by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
Over the course of many years leading up to the 1991 Rugby World Cup, rugby teams tended to emphasize the development of attacking tactics. Playing defense was just something you did when you didn’t have possession of the ball. Additionally, at that time the laws of the game favored the team in possession of the ball. The pressure was on the defending team to not make a mistake, while all the attacking team had to do was hang onto the ball and eventually points would come. But during the early nineties, the innovation pendulum began to swing toward defense, and teams began to develop and employ a systematic approach to playing defense. In this column we will briefly discuss the evolution and importance of defensive systems.
Rugby league, a popular sport in Australia, began to flavor the way rugby union teams thought about and created defensive systems. Australian national rugby union team head coach Bob Dwyer was instrumental in fostering many defensive developments. One innovation included systematically tying players together to defend large areas of the field by having them use a drift system. Up to that point, the defensive systems were fairly inflexible, either a man on man or slide defense.
Conceptually, the rugby field is a vast amount of space to cover with fifteen players. It is with this acknowledgement that sound defensive systems are built, organizing team resources to strongly defend certain areas of the field, while leaving other areas less defended. Typically, once a ball carrier is tackled, the defending team quickly assesses and assigns several players to either contest for possession or build a defense behind the last foot of the ruck. The benefit of having a systemized approach to organizing this aspect of play has had a tremendous effect on re-winning possessions or smothering the attack. Because team defensive organization was now beginning to mirror that of attacking play, pressure was increased on the referees and their interpretations of existing laws that ultimately created new ones.
As is the case in competitive sport, rugby coaches were forced to demonstrate agility when adjusting or completely revising their defensive systems, as law interpretations changed and new laws enacted.
As we approach the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, the statistics tell a vastly different story than those of the 1991 tournament. Now, with the advanced defensive systems in place, the attacking team has their best chance of scoring points within the first three phases of play. No longer is the bulk of the pressure solely on the defending team. Through the creation of advanced defensive systems, the attacking team is just as liable to commit an error.
In my experience, there are few significant variations in the defensive systems currently used by elite rugby teams. Where teams’ defensive systems do vary greatly is the terminology used, aspects of the defensive system emphasized, and the quality of the athletes performing within the defensive system itself.
Advanced defensive systems are able to alter the speed of their defensive launch. These adjustments are often tied to the quality of the tackle made, and where the tackle has taken place on the field. If, for example, the defenders outnumber the attackers in a given phase of rugby, the defense might choose to launch very aggressively to tackle the ball carrier and reclaim the ball. At the other end of the spectrum, when the defenders are outnumbered, they might decide to launch very passively, in an attempt to buy some time for additional defenders to arrive and contribute to the defensive efforts.
Elite defensive systems allow sophisticated teams to change how they defend within a match. In these instances, team will assess the attacking possession and call which type of defense they will use on a given phase of rugby. The South African national team was responsible for making the “blitz” defense popular. The blitz defense has defenders press up field towards the attack at break neck speed critically shortening the amount of time and space the attacking team has to pass the ball. Other top teams have alternated mid-match between deploying a traditional drift defense (up and out) and a reverse drift (up and in). Of course it must be stated that regardless of the defensive system used, it will only be as successful as the individual defenders responsible for making tackles.
There has been a disproportional amount of time spend on defensive systems over the past three quadrennial world cup cycles and it has changed the way the game is now played. Teams have been forced to rethink how they use their primary phase possessions in attack.
With the 2011 Rugby World Cup on the horizon, it will be interesting to see where the innovations occur in rugby next.
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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