BLOG 3 COACHES CORNER: Defence structure – It’s not just a nice idea any more… It’s a necessity!

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Nathan Moore: BSc (Hons) Sports Science, P.G.C.E
Founder of NM Sports Performance,
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BLOG 3 COACHES CORNER: Defence structure – It’s not just a nice idea any more… It’s a necessity!

Last week I decided to look at the tackle situation and which type of tackle is the best to encourage the younger generation to adopt. So many times have we seen young rugby players trying to emulate their rugby idols, and the number of scoring chances I have seen missed, whilst refereeing club youth matches is astounding. One main idol is Brian O’Driscoll and his one handed slide and dot down the rugby ball when scoring a try… It was a trade mark move that was used when he sped clear of many a defensive line. Cue now all the young O’Driscoll wannabes, trying exactly the same technique, but this time, the ball being dropped…. Flung out in front of them and a perfectly good score is wasted… By no means am I blaming Brian O’Driscoll for not scoring in text-book manner, what I am driving at is that our young players look to our older ones for inspiration and as coaches we need to ground their feet lest we want a losing scoreline on game day or to see that player not reaching his optimum level.

This brings me back to the subject matter for this week, defensive structure and more importantly defensive structure around the breakdown.

When I first started out in my rugby development officer work I moved to a club in Mid-Ulster and started work in recruiting 2 and ½ youth teams… I say ½ as there was already a number of 16 year olds but I set about recruiting a U14’s, U16’s and U18’s. These players came from the majority of GAA schools and some non-rugby high schools, all had good individual talent but had never played the sport before. We went straight into league fixtures and it was like the boy who plugged the dam with his fingers… When plugging one damaged hole another appeared. All we could do was address the issues when they appeared. The major one which came in every week from the coaches was about defence, not the tackling but the holes in the line of defence. The teams who we were playing against were good established youth teams and could put support runners into any gaps they could find.

This defined our goal for the season…. We would become a club that would be hard to break down when we defended and set about teaching and educating all age groups on the delicacies of a defensive line. Our motto and outlook was simple “They can go round us! But they must not come through us!”. It was simple… If a team was good enough to get the ball out to the wings under extreme pressure from the defensive line and still score then you have to applaud the attacking team! 9 times out of 10 someone in the attacking line will not pass the ball and will be hit in a tackle. We spent lots of time in training on this structure and getting all players to adhere to the system. In the following year the points difference in the games against the “big” youth teams dropped considerably. Instead of them winning by 3 to 4 tries they may have won by 1 or 2 points and some were even beaten by some of the age groups. The U14’s nearly took a league title, losing in the playoff, and the 16’s and 18’s were in the top half of their tables. This was only the second year these young players had ever played rugby.

Many coaches out in the profession have difficulty in sharing their drills and ideas as they feel it will give the opposition an edge over his/her team. I do not really share that ideology, I train my players in the attempt for them to be able to read any situation and adopt the best practice to produce a successful outcome. Therefore I have no real issue in sharing my drills or thoughts and ideas. So that being said let’s build a basic defence off a ruck. Defence structure is simple and I apologise if this article seems condescending to you as a coach in any way, but I always like to start from scratch then over the weeks I will build it up until everyone including the players completely understand this defensive structure.

So in the diagram below this is how we would set it up.

The “pillars” position themselves as the first defender on either side of the ruck and they will mark the attacking scrum half or opposition forwards who may pick the ball up and drive forward.
The “A” defenders mark the space between the attackers 1st receiver and their scrum half. In the diagram there is an attacking support player in the inside of the 1st receiver. This player would then be marked by the A defender.
The “B” defenders stand opposite the 1st receiver and they will defend against this player. Therefore around 5-10 metres either side of the ruck have been marked by the 6 defenders.
The movement of these 6 players should be in a straight line to engage the attackers in front of them. Watch the majority of the pick and drives done in everyday professional games and you will see this in action.

So the premise of the structure works, however if the players do not have a complete and full understanding of their roles and who they are marking, then the strength of the defensive line will falter and a line break will occur. You know the old adage “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”.

Take this next picture as an example. If the pillars do not stay on the scrum half (9) and take off on the angle of the arrows then the Scrum Half can easily “snipe” (run) through the gap that is left. This is shown by the purple arrows.

If the pillar stays to mark the scrum half and does not move, but the “A” defender moves to the 1st receiver then the ball is played back into the inside runner who will run through a gap between the pillar and the A defender. This is highlighted by the solid blue line. Have a look at real game examples of what happens if the “pillars, A’s or B’s” move diagonally when moving towards the attacking line.
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As you can see, line breaks occur frequently if the defending players do not follow through with their roles. Communication is vital in this instance to ensure that all defenders go up in a line and are uniform across the pitch. It is also important to know which attacking player the defending players are going to tackle. The defensive line around the ruck should always move straight first before moving diagonally, this way the attacking team is forced to pass more and can increase the chance of error. However a very important point for any defender in the “A” position is to be wary of moving diagonally too fast as the ball could be played back inside towards to the ruck to a player running around the ruck, who may not have been picked up in the initial scan from a defender. A rule of thumb is to defend what is initially in front of you, if you are in the “A” position then know to be more aware of attackers movement and keep your communication clear and loud.

Next week we’ll have a look at the next defensive structure which is constructing a drift defence and the roles of the defensive line in this drift.

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