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Posts Tagged ‘defence’

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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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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A short while ago I was introduced to the concept of using points in small-sided games to increase the likelihood of players attempting something new or challenging. I first saw an example in a soccer context via the Football Association’s youth development manager Nick Levett’s Twitter account. The point of his game was not just to score a goal, but also to perform a certain skill that was a bit more advanced than the target group’s current range of abilities. Coupled with reading about the benefit of small-s ided games, I thought this would be a great fit for my team for several reasons.

First off, they love playing games and though they haven’t said as much, body language and elevated intensity leads me to believe they’d rather play a game than perform a drill. Secondly, it was rare to see the majority of players attempt, say, attacking angles at all when we transitioned from a drill to a game of touch. The trick, then, was to find a way to encourage players to try the skill practised in a narrow-focused drill to a game-like situation where there were many more variables and options to consider. I wondered if providing a points-based incentive to try the ‘advanced’ skill would help – and, boy, did it!

Instead of doing a drill that focused on angles for 10 minutes or so, we had a little refresher – especially as we’d picked up three new players since I’d introduced the concept – on what an angled attacking or support run looked like. For the sake of simplicity and differentiation, I now call an angled run by a ball carrier a Y-line as the player starts straight and picks an angle that’d look like one arm of the letter from above, aiming for the shoulder or space behind the next defender in line. (Shoulder if trying to commit, space if trying to expose one who’s committed to the next attacker in line) I call an angled support run an unders (running inside) or overs (running outside) line, reminding the strike runner that all he needs to do is yell “tight” or “wide” to the passer and run the correct angle. Again, keeping it simple.

I then told them that we were going to play a big game of touch whereby tries would be worth 5 points, and that you could get bonus points for attempting angles, even if you didn’t score the try. I nominated 1 point for a sharp Y-line (which the guys aren’t too bad at presently) and 3 points for an unders or overs line in support. If a try was scored directly from an angle, it’d be worth 10 points rather than 5. I didn’t know how it’d play out – wondering if maybe guys would over-do the angles to score cheap points – but that didn’t happen. I did, however, see a marked rise in the amount of angles attempted, but also sticking to simpler forms of attack – through the hands to expose an over-lap, an inside ball, a swerve to beat a slower player, etc as those are all comfortable tactics for them and seen as an easier way to score tries. I also made sure to reward and provide feedback in real-time and found that after tries or hand-overs were a good time to shout out the bonus points and what for. (We played touch like league – with a maximum of six phases – so it’s not as if I was counting bonus points for long stretches of play.) I kept tabs in a little note book and was even a bit shocked that after 20 minutes or so the score was a very even 43-41! In addition to the guys enjoying the game and attempting more angles within it, we had a game the following weekend and three of our five tries were scored because of good angles and supporting the linebreak created by them.

However, we’d been focusing so much on attack the past month that we looked a bit slow and rusty in defence so I’ve created a similar game that rewards the desired skills in defence. This hasn’t been tested yet, but I’m thinking 10 points for a try (we want to prevent them!), -5 for allowing a clean line break, 1 for a stop behind the gain line, and 3 for a double hit (as I want to see us working in pairs – when appropriate to contest for possession, and because most of our opponents are of the bigger, crash ball running teams). I might also give a greater incentive for our supporting players to clean up attacking rucks by awarding 2 points if they get two people over the ball in a strong position (we’ll be drilling that beforehand).

I’ve also created what’s maybe a bit more of a skill-drill than a game which will precede the one described above to encourage the players to get off the line in units and work together to stop the attacking team. We were a bit fractured at the weekend, and definitely too passive for the one team in our league that plays with intense speed all the time. Two even teams start at a point where they can run into and get set in attack and defence before the ball is played. They then play one phase of touch, wrap or tackle with the aims outlined in the points table. With that phase completed, they sprint to the next station and repeat. The field layout provides four different widths, two different passing directions, and also allows for realistic situational practice whereby both attacking and defending teams will get the opportunity to play on the ‘front foot’ and have to deal with going backwards and coming forward from the ‘back foot’. I’d have one person at each station to re-set the balls to ensure speed of turnover (like getting people to hold bags, rotating them out after a few cycles.) Depending on how many players and how much space you have, you could have two of these running simultaneously or run players through in cycles. I don’t like having a lot of people standing around, so would tweak the number of participants before having more than half doing nothing, or challenge them to provide positive feedback to the group subbing off – forcing them to pay attention and analyse.

