after two more phases. The initial pass and run are probably inevitable but where Wasps fail is in getting to and setting up for the subsequent phases.

In the replay and wide angle, we see that Wasps’ outer defenders tracks well to contain the winger and that there are enough players around the breakdown to prevent a quick pick and go try. Their #1 even does a good job of hustling back into a post position. Not quite so good is #3 immediately resting his hands on his thighs as he gets onside. He’s visibly tired and unready. I bet that if Leinster’s #12 attacked him, he’d not have been able to prevent a try given his body position. Poor readiness is critically demonstrated by both him and the hooker on the next phase, as Leinster’s scrum half is able to dart in himself to score. When he picks, Wasps’ #2 isn’t close enough to the breakdown, nor low enough to prevent the diving score and #3 was in a useless position behind the breakdown.

During phase play, whichever side is aligned and ready first has the initiative. To be fair, this try comes at the end of the first half and the large lads are clearly tired, but this is a time when players have to be especially switched-on mentally. With the big linebreak and five forwards having to get back to defend the next phase(s) just off their goalline, they must realise that their effort and focus is vital. If they work extremely hard for these few seconds – not just to get organised, but also to slow down the phase in contact – their teammates will have time to prepare themselves for the next one. Going for a steal might be risky at this level, given referees’ current tendency to issue cards for red zone infractions and the harm that can come from a penalty or kick to the corner catch-and-drive. But one player being a legal nuisance at the ruck in the corner could have bought the big boys a few precious seconds to get themselves more prepared.

CLIP 3: Defensive Scanning

Here again, we see Wasps’ #5 being passive at the breakdown. While his hands do appear to be off his thighs, he appears to be flat-footed with legs together – which is NOT the stance to adopt whether one is going to come off the line and ‘attack’ on defence or prepare to take someone in a low, submissive tackle. He’s also committing the critical sin of ‘ruck inspecting’ – i.e. looking only at the breakdown and not scanning for threats in front of him. It also appears the teammate outside him is also guilty of this. Both notice too late that a Leinster forward is charging right at them (and kudos to him, as he’s likely spotted that they weren’t focusing on him and called for the pass!). As a result, he and the scrum half achieve a massive linebreak because the Wasps defenders were not scanning the pitch for threats, let alone communicating responsibility to teammates in the immediate vicinity. This ‘little talk’ between defenders helps them stay organised and focused.

Leinster end up scoring from some brilliant passing, but again we see poor breakdown organisation from Wasps. After the tackle, Wasps have three defenders on the short side – both centres and a wing. I suspect that the one with the scrum cap realises this leaves a lot of forwards on the openside to prevent a possible all-in, wide attack and he pushes his centre partner over. The flanker who allowed the linebreak just gets back onside, having fell during the last play, and the wing is left to defend three players so shoots up to kill the play with the first receiver. Wasps’ flanker doesn’t attempt to stop the attack until the Leinster duo have crossed the gainline and by then it’s too late.

Simply, this is another example of why focus, scanning, and a ready-to-act body shape is vital in defence, at every phase. With a lot of teams adopting conservative approaches to attack (made easier by refereeing that favours attack over defence), stringing together many simple phases, it’s important that players do not lose focus. There will be many breakdowns that aren’t worth contesting, but each should invite defenders to scan for another attempt to disrupt the attack and get the ball back (the prime directive of defence!). If players fall into a lull of going through the motions, getting onside and merely setting the line, then they invite shrewd attackers to pick on the ones who aren’t ready to stop them.

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During the Wasps v Leicester Tigers match yesterday, Tigers’ lock Will Spencer was shown a red card for a high tackle that made forceful contact with the head of Wasps’ hooker Tommy Taylor. Without getting into the social media storm about whether or not it should have been (which angered me as, for the sake of player safety and forcing change, it HAS to be nothing but…), I thought I could address those people who questioned what a 6’7″ player (or any player) could do when caught in a position where it’d be very difficult, if not impossible, to avoid delivering a high tackle.

First, here’s the incident:

Firstly, I think it’s important that we stop talking about rugby as being a ‘collision sport’. In some regions / teams, it certainly looks that way with ball carriers running straight into contact and defenders launching themselves into tackles. I recently heard a pro player say it was a ‘game of inches’, which no doubt comes from the NFL and the film Any Given Sunday, but it’s really not. Rugby is a game about possession. It’s really only become a battle of attrition because teams haven’t the ability / skill to evade and cleverly unlock defences and that (frustratingly) the law enforcers allow so many transgressions at the breakdown that it’s not worth contesting much of the time, so they spread their defenders out and offer no clear opportunities for the attack. With referees favouring the attacking side in tackle contests (rucks, mauls), it’s also fairly easy to string 10+ phases together of crash balls where the supporting players immediately seal off.

