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FEATURE Make no mistakes, defence will win the Rugby World Cup

Make no mistakes, defence will win the Rugby World Cup
1 week ago

The great college gridiron coach ‘Bear’ Bryant was (probably) the first to opine that “Offence sells tickets, but defence wins championships”. Since the legend of Alabama’s ‘Crimson Tide’ first said it, it has passed into almost every sport as gospel truth, in every variant imaginable: “Offence wins games, defence wins Championships” is just one of many mutations.

But the maxim is very much swimming against the tide in modern sport. A couple of years ago, Bear’s alma mater romped to a national championship on the back of record-breaking offensive stats. Their coach Nick Saban drew the obvious conclusion: “It used to be if you had a good defence, other people weren’t going to score. You were always going to be in the game. I’m telling you. It ain’t that way anymore.” Saban was speaking, be it noted, as one of the premier defensive minds in the game.

The trend towards increased offensive scoring is common to every ball-playing sport across the world. Test cricket has been transformed by the advent of limited-over offshoots into a hitting spectacle that produces more decisive results than ever before. Instead of the five-day slugfest that so often ended in a bore-draw, we now have ‘Baz-ball’, and three- or four-day thrash-abouts that finish with a ‘W’ in one column and an ‘L’ in the other.

Rule changes and an improvement in quality of pitches have helped the process along nicely. English Premiership football is now unrecognisable from the First Division back in the 1970s. Gone for good are the churned-up mud-heaps, the heavy leather footballs – and gone are Soccer’s hardmen with them.

No longer will you hear the ghostly echo of nicknames like ‘Chopper’ (Chelsea’s Ron Harris) or Norman ‘bites yer legs’ Hunter (Leeds United) around contemporary dressing rooms. Touch a player nowadays, and they will fall over, writhing in apparent agony on one of those brilliant green, billiard-ball surfaces upon which the modern game thrives. The game is weighted towards the attack.

Wales v Fiji
The Wales v Fiji game was a World Cup classic and whipped up huge debate (Photo by Hans van der Valk/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

In collision sports like American Football and rugby, the target zone for dominant defence has been further reduced by the introduction of laws designed to lower tackle height and avoid head contact. In gridiron the helmet can no longer be used as a weapon to deliver a stunning hit to the ball-carrier, and defenders in rugby need to exercise an ever-increasing measure of care in order to keep the point-of-contact below the level of the attacker’s shoulders.

Despite all the numerical trends, despite all of the shifts in law and attitude to produce more goals, more touchdowns, and more instant gratification for the spectator, Bear Bryant’s old aphorism still applies at the pointy end of competition. When push comes to shove Australia retains the Ashes, Argentina wins the men’s football World Cup.

Likewise, defence also came out well in credit at the end of the first round of matches at the Rugby World Cup. World champion South Africa’s D eventually consumed a well-conceived Scotland attack, and the stats generated by the three winning teams (France, England and Wales) in the top-tier encounters looked markedly different to their opposition:

The losing teams built 46 more rucks and kicked 11 times less per game, while forcing their opponents to make almost 100 more tackles – and yet they still lost all three contests. England somehow defended successfully with only 14 men, Wales somehow survived an onslaught where they set only 45 rucks to Fiji’s 134, and made 253 tackles to Fiji’s 70.

This represents a reversal of the trend in recent international tournaments like the 2023 Six Nations and Rugby Championship, where the most creative teams with the best ball control (Ireland and New Zealand) achieved a clean sweep and won all their eight games. In the first round of the World Cup, it was a case of the defensively-minded teams inspiring one another. It is not often that you hear a Welshman complimenting England on a rugby field, but even Dan Biggar was moved to observe the performance of the men across the Severn Bridge after their win over Argentina:

“I thought England were absolutely magnificent after going down to 14 men [after Tom Curry’s red card in the third minute]. We spoke about having a little bit of a similar mindset – whether we lose a player or go down a bit, still working your absolute socks off. I think it was quite good for us watching that game, to be honest, as a team.

“It was almost like the red card was better for England than Argentina. I thought it galvanised them. They defended in twos and threes extremely well, scrambled well and forced a lot of errors.

“We knew we were going to concede turnovers and have moments when we were up against it. We said that we needed to have a similar sort of mindset to really grind it out and dig in at big moments.

“Results are the only thing that matter in this tournament. We are off to a good start, and if we win next weekend [against Portugal] it will be a really good start and we can build to the final two games then.”

In high-pressure ‘all-or-nothing’ matches, defence tends to be given more refereeing leeway than it might otherwise enjoy.