Unit Defence Game

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If you want the condensed version on how to play effective defence, remember that the same principles which determine successful attack apply when trying to stop it. Go forward to take away time and space, maintain continuity to ensure gaps – especially interior ones – are plugged, and maintain both physical and vocal support structures to account for rugby’s non-stop, dynamic nature. Build the defensive line close to the tackle contest first. Urge players to work together and communicate in small units. Make sure you have layered defence to account for line breaks and kicks and make sure those players provide direction in close and out wide. High work rate off the ball is vital! The team that is organised first has the advantage when scanning and accounting for threats / opportunities. Nothing is more frustrating for a fly half than facing more defenders set, aligned, and focused than he or she has in support.

While I believe that international and pro level attack structures and tactics shouldn’t necessarily be adopted by amateur, and especially school sides, I feel we can take a lesson from how they play defence. We must strive to win the ball back as soon as possible, but in order to avoid penalties we need to be patient about doing so from a position of dominance and within the laws. Most top teams commit just one or two players to most tackle contests, making an attempt to steal first and then being a nuisance to prevent quick ball. The rest take up positions in the defensive line, often creating the situation described earlier where more defenders are standing than attackers (who’ve likely sent three or four in to secure the ball). This situation should then allow the defensive team the opportunity make an effort to re-gain possession on the next phase. Some of these are: tackling a ball carrier into touch, forcing a mistake, making a double hit and rip, stealing or ‘jackaling’ the ball on the ground or driving over with a well-timed and coordinated counter-ruck. A well-organised and coordinated defence can also win the ball back by passive means, offering no opportunities to the attacking team such that they elect to kick.

Developing your team’s ability to counter-attack effectively, needless to say, must be part of a sound defensive strategy. While I like to mix up the way I train teams in attack, I tend to stick to the above drills and games for defence as I feel more is gained from repetition and familiarity when developing structure and communication. Whatever your numbers, I feel it’s important to have live opposition, reminding players to keep it realistic if there are, say, four attackers against ten defenders in a team defence game. Small sided games can be just as effective, remembering that work around the tackle contest usually involves just a handful of players. Finally, I try and give a lot of feedback in drills, but not a lot in small-sided or team games, urging players to remember the lessons learned in drills and work together to solve problems positively, only stepping in to facilitate understanding if they’re struggling to come to a solution.

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Support

Key Concepts:

  • Defending in units of three provides strength and support
  • Communication provides focus, cohesion and opportunities

Possibly the most crucial element in team defence is support. Defence is much more than individuals making tackles. It must be a coordinated effort that’s focused, determined, and flexible. Three defenders level and coordinated with each other in front of the ball form a perfect unit to stop a strike run, providing greater focus and security for all defenders in the action area. The defender at the centre of this unit has responsibility for the ball carrier but can be assured that the channels inside and outside are protected by supporting defenders in this group of three. These roles are a mixture of zone and man-on-man styles: supporting defenders must maintain appropriate spacing to prevent the ball carrier taking a gap and they must remain square with potential attacking threats who might receive a pass or offload from the ball carrier.

 Fig 1

Figure 1

 Communication and trust play a major role in maintaining the integrity of the line until it’s certain the unit can attempt to regain possession in the tackle contest. Changes can happen in an instant, and a pass prior to contact means a new group of three is formed in front of a new ball carrier.

 Fig 2

Figure 2

Using the three-player unit as a concept works with a variety of defensive styles, with the group of three staggered in one direction or the other as they come forward (for in-to-out drift or out-to-in rush styles), or especially with a flat ‘arrow head’ formation. The line doesn’t necessarily have to be absolutely flat, so long as there’s little chance a ball carrier or support runner can slip behind a defender who is too far ahead or behind the others in that unit (see Figure 1, top left). In fact, I stay clear of the word ‘flat’ because in a flat line, if one defender is beaten, it’s also likely that the supporting defenders will be beaten. Supporting defenders coming up fast in a flat line tend to over-run the tackle by a step or two, which is great to prevent or intercept offloads, but it also makes it difficult to track backward if the principle defender missed the tackle. One (in a drift or out-to-in defence) or both supporting defenders (in an arrow head) a step behind the one responsible for the tackle have time to adjust if that tackle isn’t made.