In addition, rugby league coaches have brought to union the ‘big hit’ and swarming defensive structures that dominate their code. It seems all I hear people talking about when it comes to tackle training is making the dominant hit that drives a ball carrier back. This technique certainly has its positives (get defence on the front foot, knock loose the ball, tackler lands on top so can contest easier, etc.) it doesn’t have to be the only way. When it comes to player safety, it’s been proven that the tackler going high is more likely to suffer a concussion than the carrier and than if using a lower and more passive hit. I have seen people get knocked out from making low tackles, too, but the data from pro rugby shows that high is more risky.

Accidental high tackles are still going to happen, but what needs to change is the mentality that lining a ball carrier up for a crunching tackle is the primary goal. It should be ever-present in the mind of tall players, especially, that a smaller player is going to offer a greater challenge. In the Spencer / Taylor case above, people were (I think deluding themselves by… ) saying that Taylor ‘ducked’ into the tackle. There’s no active ‘ducking’ at all; his change in shape came as a result of his attempt to pass. You can see the same dip in body height in Sapoaga as he passes to Taylor. If you’re still not sold on that, the other way that Taylor’s height changed is upon simply realising he’d been lined up for a big hit by an approaching giant of a lock! These are things that tacklers must be aware of, approaching every situation not as a player-possessed, but as a mindful player who can predict and read a situation and use the best option, even in a split second.

So what could Spencer do? Admittedly, he was committed so it’d have been very difficult to do anything else. He didn’t really ‘launch’ himself, but there is force applied that may not have been necessary. He could have better read the situation and opted for a tackle less-forceful. Below is another, not-dissimilar incident where there wasn’t much time to change but with greater awareness and training, a different outcome should have been possible.

Tu’ungafasi leans into the hit and collides with the Frenchman’s face and his own teammate’s head. Better communication with his teammate and recognition that Cane was already attempting the tackle should have triggered in Tu’ungafasi that he didn’t need to put in a big hit. Trust is so very important on defence this is a great example of where the double hit wasn’t needed; Cane was close enough (and certainly capable enough) to wrap up Grosso, leaving Tu’ugnafasi in an excellent spot to jackal / contest possession. For me, the low passive or low chop tackle is sorely under-used, especially when teams have so many capable jackallers these days. A big hit more often puts the ball back on the attacking team’s side, while a low hit more often has it first presented on the defensive side and with the carrier having to fight through the downed tackler to lay the ball back.

Again, rugby is a game about possession. When introducing defence to a team, I always ask the question: “What’s the aim of defence?” Often, the answers I receive are: to stop scores, make tackles, etc. but the primary aim of defence is to get the ball back, legally, as soon as possible. So the first step toward changing the culture of the ‘big hit’ (something that’s only a recent trend, despite some saying that red cards reflecting a greater focus on player safety are ‘ruining the game’ … but didn’t we all learn to tackle low when we were young/new?) is making players more aware of their actions, the actions of opponents, the most important aspects of playing defence, and appropriate technical application for the situation at hand. This is the one area in my training sessions that I continue to ‘drill’ – not in long lines, but in pairs or small groups. The aim is to give players as many reps as possible at reading body shapes and getting their own positioning correct, often without full contact, so they can be more aware, safer, and use the best techniques to make not only the situation but also their abilities and body types.

 

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I don’t know if I’m mis-remembering the ‘good old days’ or if I’m just watching games now with a keener analytical eye, but I’ve been frustrated watching a lot of games on TV lately. Teams go through a large number of predictable phases without displaying much creativity. Credit goes to journalist Murray Kinsella for his excellent articles (Australia’s 1-3-3-1 shape, Crusaders’ 2-4-2 shape) explaining zonal attack systems that explained in detail what I thought I was seeing from a lot of teams. In most professional and national teams, the majority of passes from the scrum half seems to go a forward pod in specific areas doing a limited range of things (sometimes just crashing it up, occasionally ‘tipping on’ a pass to one support runner outside, or pulling a deeper pass to a back who spins it wide).

