Defending in your own 22

1. Time and space

When defending your own 22m area, it's worth remembering that the attacking side will be under as much pressure as your team. You can ratchet up this pressure by employing tactics to limit their time and space, particularly at the set piece.

The attacking side will have designs on the line and will be looking for try scoring opportunities, rather than executing chosen moves. An onslaught from the defence can increase the pressure on them, encouraging mistakes and leading to a lack of precision.

For example, when the ball leaves the set piece, all the defending players rush up: not drift sideways, but go straight forward towards the attacking players in front of them. There is less distance to the attacking player if the defender moves directly forward rather than at an angle. The defenders may well then have an opportunity to then take man and ball in the tackle.

The diagrams below illustrate the differences between a regular and a rush defence. The oval shape indicates the set piece (ruck, maul or scrum). The arrows represent the direction the defenders should move in when the ball is released.

A. Regular defence

Regular Defence

B. Tight, rush defence

Rush Defence

C. Why is this better?

The picture below illustrates that a player who runs up straight will make a tackle earlier than a player who runs at a angle in a drift defence. Indeed, defenders should only drift once the ball has passed them.

Rush v Regular Defence

2. Width

When covering the openside of the field, there is a danger you'll have to spread your defence too thinly. An attacker may then find it easier to breakthrough and into a wider gap. Even if the first tackler can slow the attacker down, the next defender may not be close enough to prevent extra yards being gained, which could result in a try.

In your own 22, especially close to your line, the defenders should stand closer to each other. If this forces the attackers to spin the ball wide (and most sides can only do this effectively right to left), you can gain a number of benefits:

  • The ball will be passed backwards, so the final player will be further from the line than when the ball left the set piece.
  • The ball will be passed through several pairs of hands, something many teams can find difficult.
  • If your opponents score out wide, the conversion will be harder.

3. The tackle

Obviously, the more aggressive the tackle, the more chance the attacking player will not make the gain line. If your defenders are close together, the priority in the tackle should always be to take your opponent's legs for these reasons:

  • The attacker must be stopped from gaining ground. A higher tackle is less certain of success and can be turned into a driving maul.
  • With a close defence, a second defender can follow up with a higher tackle.

On your line, close to the action, if your players start from a sprint position or with one hand on the ground, they have a better chance of getting lower in the tackle, and then driving up. A "smother" or "turning" tackle, where the player gets themselves between the ball and the ground, is a useful way to slow play.

(See "Try Savers", the example Smart Sessions, for other ways to practise defending your line.)

4. Penalties

The cynic would say that giving away a penalty is better than giving away a try, especially if the penalty is from a wide position. The less cynical and reflective coach would say that a penalty probably gives an attacking side more chance to score.

The attackers will be able to reorganise and gather themselves for a possible scrum attack or chance to drive from a lineout, something which can be difficult to defend if done well. Referees are also more likely to sin bin a player for a deliberate penalty.

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