Select Edition

Northern Northern
Southern Southern
Global Global

FEATURE The end of the defensive line

The end of the defensive line
7 months ago

World Cups provide great breaks to see how rugby has changed. Looking back, the space between 2007 and 2011 seems to be where modern rugby began. In as far as you can pinpoint that down to a year rather than a continuous progression over time. The period between 2015 and 2019 brought us the almost ubiquitous use of 1-3-3-1s across all sides, something which shows no real sign of falling, even now. Looking back on 2023 Rugby World Cup, what can we say will be the legacy? For me, and I know this is a bold claim, but it’ll be the end of defences as we know them.

For the majority of rugby’s history, defenders have matched up with attackers. “Your man”, is a common shout to work out which defender should take which attacker filled rugby pitches. In fact, they still do. Go a few steps down the pyramid and that’s what you will hear. It makes sense, the best way to defend would be to stop the attackers. So why have international coaches shunned that approach?

Ardie Savea
Defences could deal with big ball carriers when they went to ground, but the rise in offloads has forced them to adapt (Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA/Getty Images)

Back in the day – well, a few years –  defending was relatively simple. Line up your attacker and cut down the space they had to operate in. Defending is all about reducing space and time. Defences struggled to reduce time, but they could cut down space with their ‘man-to-man’ marking. The only issue, however, was that different attackers had different requirements. A big ball carrier would best be stopped by getting off the line quickly and cutting down their space. A fleet-footed stepper would best be defended against by giving them space and not letting them step around you.

That was okay when juggernaut-sized carriers would rarely pass, so you could create doglegs and get off the line for them, safe in the knowledge the ball wasn’t going any wider. But then attacks evolved. Forwards became more adept at offloading the ball and coaches started to vary who appeared where. When the big ball carrier learnt to pass, defences had to adapt. Either they pushed up and risked leaving their wingers in impossible-to-defend spots, or they stayed back and got run over by big carriers. In the end it all became a moot point anyway as wingers came off their wings looking for work and forwards came around the corner late to attack surprised defenders.

The conclusion; it was no longer possible to mark man-to-man.

The solution was to try and reduce time instead. Teams would defend closer to the ruck and then spread their defenders across the pitch, increasing the gaps between defenders as they went. More or less, they would defend each man, but they were happy to leave an overlap if it meant they could strengthen the defence around the ruck.

Essentially, it was a way to try and do everything. Strengthen the area around the ruck without leaving any obvious holes. With more players around the ruck, you could stop wingers off their wing or late arriving forwards just through the fact that you had more bodies there. It was a good way of defending and it would keep evolving. Teams would increase their line speed and employ umbrella type defences to force attacks to stay close to the ruck. If the attack broke containment and did get out wide, the defence would race to the sideline and catch them before too much damage was done. There was very little space to clearly attack and teams struggled to break well drilled defences down.

Jac Morgan
Wales, under Warren Gatland, would stress a defence by moving defenders from side to side, waiting to exploit a gap (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

Indeed, rugby is a constantly evolving game between attack and defence. The defence had the upper hand but the attack would strike back. The defence were funneling the attack into the space close to the ruck, but some teams were willing to take that on.

Wales with Warren Gatland created a style where they would work their way across the pitch, staying close to the previous ruck but hoping they would race around the corner before the defence could get there. If they couldn’t, then they would turn around and rush back to the other side of the field. They were more than happy to take what the defence was offering.

Previously, teams had been careful to ensure they covered space. When undermanned in defence, they would stand off and give up time in the hope that they could at least limit space.

South Africa could achieve the same thing. They would crash their powerful and immensely skillful forwards directly towards the defence’s strongpoint. How does a defence respond though when their supposed strong point is being overrun? This World Cup, we saw them playing with those two keys of defence; time and space.

Previously, teams had been careful to ensure they covered space. When undermanned in defence, they would stand off and give up time in the hope that they could at least limit space. But take a look at South Africa’s approach in the World Cup final.

They chose to ignore space and cram their defenders in a narrow stretch of the pitch with the intention of applying enormous time constraints on the All Blacks. They didn’t hide where their weak point was, any fan can see that a pass along the line or a kick over to the nearside would break that defence, but they gambled that they could stop the threat at source, rather than narrow the destination.