Whether you call it ‘around the corner rugby’ or refer to them as ‘one-out runners’, it’s a low-risk strategy favoured by a lot of teams and I’m seeing it more at the amateur level. Its aim is to bosh through or into the defence in hopes of getting behind or finding a mis-match on the next phase. It’s purely attritional and at the amateur level it can be successful because defences are nowhere near as drilled as they are at the pro level. If a team has a few big carriers, it can be difficult for weekend warriors to handle such bulls on the charge. Fitness also plays a factor. One-out runners in the 1-3-3-1 shape, especially, aim to occupy defenders in the middle, exposing an opportunity on the wing. Defending requires a high work rate, as you have to be committed to making tackles, contesting or not contesting depending on the situation, and re-aligning elsewhere before the ball comes out.

In the clip below, we see Wales survive a whopping 32 phases from the Irish, who use mostly one-out runners to attack the line. Wales are penalised at the end, but in the follow-up clip, they stop the catch-and-drive from the lineout and, 13 phases later, Ireland are the ones being penalised for going off their feet in the ruck.

Having refereed a high school game recently where defenders were regularly bunched up around the tackle contest and where defenders in wide channels were often caught turned / looking inwards, there are a lot of things to take away in that clip that can help teams with disjointed, passive, and leaky defences.

  1. The Wall. At no point in those four minutes do we see an open channel. There are red jerseys fairly evenly spread across the pitch. A lot of coaches I know will yell ‘flat line’ to their players, but I like the visual of building an unbroken wall across the entire pitch to hold out the attacking hoard.
  2. Re-Alignment. To extend the metaphor, after an attack, we usually have to ‘re-build the wall’ (i.e. re-align). We want to do this as quickly as possible so the attacking team, again, are faced with an unbroken wall across the field offering no clear opportunities. Wales are great at this, getting back on their feet in no time and getting back into the defensive line regardless of their playing position. All defenders, barring maybe the scrum half, wings and full back, share the same responsibilities in the wall.
  3. Patience / Trust. The entire time, we see patient Welsh defenders who do not rush up recklessly. Coming forward to take away space is important, but not if one or two people are ahead of the rest, leaving big gaps for attackers to exploit. Others do not have to come in to finish a tackle, they do not attempt steals where there is no clear opportunity to do so, and players don’t flood in to ruck when the ball is clearly on the Irish side. They trust their team mates to stop the attackers and patiently wait for an opportunity on the next phase, or next phase, or … if the attacking team doesn’t make a mistake, they often get frustrated by this and kick away after running out of ideas, especially if they are driven backwards.
  4. Targeted Tackles. Quite often, the first man in goes for the carrier’s legs. This is not only to get the carrier down, but also to take away any chance of getting on the front foot (i.e. driving the defence back, making re-alignment more difficult) through leg drive. Rarely do we see more than two players contesting a tackle, leaving 13 other men on their feet for the next phase. Recognising that moment when there are a lot of attackers on the ground or out of position can allow a defending unit to swarm a ball carrier in the next phase who lacks support.
  5. Controlled Aggression. Whether coming forward or holding the line, each Welsh defender attempts to dominate the contact situation. Getting the ball carrier down quickly (or catching them in a choke tackle) allows for a better attempt to steal or to get over the ball and counter-ruck. Also important is that at least one player contests the ruck to the edge of legality, knowing the laws and/or listening to the referee. This slows down play enough for team mates to get back into position. The more time you have between getting set and the ball coming out, the more time you have to assess / plan / communicate a tactic that could win a turnover on the next phase.

Finer Points

I ask my team to defend in pairs, at the very least. In a great instructional video (Seriously, watch all of this! It’s full of wonderful stuff about shape, responsibility and re-alignment!) from former Saracens and current England defence coach, Paul Gustard, he declares that everyone is responsible for the ball in defence. This does not mean that everyone clumps around the tackle, exposing the wider channels, but that those in front of the threat are responsible for stopping it and the rest are responsible for re-establishing the integrity of the defensive wall as soon as possible.

In this clip, we see Saracens’ trust, commitment, and controlled aggression in action. The first man goes low to take away the carrier’s ability to drive and chop him down in a hurry. The second man, having played no part in the tackle, is free to go straight for the ball. The Northampton support player unfortunately grabs him around the head, and if the ref didn’t penalise them for not releasing the ball, there certainly would be one for a neck roll. Also take note of how there are two players – one on each side of the ruck – to defend against a pick almost immediately. Both are in a dynamic position ready for whatever comes next.