 Frequent and specific communication between defenders in small units enhances focus and aids in creating opportunities to steal the ball. Most teams have calls which launch them forward when the ball emerges from the set piece or tackle contest but communication between small units before and after the ball has been played is more important. Vocal support enhances the physical presence of a player, providing a clear focus for the unit in front of the ball and to build trust. It can even serve to throw off the concentration of attacking players to have defenders shouting out instructions to each other. They should at least be nominating their responsibility so team mates can take care of other threats (ex. “I’ve got first receiver!”, “I’ll take red boots, you take the bearded guy!”, etc.). Other relevant pieces of information allow the unit to be even more effective. An individual can call a double hit to stop a larger player or to strip the ball while the tackler goes low. Someone might recognise a numbers advantage and declare s/he’s shooting up for a blitz or intercept, allowing team mates to adjust to cover the gap that defender leaves. An interior defender can call a push, telling the would-be tackler to slide out to cover an overlap and that the inside gap is protected.

I start by getting players into the habit of adopting the simple act of calling ‘My tackle!’ in small sided games. This allows teammates a number of opportunities to steal from or stop the attacking side, or plan for the next phase. It also enhances determination and accountability on the part of the declared tackler, and establishes vital trust among the supporting defenders. It’s an all-too-common scenario where defenders over-commit to the tackle area – especially after a big line break is stopped – allowing the attacking team the opportunity to go wide on the next phase. Early communication allows arriving players to know the crucial jobs around the ruck are sorted so they can move into the next most important positions. Realistic games with even numbers – or favouring the attacking side – ensure defenders have to be on their toes. With so many visual cues to consider, they may have to be reminded to speak, but drilling communication into your team with standardised phrases will help them establish more effective defensive units. With the ball carrier shut down and the tackle made on their terms, they will have a better chance at stealing the ball or winning the tackle contest.

Physical and vocal support should also come from at least one, if not two more layers of defence behind the ‘front line’. The obvious source of this is the full back, acting as both the last line of defence but also the coordinator of defenders in the outer areas of the field. I tell full backs to shadow the fly half and then stay on the inside of the ball as it is moved, staying deep enough to field kicks without having to turn but ready to come up and work with the wide defenders if needed (I let wings and full backs decide who takes ‘last man’ depending on what’s most comfortable for them). Working in conjunction with the fullback are the wingers, who typically lie deeper than the main defensive line to prevent / field kicks and be in a better position to support the full back for deep kicks (see Figure 1). Wings on the far side of the play should also be ready to cross-cover if a fullback joins the end of the line or has to deal with a line break. They should also be cognizant of wide threats, telling defenders to pull left or right as needed.

DEF - Ruck Defence

The middle layer in this three-layered defensive system is the responsibility of the scrum half who, I feel, is often under-utilised in this role. All scrum halves are used to barking instructions in attack, but it’s not as often that I hear them doing the same in defence. With the full back and wings marshalling defence out wide, the scrum half ensures the A-B-C defenders are in place and focused. They can also call out immediate and emerging threats the same as an NFL linebacker. As with full backs, I advise scrum halves to stay inside the ball and follow it across, staying about 5m behind the defensive line to pick up short kicks or line breaks made by attackers cutting back inside (note the path followed by SH in Figure 1).  Other players can take up this role, especially when there’s a significant over-lap, sweeping or scraping behind the main defensive line when safe to do so. My rule of thumb in these situations is for players in the main line to hold until the ball has moved two attackers away. If the defender inside the one covering the ball carrier leaves, the opportunity to pass or step back inside is there for the attacker. This goes back to the ‘defence in threes’ concept discussed earlier (see Figure 2).

Support Drills

DEF - Jackal Drill

DEF - Coordination

DEF - Cycles

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