by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
Recently I presented a basic pattern of attacking rugby sevens play. In this installment we look at the other side of the ledger and review three defensive systems used in rugby sevens. In the recently concluded IRB sevens series, statistics show attacking teams score a try approximately every sixty-five seconds, so having a defensive system will lessen, but not likely completely prevent, tries being scored against your team.
When discussing defensive systems, I offer two general comments as a preface. First, the rugby field is too large to defend. While this acknowledgement is worrying, employing a defensive system provides the players with a framework in which to work together in an organized way. Additionally, if the defensive system used is populated with players who are poor individual tacklers, the chosen system will ultimately fail. For more on this topic see my earlier column on good tackle mechanics (August 11th, 2008).
The first rugby sevens defensive system we present places all seven defenders up in a single line. The strength of this defensive system is that each defender is asked to mark one attacker at a time and thus can apply significant defensive pressure. When using a ‘Seven Up” defense, the defenders are expected to press up hard in the face of the opposition, forcing the ball carrier to retreat or be tackled. With the ball carrier moving backwards, it is very difficult for the supporting attacking players to remain in or move to a position in which they can receive a pass, so the attack is stifled. “Seven Up” defense is vulnerable though in that there is no depth to the defense, meaning if a defender is wrong footed, and a break created, it is a sprint to the tryline.
Another weakness in this defensive system is not being able to cover possessions that are kicked away by the attacking team. Because of these two major flaws in the “Seven Up” defense this system can be exploited.
A second defensive system involves six players defending in a single line, with a seventh rotating back to act as a sweeper, thus creating depth to the defense. An example of how the role of the rotating sweeper is filled is as follows; The Blue team has a defensive scrum on their left hand side of the field. The Gold team aligns their back out to the defender’s right. As the scrum is engaged and ball struck back by the Gold team, the Blue team’s hooker immediately leaves the scrum, checking the weak (left) side of the field to ensure the Gold scrumhalf doesn’t dart down the touchline. Once it is determined there is no blindside threat, the defensive hooker rotates back into the sweeper position as the ball is passed across the field by the Gold team. In this system, if the Gold team reversed direction with their attacking possession, the Blue hooker is required to rejoin the left end of the defensive line as the ball is passed back his direction. The defensive player furthest away from the ball, the Blue team’s wing, would then rotate back to fulfil the sweeper role. The defenders who are positioned in the middle of the field have to work together to assure they are able to defend more than one player as the ball is moved through the attacker’s hands. The strength of this rotating sweeper defense is only as strong as the defender’s ability to stay connected. The success of this defensive system relies on the team’s ability to rotate players into and out of the sweeper role seamlessly.
The third defensive system sees one player designated as the sweeper. This system limits the necessity of defensive players having to rotate back and forth, but doesn’t eliminate it completely. For example, the player who is kicking the restart after his team has scored a try is designated to stay back as the sweeper, while the balance of the defenders press downfield building a six player defensive front. The player nominated as designated sweeper remains in this role until the ball is turned over. In some cases teams will look to minimize a specific player’s defensive liabilities and nominate him as the designated sweeper. As is the case with rotating sweeper system, the designated sweeper’s primary responsibilities are to field kicks and slow down any line breaks created by the opposition.
A well-positioned sweeper is often able to slow down the attack long enough to allow his fellow defenders to provide cover defense and minimize the damage created. Players in the sweeper role are responsible for making open field tackles if required, but are effective by shadowing the ball carrier until more defenders are on scene.
Coaches should evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of these three defensive systems and decide which best suits their team.
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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