In this next clip we how Saracens have opted for an out-to-in style of defence that forces the ball carrier back towards the ruck where there are bigger men (who, incidentally, are world-renowned for stealing the ball in contact). We see the third man in the first two phases push in slightly to force the ball carrier back toward the ruck. If there was a support runner close at hand, this would likely also cause him to think twice. I’ve heard this called a ‘Jam‘ and I have also seen players intercept the ball off passers who weren’t paying attention to this defender getting between them and the intended receiver. The other thing to note is how fluid defenders are; the fly half comes in to help with the third phase but immediately retreats to a wider position, allowing forwards to take up post defence positions and contest the ball.

To maintain the integrity of the defensive wall, as I said before, defenders must have trust, patience, and move quickly into new positions. Below, Gustard talks about who goes where when re-building the wall. Current practice among most teams I run into is that the post and guard defenders get in place immediately, stay put, and everyone builds off them. He explains why the opposite allows them to keep their wider channels well defended.

As he says, it takes longer for players to go around rather than ‘fold in’ beside the ruck. In this clip, we see a prop and the fly half back out of the post/guard position and call for forwards to fold into the space so they can re-establish width. After three phases, there are no open spaces in the wide channel. Northampton’s one-out phases have had no effect at wearing down or exposing Saracens’ flank.

This is a great way to ensure that forwards and backs are defending in the areas that suit them best. I would say, then, that the only time I’d ask a back to stay in the post position is if there’s an immediate threat of a pick and go or a scrum half snipe. You don’t tend to see this much at the professional level because players contest for the ball in the tackle / ruck so long that there’s time enough to reposition players. That sort of slowing down of the play doesn’t always exist at the amateur level, but in seeing how Saracens and Wales are able to maintain a wall across the entire pitch, these tactics might be things worth developing in your team, especially if you regularly find that you are outflanked by one-out runners and wide attacking plays.

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Photo: Eoin Gardiner from Clarinbridge, Ireland, Connacht v Munster 27-12-2010, CC BY 2.0

Last autumn, the Canadian universities’ women’s national championship was hosted in my city and after a few games, I started to notice that a lot of tries were scored from pick and goes. With all games filmed and archived, I went over the ones I’d missed and continued to keep an eye on this trend throughout the remainder of the tournament. After the final – which saw each team score three tries from pick and goes – I tallied up my findings. Of the 72 tries I counted (I missed, at most four, with one game’s footage cut short), a staggering 31 tries were scored from pick and goes! Another 22 were scored as a result of one-out runner off the scrum half or fly half. I found myself frustrated watching it because I’ve coached women for many years and enjoy watching their wide ranging abilities in open play. Most teams in this tournament had the personnel to play wider and more dynamically, but as defences had trouble with the pick and go, I can’t fault them for opting for it under the intense pressure of a national championship. Below, I’ll have a look at ways to tighten up ruck defence and several specific ways of dealing with the pick and go and pick and drive.

The ‘pick and go’ (picking up the ball from the base of a ruck and plunging into the defensive line around the fringes) and the ‘pick and drive’ (similar, but with a second player latching / hammering on and driving the ball carrier through the defensive line) can be difficult to stop. Ball carrier is often so low, he/she is difficult to hold or drive back. The ball is usually tucked into the gut and difficult to dislodge. The laws also tend to favour attacking teams as referees strictly police defenders slowing down play (roll away, release the tackled player, on feet to challenge) and seeing that all body parts of defenders are behind the last foot (including hands if in a three-point stance). In this clip we see the All Blacks power through Australia with relative ease as the Aussies never have time to set up and are standing too high to offer a significant challenge…

It’s certainly not an impossible tactic to stop, however. It is best recognise a team’s potential and desire to use this tactic and stop them as far away from the goal line as possible. It is also important to recognise that this tactic is sometimes used to ‘suck in’ defenders and open space out wide, so it isn’t wise to throw all your players into shoulder-to-shoulder ruck defence. A coordinated and determined effort is needed, and the following should be considered essential regardless of what tactic players choose to combat the pick and go / drive:

Alignment – getting set quick ensures readiness and time to analyse what’s about to happen. Being tight to the ruck and with two players almost shoulder-to-shoulder, there will be no holes to sneak into.

Low Body Position – defenders must get under attackers to prevent them sneaking centimetres and to gain leverage to drive them back.

