Team Defense

The most successful teams do not let the opposition score points easily.  If you look at any professional sport and look at the top teams, they will always be the teams that have given up the least points to their opposition.  Defense wins games.  You have been practicing your tackling techniques repeatedly.  A successful defense needs successful tackling.  The strength of the defense is only as strong as it’s weakest link.  The opposition will find that weak link and exploit it.  The fix to this is simple.  Practice tackling until everyone is effective at it.

The three main questions that a defense has to answer are:

  1. How do we get the ball back into our possession?
  2. How do we prevent the opposition from advancing into our territory?
  3. How do we prevent the opposition from putting points on the board?

To be successful, the defense  needs to be assertive in achieving control of the game.  The defense needs to deny the opposition space to do anything and time to think by closing any distance between them and the opposition so fast that they are being tackled behind their gain line (spot furthest forward for them towards your territory that the ball has reached in this possession – similar to a line of scrimmage in football).  When making tackles the defense should always be contesting possession through Jackyl’ng and if the ball cannot be stolen, the defensive line should be immediately reset cover the next phase of attack.  A good defense does not chase lost causes. If the opposition is winning the ball cleanly at the contact point, the defense then makes efficient use of its energy and resources, lets the opposition have the ball and doesn’t throw bodies into rucks that are already lost.  The more defenders on their feet, the better.  It gives the defending team more players to go for the ball or choke the offense with a double tackle.

How to be Successful – a List of Factors

  1. Layered Format – look at the defense as a set of layers, each one coming into play if the one in front is penetrated.  A defensive line should be flat and similar to a wall that has no obvious gaps or holes.  Attacking teams will go for a gap or hole which will draw in defenders, thus exposing another gap or hole.  The bulk of the team will form the wall with a Scrum Half sweeping back and forth as needed behind them, staying on the inside of the ball, directing traffic to the tackle.  The FB will shadow the opposition FH and tracks again, on the inside of the ball.  The FB will also work with the two wings to cover wide kicks or coming to the support of the line if the attackers try to breach.
  2. Communication – clear, concise and relevant communication between players, overall directed by the scrum half is a necessity to point out threats to the line, make adjustments, and announce responsibilities.  Ensuring single vague words are not just yelled out for the sake of making noise is important.  Use names, directions and commands and acknowledgements.
  3. Effort or Work Rate – The defense that is constantly ready to respond to each and every threat is one that will rarely be beaten.  Fitness and effort is a necessity.  If a defense has players that cannot or are not committed to getting to their responsibility, the defense becomes weak.
  4. Tackling – dependent on the ball carrier and the tackler, different tackles will need to be used and not everyone is going to be able to execute all of them.  Smaller players are going to need to adapt when dealing with big ball carriers and vice versa.  Not all tackle situations will end up similar so quick decisioning and immediate action are necessary. Supporting players to a tackler will need to read the situation so that they are ready to help on the tackle, ruck over, steal or get ready for an attacker’s next phase.
  5. Unit Play – Coordinate the defense’s response to the attack.  As the ball comes into play from a set piece, the defense must Go Forward and take away space, time and opportunity from the attacking team.  Defenders must also be ready to react to any attack or change in attack by being on the balls of their feet and alert.

and on that note.. the Principles of Play come in for Defense.

The defense should attack the offense.  They should not sit back and wait to react to the opposition. They need to deny the opposition  the time and space to mount an organized attack.  The defense wall or line needs to come up quickly and the pod that is directly opposite the ball (pod = mini unit of 3 players with the centre player being directly opposite the ball) is level and aren’t showing any gaps that can be attacked.  This ensures the opposition is kept ‘in front’ of the defense and ensures that the defense is not ‘chasing’ the ball’.

The key to this principle for the defense is resetting or rebuilding the defensive position or line after a tackle if the ball was not re-possessed.  This needs to be done as quickly as possible to stop the attackers from gaining any  momentum.  This is where the effort and work rate of the defense comes into the spotlight.  The defense should reform the defensive wall from the centre out towards the touch lines. Since there is distance and time involved in getting the ball outside towards the touchlines, there is time to react and thus its best to from from the inside out.  This also prevents the attacking team from going around the edges of a tackle.  Don’t get caught having the defensive players not involved in the ruck or breakdown looking at it.  They need to look at what is happening in front of them and plug any gaps.  A typical defensive formation off a ruck looks like this: (click to enlarge)
def-ruck-defencedef ruck line

Note the three defensive layers in both diagrams.  At the breakdown in the first diagram, Players A (Guards or Posts) are tight to the edge of the breakdown to defend the channel.  Players B (BodyGuards) are within an arm’s reach of the Guards.  Player C marks the first receiver of a pass from the breakdown.  This unit of 3 or pod of Player A, B and C cover the space between the two half backs with A pressuring the player (typically SH) who plays the ball, C covers the receiver and B covers any offloads, cutbacks, inside passes etc.  In the second diagram, the pass has moved to the next in line and the SH sweeps across following the ball and directing his players to start moving towards the outside.  The third layer defensive pod of the two wingers and the FB start to swing in an arc following the ball.

What is great about using this formation to establish continuity is that it is easy to do and quickly communicated to the team.  The formation is logical and defensive players can take up positions in line simply by following simple logic.

As with offense, support and pressure are absolutely crucial to defense.  Defending as a team (and pods within the team) require coordination to prevent hard gap attacks.  This coordination allows security and focus for the defenders in that area.  The centre of the pod is tasked with stopping the ball carrier but knows that there is support on either side.  The pod must maintain appropriate spacing for gap control and they need to stay square with any potential offload threats.
support pods

Frequent  and relevant communication directed properly amongst defenders creates opportunities to steal the ball.  A defending team will make a call to move forward and pressure when the ball emerges from a set piece or tackle but continued communication between defensive pods is very important.  It can throw the offense off as they try and organize and it can be intimidating for them to realize they are coming up against an organized and coordinated defense.  At the very minimum the defense should be communicating who they are matching or covering.. ball, guy on the right etc.  Proper communication can increase pressure through the vocal identification of offensive moves such as identifying the overlap that the offense is going for and pushing the defense across to cover and choke the offense off.

Defense when the scrum is on the left is a little bit different than when it is on the right side.  This is because the Scrum Half is available to help on the right side but not the left.  See below: (click to enlarge)

defense scrum right

9 (SH) will be the first defender onto the opposing 10 (FH) if the ball is moved to the defense’s right.  If the opposing 9 runs to the defenders left (or blind side), the defending 9 runs back around scrum and defending 6 (Flank) makes the tackle.

If the ball goes to the defense’s left from a scrum, the SH either follows the ball around, especially if 8 picks up and runs, or comes to the back of the scrum early and stays behind the offside line to be an extra defender. (click to enlarge)

defense scrum left


The SH role then would be as a sweeper.  If the attack moves the ball out wide, the wing steps up into the line and the FB takes any overlapping player.  The wing and FB can switch if need be.

Scrums in the centre area of the field require a mixture of both defenses and the player roles are strictly defined.

  • The backs mark their opposite numbers and move with them before and when the ball comes out of the scrum.
  • Big danger is the left side of the scrum because the opposition SH can pick and go that way with their back row (6,8,7) supporting them.
  • Almost impossible to match numbers in this situation.  Left Flank takes the SH and 8 covers the offload.  Try to slow down the attack so other players from the scrum can fill in.




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