Defence in rugby union is all about league, league, with another dollop of league on top. No sooner had Eddie Jones’ unsuccessful experiments with Australian NRL coaches Antony Seibold and Brett Hodgson spelt the end of his tenure with England, than a couple more former leaguer coaches popped up in the Six Nations.
England’s new head coach Steve Borthwick brought Leeds Rhinos legend Kevin Sinfield with him from the Leicester Tigers club at Welford Road, then Warren Gatland identified Sale’s Mike Forshaw as the man to fill the imposing boots of Shaun Edwards, his long-time defence coach at Wasps and with Wales.
The little Wigan maestro has of course been central to the resurgence of the fortunes of the French national team since the last World Cup, and Andy Farrell – along with Edwards, one of the two best defence coaches of the last decade – is still overseeing structures without the ball in Ireland.
In the current Six Nations climate, the ultimate challenge for all attack coaches is finding ways to beat a league-coached defence. It is not easy and it is not new. When I worked for Stuart Lancaster’s England coaching staff from 2012-2015, Wales (coached by Gatland and Edwards) always presented the toughest defensive assignment of all in the Six Nations.
Our clearest solution probably occurred in the 2014 tournament, where England beat Wales by 29 points to 15 and won going away. In truth, the margin could have been a lot wider on the day.
The most consistent facet in a Shaun Edwards’ coached defence is its aggression. Tackles are made hard and on-square, defenders rush from the outside to force the ball back inside and cut off the width of the field, and the on-ball contest is punishing after Edwards has forced you down the narrow funnel he wants.
For the historians among you, the best sample is the 2014 end-of-year Test between Wales and New Zealand, when Edwards’ D kept Wales in the game and made an attacker as exceptional as Beauden Barrett look very ordinary indeed at number 10.
Edwards’ comments about the championship-deciding fixture against Ireland in 2022 make for even better reading one year later on:
“The thing about Ireland is to get the ball back off them. If you look at the stats, particularly the Six Nations campaigns they’ve won, I know that was before Andy was there as head coach, but I’ve just watched the first half against the All Blacks [in November 2021] and they had 72 per cent possession and 75 per cent territory. And the All Blacks’ attack just couldn’t get going.
“They couldn’t get going because of this ability of theirs to keep hold of the ball. And we have to be incredibly disciplined around the halfway line. We do know that Ireland back themselves to play ball-in-hand rugby, and that’s great to see a team do that because that’s what you want to watch, but we have to be disciplined enough to go phase after phase after phase and be prepared to make all of the 200 tackles in one game.”
Probably the most impressive feature of Ireland’s strategy was the subtle shift in the kick-run balance in the second half.
It is quite prophetic given events in Dublin last Saturday, in which the men in green racked up 178 carries for over 1,000 metres, built 142 rucks and forced France to make 242 tackles in the match. Ireland controlled the ball for over 25 minutes and that is a massive figure in the modern game.
Probably the most impressive feature of Ireland’s strategy was the subtle shift in the kick-run balance in the second half. Where Ireland had run, run and run again in the first half, in the second period they introduced the kicking game adroitly – particularly when they wanted to keep the foot firmly on the French throat in the final quarter, and especially with their replacement halves Craig Casey and Ross Byrne on the field to implement it.
The man Ireland picked on was a Six Nations debutant on the French left wing this season, Ethan Dumortier. The disadvantages of kicking to Damian Penaud’s side were even more obvious after this counter-attack try in the first half, than they would have been before the game started:
Just when Shaun Edwards wanted his charges to be at their most determined in the tackle and post-tackle around the halfway line, Ireland changed tack and went to the kicking game behind Dumortier:
Ireland full-back Hugo Keenan spots that France will be turning up the heat with a 14-man line on chase – the characteristic Edwards MO – so he drops a 50/22 in behind Les Bleus’ number 11, knowing that the acting full-back Romain Ntamack cannot cover a kick from the opposite side of the field. The men in green sat on that position inside the red zone long enough to make the key score of the game, which took them out to a winning 20 points to 7 lead.
It was left to Casey and Byrne to maintain the pressure on the French wingman playing high upfield in defence:
There is pressure building on the Irish breakdown in the first instance, so Casey promptly relieves it with a neat left-footed kick to the corner. In the second example, France again adds a 14th man to the line and Ross Byrne pins them down in another claustrophobic lineout position close to the goal line.
Something similar occurred in the second half of the match between Scotland and Wales at Murrayfield. Before the game, Wales’ defence guru Mike Forshaw had pointed to the threat of big South African-born wing Duhan van der Merwe on the Scotland left wing, after his marvelous individual kick return try versus England:
“It was a wonder-try from Van der Merwe, and I’ve seen him do it once or twice before playing for Worcester against Sale. I think the thing for me would be, why are you giving him opportunities like that?
“We’ve got to be a bit smarter. The England tactic of going long was probably not great but having said that, there is a bit of X-factor in that Scottish back three.
“I don’t know if Kevin [Sinfield] would be happy with that try they scored because Van der Merwe beat six defenders. But he is a bloke who can hurt you and I’ve seen him create something out of nothing and leave a trail of destruction before.
“If you are going long and strong with your kicking game against Scotland you have to be strong defensively, because players like Van der Merwe are coming back at you with some speed. The first try he scored at Twickenham was probably one of the best tries I’ve ever seen.”
Scotland began to work out how to get the ball to Van der Merwe on their own terms at the beginning of the second period – firstly from a lineout turnover in their own 22:
In the first instance, the turnover allows Scotland to catch young inside-centre Joe Hawkins in an unfamiliar defensive channel one spot further out, and Blair Kinghorn duly makes the break. A few phases later, Finn Russell is able to exploit Welsh right wing Josh Adams’ eagerness to shut down the space around Van der Merwe with another 50/22, leading to a turnover lineout throw for the Saltires.
That became a major theme as the second half wore on:
Adams is on a ‘spot-blitz’, trying to take Scotland centre Huw Jones man-and-ball together. Unfortunately for Forshaw and Wales, he is a step slow as Jones cleverly turns his body in the tackle to protect a transfer of the ball further out. The secondary issue is that George North does not have the same clairvoyance on the reading of play as his predecessor in the outside centre channel, Jonathan Davies. That means he cannot get back to cover Van der Merwe after the ball moves beyond Adams, and the outcome is a long 50-metre break.
As in the Ireland game, the hard league attitude to defence from the wing eventually proved Wales’ undoing:
On this occasion, Russell chooses the kick-pass as his weapon of choice to the wide left of the field. With No 23 Alex Cuthbert (Adams’ replacement) standing high in the line, neither he nor North is able to cover the space in the 5-metre corridor after Van der Merwe collects the kick and drops the ball back inside to Kinghorn for the score.
With 36 tries scored in the first two rounds of the current Six Nations at an average of six tries per game, attack is currently winning most of the arguments against league-coached defence.
It is the sheer variety in the passing and kicking games which is finding space out wide, and trumping the high-wing, early-closure policy favoured by the likes of Shan Edwards, Mike Forshaw and Kevin Sinfield. Enjoy it while you can, because all three will already be working on their solutions as we speak. By the time the World Cup arrives in September, the rugby world could look very different again.
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