Proactive / Anticipatory Action – knowing when the ball is out and being first off the line gives defenders the initiative.

Aggressive Challenges – regardless of who is first to align and get off the line, ultimately, the most physically dominant individual(s) will win the contest.

Regaining Possession – getting the ball back as soon as possible should be the principal aim of defence. This can include intercepts/steals or less direct ways of forcing a turnover, such as forcing a knock-on.

Two great clips worth watching to see these things consistently in action are goal line stands made by the All Blacks v France and Saracens v Leicester.

The scrum half’s role is essential here (not to mention the importance of wings and full back communicating needs out wide if the strategy is to draw defenders in) to ensure everyone is in position and focused. Good scrum halves act like NFL middle linebackers, reading what the attacking team is likely to do and feeding this information to teammates in the thick of the action. That information could be:

a) helping organise the side that is most under threat and moving people into position for the next phase

b) assessing the likely tactic and helping those in the front line with the best countermeasure to it

c) leading the call to strike when legal to do so

After building your defensive wall and being ready – both physically and mentally – for the next phase, we can then look at ways to stop the opposition.

Before the ball emerges, you can legally pressure the passer / picker by going through the ruck. Though we occasionally see it on TV, you shouldn’t be allowed to step over bodies on the ground. However, a well-timed drive through an attacking player in the ‘ruck’ can knock him/her backwards into the person about to play the ball. If momentum swings at this point, another defender or two can join in to counter-ruck and secure possession of the ball, as we see here:

The first opportunity you will see during a pick and go is a ball carrier standing tall. If this player’s legs are wrapped, there is no leg drive and the carrier can be driven back or taken down. In this clip, we see the results of stopping leg drive in the first instance and allowing it in the second:

Sometimes the ideal conditions don’t exist, and in the end the most physically dominant will win the contest. We must also remember that the ball needs to touch the ground, so getting body or hands under it can be the last resort. The attacking team will get a scrum, but here we can look to steal or otherwise shut down their attack under less pressure and slightly further away from the goal line.  In this clip, one player aggressively twists a larger one to prevent him from dotting down and two more fly in to get their hands under the ball.

When the situation isn’t so desperate and defenders have lined up quickly, there is time to assess the situation and coordinate a specific tactic. In this clip, the post defender attacks the carrier’s legs and as he’s forced sideways, the second defender drives him back.

In this clip, we see the importance of getting off the line in a hurry. It gives the defenders initiative as the post and guard take down the ball carrier, and allows the third defender to get over the ball and contest possession.

Here we see a pick and drive that’s aiming to punch a hole through the defence. The post defender goes very low and takes out the legs of the ball carrier. Two teammates join in to contest. The defending team is excellent at fanning out and re-positioning themselves immediately to nullify a quick pick option. Note, too, how there are more white jerseys on their feet and in position while their opponents are still on the ground / slowly getting themselves organised.

I’m sure there are other specific ways to target attackers during a pick and go, but as I said before, it all starts with quick alignment and a determined mindset to physically dominate the tackle contest. In my next post, I’ll look at dealing with one-out runners in the same high pressure red zone situation.

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Over the weekend, in a hotly contested Waratahs v Hurricanes match, a ‘Tahs player was binned for a swinging arm that made contact to a player’s head. Notoriously one-eyed announcer Phil Kearns, and many ‘Tahs fans, felt it “harsh”. You can see the clip here: [link] You can hear the captain say he was going for the ball, and I bet he was, but I also think players have to be aware of what their actions could do and be prepared to face the consequences.

Speaking technically, coming in as he did, Potgieter wasn’t as likely to dislodge the ball as he might have if he came from behind and tried to punch the ball forward rather than back into his chest. There’s not a lot of time to adjust in such circumstances, but these are the risks players take.

A lot of have said that penalising players for things like this is “harsh” and “spoils the contest” when a player is sent off. But I say let’s go harsh to get players to be more responsible in contact! If that means players will be binned, or players will pull up and miss a tackle to avoid a potential card, then so be it. Player recklessness, if not willing disregard for the laws, is what spoils a fair and even contest. Since I started rugby, referee leniency, materiality and treating the outcome rather than the act (‘didn’t knock him out, so connecting to the head is no problem’) has caused certain aspects of the game, like the ruck, to be a mess. Players always test the boundaries, and referees let it go because they don’t want to ‘spoil the contest’ and take a lashing from the fans, one or both sides, and the press. Well I contend that players are the ones spoiling the contest in that regard by willingly playing outside of the laws. I ask my players to play tough and to dominate the contact area, but through controlled aggression and within the laws, not to mention the positive spirit of the game where we NEVER go out to hurt the opposition.