You can imagine this like a game of darts, but darts 2.0 where you can interfere with your opponent’s throw. How would you do it? Maybe you’d cover up the high scoring portions of the board and force them to take the lesser scores? That would be okay, but a good darts player would be able to hit the highest number you left uncovered and build the score. Better to put huge pressure on the thrower in the hope that they miss completely.

The only way for the attack to solve this is to increase their skill level and be capable of making the right call under extreme pressure. That may well lead to a great leap forward in the sport where we see the most talented players get even better.

Watch a professional lineout now and you are likely to see almost an entire half of the pitch left unguarded with an attacking winger stretching the width. It looks like a kamikaze playing style but it works because the tight defenders are putting so much pressure on the decision makers. They know that any cross kick is likely to either be inaccurate, or if it’s accurate then they can still make the tackle and turnover possession thanks to the lack of support. Even if the attack can keep hold of the ball, the defence are then on their feet defending just a single side of attack for the next phase.

The only way for the attack to solve this is to increase their skill level and be capable of making the right call under extreme pressure. That may well lead to a great leap forward in the sport where we see the most talented players get even better.


Shane 217 days ago

Folks if Eben Ethzabeth can learn to tackle low so can the ABs. Think the concussion thing is here to stay so there will always be replays etc to make the game safer. Scrap the orange card and just coach better tackle technique. The ABs were the worst disciplined team in terms of cards. The TMO will stay in the game because at the end of the day huge clubs want the correct decisions because wrong decisions costs huge money.

Jon 220 days ago

Confusing what the author means be ‘space’ isn’t it? Seems to change. Does he mean like limiting ‘options’?

Talea obviously has a wing in front of him guarding the 50/20. I don’t know why wings so don’t make an extra overlap in these situations. So easy to get on the outside of that defence (if you knew how it was setting up). Players need to be trained in change their setup based on the opposition setup, like happens in NFL. I think Ireland do this on attack?

Overall the article really lost me. No flat D line in the future? This guy has to be losing his mind.

finn 221 days ago

“The only way for the attack to solve this is to increase their skill level and be capable of making the right call under extreme pressure. That may well lead to a great leap forward in the sport where we see the most talented players get even better.”

Or, they could just stand deeper to give themselves more time. This would obviously tend to favour kicking over passing.

Andrew 221 days ago

The obvious counterploy id decent tactical kicking which is apart from a few individuals a lost art.. A wall of Bok forwards? Chip along the ground into space.

CO 221 days ago

South Africa's approach in the world cup final was to illegally obstruct key try scoring opportunities with knock downs, retiring through the attacking line and lots of playing the ball on the ground.

Rugby shouldn't be a game won by kicks at goal from halfway, it's whole idea is to pick up the ball and run with it.

Putting aside the fact a team has been crowned world champs without scoring any points from their own efforts there are five things needed to fix rugby.

Firstly make a try worth seven points and the conversion the same as a penalty. The prospect of ten points from one score will ensure teams don't try to win by farming the officials for three pointers.

Second, remove the TMO and foul play officers. This has effectively placed the judiciary into the actual live game, slowing it down and rewarding the defensive oriented teams. The referees need to go back to full charge with them controlling a video replay operator. Post match WRU can have as many citings, reviews, etc.

Third, have acts of simulation dealt with by match referees and post game citings. This is creeping in to the game as defensive teams look to farm points from match officials.

Fourth, look to minimise scrum penalties. The scrum doesn't have to be perfectly calibrated, teams are deliberately trying to farm points from halfway or thereabouts, they often don't look like scoring any other way. Further, the ball needs to be immediately put in once the referee calls engage.

Finally front row replacements are for safety, these replacements should only be allowed for front rowers. There shouldn't be allowed to be both designated hookers on or props. Once the bench is used any HIA’s should only be called by neutral medics and the match officials.

Francisco 221 days ago

Great article Sam...! Following your guidelines, resolving the activity in the collision zone (conjunction of time and space) demands a high rate of productivity, represented by the TurnOver Won (TW). FRA, SCO, RSA (without Malcolm Marx on the horizon) and IRE presented a high rate of work in the collision zone at RWC.

JL 221 days ago

Great analysis, very insightful. For those of us that have been following Nienaber’s defensive system from the Stormers days, it’s been fascinating to see how it just improved and refined relentlessly. In fact, it works so well that the Boks, with pretty much the same group of players, went from losing 57-0 in Albany to beating the AB’s in NZ the very next year. Astonishing.

Load More Comments

Join free and tell us what you really think!

Sign up for free