The cardinal points are: don’t set too many rucks or attempt too much with ball in hand in case you are turned over; defend collectively in twos and threes, and defend especially hard after you concede a break; forget about the spectacle, results are all that matter.

In high-pressure ‘all-or-nothing’ matches, defence tends to be given more refereeing leeway than it might otherwise enjoy. The 2020 World Rugby guidelines at the breakdown did much to clear up the mess in that area. They insisted on tacklers clearing the area before any defensive contest was allowed, no interference to the cleanout players, and they produced a glut of lightning-quick ball. So far, so good.

The first round highlighted the work-arounds which defences have developed since then, to give the ‘jackler’ a better shot at the ball on the ground:


Referee Jaco Peyper is rightly focusing on the point-of-contact on the ground, where French hooker Julien Marchand is looking to dispossess Dalton Papali’i, but Marchand’s pilfer is being subtly ‘protected’ by the actions of No 5 Thibault Flament (in the red hat) and Uini Atonio on either side of him. Flament and Atonio advance towards the two New Zealand cleanout players opposite them (Tupou Vaa’i and Codie Taylor) and ‘chip’ them, impeding their path to the cleanout for short-but-significant second. That is all the ‘bubble’ of time and space Marchand needs to do his work, and achieve a turnover which brought Les Bleus back into the game immediately after a score by the All Blacks.

Some of the pictures presented in the Wales-Fiji game were strikingly similar:



In the first clip, Wales lock Will Rowlands has a clear crack at the ball on the ground because one of the first two Fijian cleanout players (No 2 Sam Matavesi) has been run off his path by Adam Beard (in the black hat) well ahead of it.

Tacklers know the referee will pick them up if they do not roll away on the ground in front of the cleanout, so now the theme is to block out the offensive support players ahead of the ball while they are on their feet. ‘Defending in twos and threes’ in these instances resembles a Gridron blocking contest, with one pilferer, and a couple of players alongside him trying to build an obstructive wall in front of the pill.

Another Fijian ‘try’ – subsequently disallowed on review – highlighted how some typical defensive postures are creating difficult problems of interpretation for the referee:


Fijian loose-head prop Eroni Mawi takes to the air to try and dot down close to the Welsh posts, and the try was rightly disallowed on review for a fumble by the big Saracens front-rower. However, the type of tackles being essayed by the pair of Welsh defenders closest to Mawi was also drawn to referee Matt Carley’s attention subsequently by the TMO:

The head of the first Welsh tackler (hooker Ryan Elias) is well below the level of his hips, and he is looking away from the target, and there is no way he can make an effective wrapping motion with his right arm from that position. The second tackler (Rowlands) also has his left arm tucked into his side when he barges into Mawi in mid-air. Both could have been justifiably penalised for their actions (resulting in a penalty try to Fiji), and so could the ball-carrier, for illegally jumping over the tackler in the first place.

Model low-tackling technique was demonstrated by French number 8 Gregory Alldritt in the match against the All Blacks. Here he is, uprooting Kiwi prop Ethan de Groot – head looking up, arms wrapping, driving from low to high into the sternum:


That is the essence of the tackling technique espoused by France defensive guru Shaun Edwards:

“I’m a huge boxing fan and I use boxing terms to paint the picture. Until recently you were looking to land a big hook, to plant your shoulder into the waist or chest of the ball-carrier when tackling but that can get you in trouble now if somebody falls or ducks.

“So now, the image I draw is a big uppercut. Always try to make the tackle from down low, underneath the ball carrier’s head. That makes it much more difficult to be accused of going high.”

Defensive coaches are always on the lookout for ways in which to exploit the grey areas of the game, especially in contact and especially in and around the breakdown. In the opening round of the 2023 Rugby World Cup, they found them. They successfully harassed the No 9 at the base and crept around the fringes; they chipped away at the cleanout before it ever reached the target area; they simulated low chop tackles without any real wrap of the arms.

It was an outright win-win for the defensive sides in round one, and it was also win-win for all the four top-tier teams who ply their trade in the Northern Hemisphere at club/provincial level, which now includes South Africa.

Those four outcomes will also have highlighted the murky zone referees need to address if the fragile balance between attack and defence is to be maintained in the passage towards the knockout stages of the tournament. Then, World Rugby will have the showpiece it really needs, and the momentous competition supporters of the game really want to see. Some of that special Nick Saban sauce could be ladled on with profit: “It used to be if you had a good defence, other people weren’t going to score. You were always going to be in the game. I’m telling you. It ain’t that way anymore.”


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