I’m not calling for rugby to go the way of basketball, where a slap on the wrist gets you a foul and six means you’re out of the game, or hockey were teams are down a man for short periods all game. Rugby people get uppity stressing that our sport has not just “rules, but “laws”, and lawmakers have done well to clean up the game in the last decade with things like stomping, mountaineering, tip tackles, etc. being all but gone. Just a couple of weeks ago, a World Rugby directive stressed that contact with the head must strictly be policed. If teams don’t adjust and actually play to the laws, then they face the consequences.

To me, any sort of calls for this stuff to be allowed makes those people no better than Rugby League fans who were crying because shoulder charges and head-highs were banned a few years ago. Rugby’s an amazing game without acts that can cause serious injury. Rugby’s under a massive spotlight now, and whether you care or not about seeing it grow, concussions and sub-concussive blows are going to see many players end up like NFL and NHL vets. Whatever steps we can take to make that less likely, the better, I say.

Wanna see some alternative try-saving techniques?

Genuinely attempt to dislodge the ball…

Get under the ball…


I’ll get down now …

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One of the simplest ways to break the defensive line and/or create space for supporting team mates is to line up in the gap between defenders. It sounds incredibly basic, but it’s not something you see happen very often. Defenders do tend to adjust and get lined up on the player being marked, so it’s a scenario that isn’t necessarily always going to happen. The following clips, however, show that even at the highest level defenders can lose focus on the big picture. Someone I used to coach with referred to this affliction as ‘ruck inspecting’ – defenders’ heads and shoulders turned inwards looking at the ruck, waiting it for it to come out, virtually ignoring the threat in front of them. Even funnier are those who’ve been conditioned to point and say “I’ve got… ” so-and-so while still looking at the ruck!

One solution to this affliction is to condition players outside the Post defender to stand with their inside foot forward. This makes it difficult to turn shoulders and hips toward the ruck. In such a position, they must use their head to scan the field and once the ball emerges their first step is forward. While ‘ruck inspecting’, the usual first-step is one that squares the body, and then the second step gets them going forward slightly. It’s a crucial step-too-many when the aim should be to seize the initiative and catch the attacking team behind the gain line as soon as possible.

The following clips will show examples of attacking players getting aligned in gaps, exposing defenders who haven’t assessed the situation in front of them until it was too late.

In this clip, Northampton had enough defenders in place, but Gordon D’Arcy cleverly got himself into a gap on the outside of the second-last defender. He seizes the gap brilliantly and finds support with an inside pass. The overhead shot shows his alignment even better as he’s on the inside shoulder of the last defender, creating a 2v1 situation that will allow him to slip through the gap if the last defender stays on his man, or pass if the defender pinches in to cover his team mate’s mistake.

Here’s another showing a player getting a pass into a gap and, though caught, setting up a team mate who also reads the play and times his run perfectly. The creator of this clip does a great job of noting the purpose and shape of the Waratahs’ attack, and I’d add that Beale’s ability to align himself in – and attack – the gap flat is as important as Foley’s ability to get him the ball. Too often, receivers sit back waiting for a pass when the defence isn’t aligned properly and/or not paying attention to the potential threats in front of them. Getting the ball deeper and without a plan allows the defence time to adjust. As the video’s creator so correctly indicates, the defence has a lot of threats to consider but they needed to trust the guys on the inside more and focus on their own responsibilities. Foley’s straight and fast run from a relatively flat position holds his man in place and draws the attention of others. Beale’s flatness and Foley’s near-perfect pass doesn’t give the Reds’ defenders any time to adjust once the point of attack has been changed. If they’d have been more attentive, Beale might have run straight into a dominant tackle, but he’s a master at spotting and exposing defensive errors.

