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Defensive Rugby Strategy

Playing defense in rugby is one of those unique “complex in its simplicity” types of situations. Essentially, there’s one main objective—force the offense to give up possession of the ball—and only a few ways to actually accomplish that end: win possession of the ball in a breakdown; force the offense to kick it away; prevent the offense from advancing the ball until they get frustrated and commit a penalty. Of course, as with most things in sports, that’s easier said than done. This guide focuses on some of the key factors involved in creating a well-rounded defensive rugby strategy.

The Defensive Line

When creating a defensive game plan, many of the elements will be contingent on specific in-game situations: what to do from a ruck, how the backs are arranged from a line out, etc. However, the most crucial (and relatively unchanging) structure involved is the defensive line. Basically, the defensive line refers to how defensive players should be arranged to effectively stop the offense from advancing the ball. Though the number and type of players involved in the defensive line will vary from one situation to the next, there are a few characteristics that should remain relatively constant.

  • Equal number of players: Whether it’s from a ruck, a scrum, or while the ball is actually being moved, the number of defensive players in one particular area of the field should (just about) equal the number of offensive players. This is to prevent an overload from occurring, which is advantageous to the offense.
  • Appropriate player matching: This is highly subject to the situation, but defensive players should try to match themselves up with a player of similar size and/or position. For example, a prop who’s defending a fly half results in a severe mismatch; though the prop is likely bigger and stronger, it would be very easy for the fly half to maneuver around him.
  • Stay flat, close to the gain line: Regardless of the situation, all players in the defensive line should be within a few feet of the gain line, and arranged parallel to it. This limits the amount of space the offense has to work with, and makes it much easier to quickly advance on the ball carrier.

For example, say a ruck has taken place; for at least a few moments initially, possession of the ball is up for grabs. Once one team establishes control of the ruck, the other team will fall back into a defensive line; this is portrayed in the image to the left, which you can expand by clicking on it:

  • The red team wins control of the ruck, and becomes the attacking team; the blue team would therefore fall into a defensive formation.
  • The defensive players (blue) will quickly line up across from an attacking player (red) of a similar position/size.
  • All the defensive players will arrange themselves in a flat line across the field, and across from the attacking player they're defending.

All of this would happen in just a few seconds, as there is no rule that would keep the attacking team from trying to quickly play the ball out. In other words, the attacking team doesn't have to wait for the other side to get in a defensive line, so the defenders have to move quick.

Situational Defensive Tactics

Hot Tip: Stay Flexible

As important as it is to have and be able to execute a defensive strategy, it’s almost equally as important to be able to change that strategy on the fly. Making preparations based on what the opposing team has done in the past is a good way to enter the game with a solid defensive strategy, but understand that there’s no guarantee that the offensive team will perform as anticipated.

Success on the defensive side of the ball is directly linked to both having, and being familiar with, a solid defensive strategy. Teams concoct their defensive strategies based on a number of relatively unchanging factors, such as the abilities of specific players, overall player characteristics (bigger/stronger vs. smaller/faster), and previous success rates with different tactics. Another aspect that gets taken into consideration deals with the different in-game structures that occur—from scrums to drop-outs to penalties—and how the team performs during each of them.

Much like the arrangement of players in a defensive line, the various tactics a team uses in developing its defensive strategy depend both on the types of players on that team, and what that team anticipates from the other team in terms of offensive strategy. Here are a few hypothetical examples of how a specific situation results in a customized defensive tactic:

From the Ruck

Competing at the breakdown is one of the core principles of (union) rugby. As a result, teams will include specific tactics for how their players should react when involved in a breakdown. In this example, Team A is on offense, Team B on defense, and a ruck is occurring.

Read the Situation

Team A has larger than average forwards, and frequently sends three to four players (usually all forwards) into a ruck to increase the odds of winning it. Team B recognizes this habit, and also knows that although Team A’s forwards are bigger than their own, Team B’s forwards are faster than Team A’s.

React to the Situation Accordingly

To combat Team A’s habit of overpowering the other team in a ruck, Team B chooses to not match the number of players Team A sends into the ruck. Team B knows that according the laws of the game, once the referee decides a player is involved in a ruck, that player cannot leave the ruck unless they’re cleared away by an opposing player.

As a result of Team A sending more players into the ruck than Team B, it leaves Team B with more players outside the ruck than Team A. This is advantageous for Team B in two ways:

  1. Because Team A committed more players to the ruck than Team B, it briefly creates a numbers advantage for Team B, making it more difficult for Team A to advance the ball.
  2. Team B’s players are faster on average than Team A’s players. Combined with the fact that there are more available players on Team B than on Team A, it’s easier for players from Team B to quickly swarm on the ball carrier, which increases the chances that Team A will lose possession of the ball.

Team B successfully combated Team A’s habit of utilizing the size/strength of its forwards by not trying to win possession of the ball from the ruck, and instead chose to focus on quickly stopping the ball from being advanced after it’s picked up from the ruck.

From the Scrum

Hot Tip: Balance Both Sides

Although the majority of scrum tactics focus on the offensive side of the ball, it’s still important for teams to develop a defensive plan from the scrum. It can be as simple as two options, or as complex as creating a different plan for each area of the field. Though each team hopes/expects to win the ball in a scrum, as the old saying goes, no one wins them all.

Success at the scrum is crucial to winning rugby matches; this is true on both offense and defense. While a team can go on to win even after performing poorly from the scrum, it becomes much more difficult. This example focuses on how to defensively react from a scrum; it also focuses exclusively on the backs, as the forwards from both teams would be involved with the actual scrum.

Read the Situation

First and foremost, there’s a bit of uncertainty that exists for the first few moments of a scrum. The backs on both teams will arrange themselves accordingly once one pack wins control of the ball, but they must wait until one side of the scrum officially controls the ball. Again, using the Team A/Team B model, let’s say Team B’s pack gains control of the ball in the scrum.

React to the Situation Accordingly

As soon as the scrum half (the only back involved in the scrum) from Team A sees that Team B has control of the ball, he will immediately instruct the other backs to get into their respective defensive positions. Though the actual arrangement of Team B’s backs will depend on how Team A’s backs are lined up, most of Team B’s backs will immediately form a straight line running parallel to the gain line, at the very back edge of Team B’s scrum.

Unlike the ruck example, this tactic doesn’t result in a specific advantage over the other team, other than quickly putting players in the right position to disrupt the offense from advancing the ball. Because most teams have multiple scrum-based tactics, making the quick transition to a defensive formation is the first crucial move that should be made.

Good Defense Leads to Offensive Chances

The only way to score points in rugby is by controlling the ball. It is impossible to score points on defense; as soon as one player has the ball, that player’s team is immediately on offense. Staying consistent on the defensive side of the ball is one of the best ways to gain possession of the ball, and will make it much easier to win rugby games.

Though the points are scored on offense, good defense is the key to offensive opportunities. This guide examines a few of the more crucial parts of defensive strategy.
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