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Archive for the ‘Defence’ Category

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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Determined Defence

The primary aim of defence has to be getting the ball back as quickly as possible, as much as possible within the laws of the game. In my book, everyone must have this mindset: being alert, coordinated, determined, committed and acting with controlled aggression. In fact, we are going to ATTACK on defence to deny the opposition time and space, cause confusion and seize the initiative.

Our league has good referees, often ones who don’t allow anyone to play the fine line between legal and illegal play, so I prefer to see the team playing honestly but with a unified urgency to get the ball back. This also means making efficient use of our resources and energy, namely not pouring people into rucks that are already lost. I’m happy for us to submit defeat at this ruck to have extra numbers for the next tackle contest. Attacking teams will typically put two or more into a ruck to secure it. If we have just one person to have a shove and be a nuisance (if they don’t disrupt the ball and give us an immediate opportunity!), this gives us at least one extra defender to go for the ball or a choke in a double hit or act as a planned lone shooter. It’s this sort of thinking that makes defending more than just tackling and preventing points from being scored!

Important Factors in Achieving This:

  • High Work-Rate – As with attack, the team that is set and ready to go first has the initiative. We build the defence from the inside-out, taking care of the fringes of the tackle contest first and then pushing or folding out from there. Wings and full back are especially useful in pulling people out, which leads to the next point …
  • Communication – Constant and specific communication helps us point out threats, declare responsibility (again, from inside-out), make adjustments and even target opportunities. I have no problem with ‘Big Talk’ like “Hold!” and “Up!” as they are great commands to coordinate the defensive line, but the constant bleating of those words not only gets on my nerves, it’s white noise that prevents more relevant communication from occurring as the play unfolds. Kept it short, loud, specific, and ideally attached to a name or at least with some sort of direction/acknowledgement from the people around you.
  • Layered Structure – Generally speaking, the defensive line should be a flat wall that offers no gaps or holes for the attacking team to expose. That means no one up ahead of or behind the rest in the main line. A good attacker will go for the space left open and draw extra defenders, opening new space where they were if she doesn’t get through. That said, a completely flat line is an easy one to kick against or if there’s a breach, it’s more difficult for covering defenders to stop it. So, our defensive line has a few layers to it. The obvious one is the full back who generally shadows the opposition fly half and then tracks the inside of the ball, watching for cut backs but then taking the last attacker if there’s an over-lap out wide. The wings should hang back a few meters to deter / cover wide kicks, coming up into the line when it’s obvious the ball is going to be run. The middle zone between them is covered by the scrum half – who has an important ‘traffic cop-like’ job organising the tackle contest, but then must sweep behind the defensive line, again staying inside the ball, in case of line breaks or short kicks.
  • Hunting Pack Mentality – When the ball comes out of the scrum / lineout / ruck / maul, we have to come forward and take away the space and time the attacking team has. This MUST be coordinated, without the aforementioned shooters / laggers-behind, compromising the integrity of the defensive structure. It must also exhibit the qualities listed in the opening paragraph. We must dominate the contact area to get the ball back by aggressive but legal means. Simple as that. The pack mentality provides focus in that defending is never an individual effort, usually requiring at least three players to contain the ball carrier and her immediate support options.

(Diagrams and further explanation of layers and working as a unit can be found here: Principles of Defence 3 )

  • Footwork – This is the first of two concepts I think a lot of coaches forget, if not actually ignore, when coaching defence. Attacking players should try and avoid being tackled. Despite the tendency of Northern Hemisphere – especially North American! – players to run straight into contact, we have to be ready to adjust to changes in direction so footwork is very important. Closing down the space can involve long strides if need-be, but as a tackler approaches the contact area, steps should become shorter, on the balls of the feet, ready to adjust and make a tackle on her terms.  Which leads to …
  • Tackle Selection – Not everyone can make the full range of legal tackles allowed in rugby, and that’s fine. Footwork becomes even more important for those players to ensure they make the tackle as they would prefer. Hopefully everyone can strive to have as many tackles in their bag of tricks as possible because not every contact situation is the same and some can allow for a better opportunity to dominate the contest. Quick take downs allow the tackler or tackle assist player to have a quicker shot at stealing the ball, especially in the open field. Higher smothering tackles can prevent tries close to the line and allow assisting players to ‘choke’ the ball carrier, holding her up for a scrum turnover. Hammering a ball carrier backwards can have both a psychological effect that uplifts the team, but also gives the tackler the best chance of ending up on top, bouncing to her feet and getting hands on the ball. Blitz tackles can have a similar effect and also sets the tackler up to get or cause an interception as well. Supporting players need to be aware of the body language of each as team mates line up tackles so they can support in the best way (helping out or staying out, mirroring the offload threat or getting ready to pounce in for a steal).

In Addition:

1. Turnovers: When turnovers occur, someone needs to have a quick assessment to shout out the best course of action. To doddle or choose the wrong option wastes the opportunity to exploit a team that’s probably lying deep and is certainly disorganised. Typically, two passes away from the contact area will find this space. If someone does have a gap in front of them, support must funnel through and look to move the ball to space quickly. Kicks are usually only a good option if we have a legitimate shot at regaining possession from exposing the lack of covering players from the opposite team (maybe the wing and full back were part of the turnover and we have speedsters in place to chase a well-placed kick).