This clip finishes with a perfect strike by Quade Cooper, but off the lineout Ben Tapuai does a great job of running a line that fixes his defender and then steps into the gap to get well over the gain line. This is another basic principle of alignment and attack that must be part of every player’s ‘tool box’. Too often, slow or slanted runs are used that play right into the hands of the defence. Here, Tapuai is deliberate in his approach and explosive in his change of direction. Several direct and powerful phases ensue that gets the Lions defenders focused on tight play off the dangerous scrum half Will Genia and the Reds’ capable forward pack. This is where a fly half like Cooper is at his most deadly. Too many defenders are worried about Genia and the forwards. Cooper patiently waits for them to manipulate and draw the attention of the defence before calling his own number. At about 45:15, you can see him shift to his left and get into a massive gap before getting the ball. The defender on his inside is still looking at the ruck when the ball is passed and finds he’s lost his man. He panics, running to where he he should have been, allowing the light-footed Cooper to step him and score untouched – the ball fake holding the other inside defender brilliantly.

In this clip, we see the same sort of scenario – defenders not properly assessing / aligning with the attacking team – but instead of the receiver having a go, he realises he’s drawn their attention and finds an un-marked supporting runner with a pass. Again, the opportunity comes after a few phases and when defenders are overly-focused on what’s happening around the ruck and not getting properly aligned. The overhead shot shows it even better as Canada has five defenders on the blind side and Piri Weepu at 1st5 is lined up in between two defenders with men on his inside. As he gets the ball, both are not in a good position to defend and both have a go at him, leaving the inside channel completely un-marked. Different than our previous examples, Weepu doesn’t have the clear gap once he gets the ball, but by drawing the attention of panicked defenders, he skilfully puts a team mate into created space.

This is a very simple way of reading and exposing defensive mistakes even before the ball is played. The first visual cue is spotting a defender whose shoulders and hips are turned inwards, looking more at the ruck than what’s in front of them. By lining up in the gap, the attacking player either has a clear door to run through or – and this is the second visual cue – can take advantage of of the defence reacts to the sudden realisation that they’re not properly aligned. If the outside defender stays on his man, his inside shoulder is vulnerable. If he pinches in, a pass to the next player outside is on, and his line can be tight if that pinching defender turns inward. If the poorly aligned defender sprints to get across, then maybe he’s vulnerable to an inward sidestep a la Quade Cooper, or a pass to a supporting runner as in the Weepu to Vito pass versus Canada.

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In much the same way we look for opportunities in attack – say a slow or poor tackling player to expose – we must focus on spotting opportunities in defence. We certainly demand players stay aware of threats such as overlaps, powerful ball carriers, steppers, great playmakers, accurate tactical kickers, etc. Communicating and addressing such threats are vital to preventing tries. I like to add a positive spin on playing defence, one that is not so reactive, but creating situations where we can be proactive. To do this effectively, we must make players aware of these situations and visual cues that can allow them to force mistakes or win possession. In my playing days, we used to pile several players into every ruck when playing defence. I still have a vivid memory of popping my head out of a ruck against a touring Welsh side to see three or four of our defenders standing against nine attackers from their side. It was then that I realised we were too often wasting our efforts in rucks that were lost, not only preventing us from dealing with threats on the next phase, but certainly preventing us from actively getting the ball back. Throughout the 2000s, we saw more and more top sides reduce the number of players they’d commit to rucks on defence. It’s common now to see a team commit just one person to make a nuisance of him/herself, if any at all, when the ball is available to the attacking side. This typically means there are more defenders standing than there are attackers (with two or three going in to win the ball). It is from these situations that we must look for opportunities to win the ball back.

This process of proactive, attacking defence starts with trust and communication. When faced with contact, the earlier someone declares responsibility for the tackle, the earlier supporting defenders can ask and answer other questions. Does the tackler need help? Is there an offload threat? Should I contest for the ball or are there more attackers there who’ll likely secure it easily? Aided by the scrum half (who should float behind the contact area like free safety in football), making and communicating decisions at the contact area allows the rest of the defensive line to adjust and assess the situation in front of them all the way across the field. Without effective communication, defenders tend to gravitate toward the ball or at least focus too much on it and not what’s unfolding in front of them.

From a position of trust, in addition to communication and patience, defenders can maintain a solid line and not waste energy in battles already lost. In much the same way we look for weaknesses in defenders to enhance our attack, we can look for opportunities while playing defence that can allow us to get the ball back sooner than later. As described above, if we don’t over-commit to rucks, we should have at least one extra body in the defensive line to double-team a ball carrier. A popular tactic at the moment is the ‘choke tackle’ – whereby two or more defenders hold up a ball carrier, inviting a maul to form. They get a bit higher than a strong driving position, instead swarming around the ball so it cannot emerge. When the maul’s forward progression stops or if the maul collapses naturally (i.e. not pulled down, but falling due to momentum), defending players are not obliged to let go and the referee awards them a scrum. Several teams have also seemingly given up on putting in big hits in favour of taking ball carriers low around the legs – which some refer to as a ‘chop tackle’. (I imagine coaches much older than me would simply call it a ‘proper’ tackle, and I wouldn’t disagree!) I have written before about why I don’t like dump tackles that much, but proof can be seen in this clip where low tackles make it more likely that arriving defenders can contest the ball before the ball carrier’s support arrives. Finally, a steal is made because the tackler has time (and he certainly wastes none!) to get back to his feet and get his hands on the ball. Defending requires controlled aggression, trust, and communication, but if we only have a reactive attitude, we are only hoping the attacking team makes a mistake. Proactive defending – going after the ball at every calculated opportunity – requires players to read signs and/or body language that provide the best opportunity to strike. Effectively employing the extra tackler requires that person to assess the threat in front of them. If he decides to push out to make a double tackle and ignores the threat of an inside offload then he might have just given away a try. But if the ball carrier has the proverbial ‘blinkers’ on – looking straight ahead, ignoring his support – and has the ball tucked under one arm, he’s open to a hit from the side. This is especially useful on big, powerful runners who are difficult to stop head on. Though no small man himself, Quins’ Joe Marler steps in from the side and lays a big hit on George North because he’s assessed that North is aiming to run over his team mate and certainly not pass. Attacking players change angles to draw defenders out of line. By reading this ploy early and trusting team mates’ ability to hold the integrity of the line, defenders invite ball carriers to run themselves into trouble. In this clip, Quins’ Maurie Fa’asavalu reads the switch and proactively smashes Andrea Masi from a strong position, dislodging the ball and even getting a steal in the process! Sometimes assessing the situation requires the tackler to take a risk. In the following clip, the defender looks to be outnumbered but brilliantly reads the play to put in a devastating blind-side hit. His side manages to win the penalty after a team mate of the ball carrier plays the dislodged ball from an offside position. What Tom Fowlie recognises is that the passer has thrown the receiver a bit of a ‘hospital pass’ – a floated pass where a defender is in a perfect position to step in and make a tackle. (These are things attackers must recognise, and in Wallace’s case, he should have held the ball or maybe attempted a long pass behind Fowlie, who is most definitely lurking with intent to smash Hopper.)  Fowlie trusts that his team mates will cover the break out side and he’s made a calculated gamble on stepping up to either make the big hit or force the passer to hold the ball. If he played this more conservatively, Quins would have surely broke out beyond half, if not scored. In less-risky situations, defenders can step out of line to make big and/or smothering hits or at the very least force the ball carrier into a less-than-ideal decision. In this clip, Northampton has plenty of defenders in the middle of the pitch – where Saracens obviously want to play. On the replay, you can see that Samu Manoa has this tackle lined up from well back, looking both inward and forward to time it perfectly. Sprinting into a tackle as such has some risk when done alone, because the ball carrier could step suddenly or the passer could miss the intended target. Manoa makes his move with team mates close-by who are in a perfect position to counter ruck. (Fair play to Saracens who manage to secure possession!) Another visual cue that can provide an opportunity to win the ball is the quality and/or timing of the pass delivered to the player being marked. Good passes are put in front of the ball carrier’s hands, giving them time and space to make a decision and act on it. Poor passes, thrown too high, too low or even directly at the receiver cause him to adjust his run, if not stop dead in his tracks. In this clip, the pass isn’t that bad – but as the receiver is taking it flat it’s height means he has to check his run ever so slightly. He’s also unfortunately picked a line that has him running directly at a defender, not a gap. Koree Britton is a bit slow to re-align – he should hustle back quickly to have time to assess the situation – but reads the pass and Festuccia’s line just in time, however, to step in and make a solid low tackle. This is a great example of a dump tackle isolating the ball carrier and getting defenders on the front foot so they can contest the ruck. Here’s another incident where a poor pass allows the tackler to step in and make a huge hit that dislodges the ball. Finally, here’s a clip where the passer does a poor job of reading the situation, with the defender doing a much better job of it. The pass isn’t a bad one if the defence was drifting together, but Benson Stanley is already anticipating it and sprints forward early to chop the receiver down and allow his support to win a turnover in the ruck. Defenders shooting out of line run the risk of opening a gap behind them, but Stanley’s timing is perfect, staying level with the passer until the ball is just out of his hands.

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