2. Kick-Chase: When chasing the kick, it’s important to get a group of at least three players in place quickly to either re-gather or contain and hopefully dominate the receiver. The ideal shape they take is not flat, because if one gets beat, they all get beat. If they adopt a ‘flat’ arrowhead shape, with the point taking the ball, then the ‘wingmen’ have time to make an adjustment if this occurs. Also, if the ball is re-gathered by the tip of the arrow, the wingmen are in good positions to support.

 

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I’m one who favours defending square and with coordination being more important than quickness. This ensures integrity of the line, without anyone rushing ahead of another or having to rely too heavily on a team mate. Staying square means you can defend off either shoulder and make easy adjustments as attacking players do.

Most, if not all, of the attack solutions found in the Drift and Blitz defence posts can be used against flat, man-on-man defences. In some of the video examples, you can see how teams started square, but then had to resort to a drift, otherwise turned their bodies to chase an attacker, or one player shot up ahead of his / lagged behind team mates. With coordination and trust being vital to effective defence, attackers should consider ways to break this and find opportunities for themselves or their support runners. This doesn’t require fancy, multi-faceted moves with decoy runners. It can be done with a simple dummy pass and/or sudden change of direction. I don’t know if there’s a ‘non-negotiable’ rule for any of these, but players should be trying these things out in training in natural 4v4 games in realistic conditions so they can work out what works for them. Some key reminders should be to keep the ball in two hands to always remain a threat, to keep changes of direction sudden and sharp, to aim for shoulders to draw attention.

Supporting players have to be especially proactive a they’re the ones who have a wider view of how defenders in line react to what the ball carrier’s doing. Too often, I see ball carriers – to their credit – trying to make things happen, but see their supporting players hanging back expecting to be given a golden pass. I think, more often, they have to go looking for space that’s created, defenders whose attention is drawn away from them, or to make an early call to the ball carrier regarding better options. A short while ago I read a great interview with World Cup-winning legend Jonny Wilkinson who said:

I remember coming off the pitch at Twickenham and doing TV interviews with the media being very flattering and I was feeling like a fraud, thinking: ‘Are you kidding me? I’m not a genius — I just heard someone say give him the ball, so I gave him the ball!’ My best-looking games were when someone was in my ear for 80 minutes telling me what to do.”

I figure if one of the greatest fly halves of all time can say that, then certainly decision makers at every level should be demanding more from their support. The decision-maker’s arguably more different task given that he won’t have a Will Greenwood outside him/her is to know what angles, dummy passes, decoy runners, etc. do to defences, quickly consider the advice, and pick the best option for what he/she sees in front. It’s another reason I think we need to play more realistic games at training, because this is rugby. Training against passive defenders – or no defenders at all! – will not allow players to develop these skills. And I challenge all my players, from props to full backs, to be able to step into that position and make a good decision based on what they see and hear.

So, after that long-winded introduction, how can we disrupt or manipulate well-organised defences? Let’s look at some examples:

Each of these two-man moves can be done anywhere on the pitch – in wide open spaces, or close to ruck. While more support might be needed to score, the aim here is to breach the defensive line. (I’ll cover support options and lines of pursuit in a later post, though I think the lines people take are often fairly easy to spot at ground level – Go for the space and move away from the threat!)

2 v 2 Options

The first is an example of a classic Unders Line, where it’s important that the ball carrier stays straight, to fix the defender, and that the supporting runner’s directional change is sudden and sharp. If the defender covering the ball carrier is properly fixed, the strike runner can aim for the space behind his shoulder, ensuring that he gets away from the man covering him. The Overs Line is pretty much the opposite, with the strike runner flaring outward instead of inward, aiming for the space behind the third defender or off the shoulder of his if he’s turned inward. Of course, the pass is different for each – soft and flat for an Unders, and hard and wide (maybe slightly deep, but definitely in front of the runner’s hands).

The second example is often called a Y-Line these days, with the ball carrier making the sudden move. He aims for the space behind the defender beside the defender covering him. This sudden and sharp angle either allows him to slip behind that defender or draw his attention. It should be a win-win scenario if done properly. If the defender stays on his man, he can exploit the space and get behind the defence. If the defender bites, he can pass to a supporting runner who picks a tight line behind the back of the turned defender. This is usually seen going out, but can also be done on the inside if there’s enough width.

The third features a classic loop. Some people think the receiver should pop back to the passer on the inside – before she goes around – while others have the receiver pop when she’s gone around and is straightening up into the gap. I don’t mind either way, but think that each depends on how soon the receiver got the ball, how much space is in front, and what the passer intends to do when she gets the ball back. Some teams use the looping player as a decoy / distributor to pull even more defenders out of line. Other scenarios would have the looping player strike into an open gap between the second and third defenders. Ideally, the looping player would keep both options open!

I might go into them in greater detail later, but you can combine both Unders and Overs lines together in what are called Blocker and Slider moves to really open well-disciplined defences, but I think at amateur levels, the above are usually quite effective.  That said, the essential element of a complicated move is usually just one move – in a Slider, for example, the second attacker suddenly flares outward toward the third defender. If teams are truly ‘playing rugby’, they’ll assess what that does and simply pick the best way to attack the way the defence reacted to that move.

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