How to disorganise defences

As defensive coaches create even better systems, we need to work on the detail of the attack to break them down. It relies on speed, clever footwork and the right support lines: Simple skills that need constant reinforcement at all levels. 


Use better footwork just before contact or receiving the pass to win the collision or break for space.

Key factors

1. Attack the edges of the defender at pace. 

2. The speed of the pass from the breakdown is crucial to exploit any advantage.

3. Forwards need to take the ball close to the gain line so the defence cannot come forward, accelerating through the contact.

Key takeaways

1. Don’t dance too early before the defence – don’t slow down and just a little movement needed in the last few steps.

2. There is no such thing as a “dummy” runner.

3. Behind-the-runner passes must be flat.

4. Use “quiet” and “loud” practices to develop and test skills: no contact and contact.

5. Backs should take their timing off the quality of 9’s pass, not their inside player.


We know that winning the battle for the gain line is a key factor in disorganising defences. It makes the defence move backwards before coming forward and allows a quick recycle of the ball to attack again. 

It is a simple plan and requires simple skills which are not always evident. The ball carrier must, first and foremost, win the first contact. They must attack the edges of their defender. 

The edge of the defender means an arm tackle, which we might call the branches, not the tree trunk. As many times as this is said, I still see ball carriers running into the centre of the defender. 

I coach the player to run at the defender first, and at speed. That forces the defender to sit down ready to tackle. Then, at the very last moment, the ball carrier moves their body (their hips essentially) to one side and gets their hands free. The player must avoid “dancing too early”, losing their forward momentum, becoming predictable and allowing the defender time to close the space and complete the tackle. 

Players can fix defenders with a running line before a pass. The line must attract a defender. I call this a “lead” line, something seen a lot in Rugby League. Often this is where a player runs to take a flat pass but has the ball passed behind them – I call this a “wedge” shape. 

Many players think that if they are the “lead” line in the wedge they are not receiving the pass. As a result, they often don’t run with full conviction and it is clear they won’t receive the ball, allowing the defence to shift off them. 

There needs to be a change in your players’ mentality, they are always an option. All these running lines will be wasted if the passes do not fizz, either before the contact or straight after the ruck. A laboured pass will allow the defence to come forward again and the play can easily remain behind the gain line. 


Attack the edges of the defender by running at them at pace. Once they are forced to “sit down” to make the tackle, step. Once at the edge of the defender, get the hands free to offload or prevent the defender slowing down the ball.

Practise by having a player sprint at a ruck-pad holder, stepping to the edge just before contact. Note that it only needs 0.5m either side to be effective.


Forwards can be used close to the ruck with flat passes or in the wider channels. Your choice of tactic depends on how you set up your systems and, inevitably, how fit your forwards are. In some systems, you can play a touchline-to-touchline system, with forwards scattered around in the backline. 

But there is a danger that you end up playing between the 15m lines and it becomes attritional rugby. With forwards in your back line, especially back rowers, you can almost guarantee quick ball in the wider channels. 

Certainly, these wider rucks must be won quickly, or the ball slows down and so does the attack. As soon as that tempo drops, defences can get organised, and you must start your attack all over again. 

You can use the forwards in the midfield to create a roadblock in the middle of the pitch. The forwards take the ball up, perhaps using a tip on (short pass) to get outside the first two or three defenders (typically forwards) and attack smaller backs. Many teams used this very effectively, with three pods of forwards working across the pitch. 

But this needs patience in attack and great contact skills. There is a danger that this sort of system becomes too lateral due to a lack of penetration and simply passing the ball from side to side. Teams must maintain a flexible approach to attack, even changing pods if numbers are short – ultimately it is about maintaining that quick ball. 

Bringing forwards into the game, whatever tactic you decide, needs you to consider which players you want to be carrying the ball. That depends on the speed and shape of your players and, of course, their skill set! 

In essence, the forwards can set a target for you to play off. They need to take the ball flat, avoiding the chance for the opposition defence to come forward and get the ball going forward. 


As the defence drifts across, the lead runner runs out and then in to get in between the defenders.

The lead runner must always be an option. The passer throws a flat pass behind the lead runner’s back (not giving the defence a chance to adjust)


A key factor I work on with my ball carriers is their speed in their approach to the defender. They cannot slow down. They must run fast and straight, with only small changes in direction at the end. It only needs to be half a metre to get the defender off their base. The ball carrier or receiver benefits from other players’ movement off the ball. Any player who is a threat in attack needs to make the defender look at him. They need to be loud and fast. To work on these skills, I use a lot of 3 v 3s in close proximity. Against grab tackles, I want the attack to figure their way to score tries. I believe they should score most of the time. They might use switches, misses, loops or those “wedge” shapes again. 

We call it a wedge because it drives a wedge between the defenders. A common Rugby League play, the ball carrier passes behind the lead player next to them to a player running into the space left by the wedge. The pass must brush the backside of the lead and the player taking the pass should be running full speed when they take the ball. If the receiver is too deep and wide it buys time for the defence. 

What happens after that is dictated by how narrow the defence gets, how much separation there is between defenders and the angle of the receiver. If they are going out then they have the option to switch with those outside them, give an inside ball to a support runner or have the players outside them straighten. Of course, the best option is for them to run through the hole and dot the ball down under the sticks. 

Buying time for the defence is an interesting concept. The defending 10 has about 0.5s to react to what is happening. By the time the ball comes out to the midfield, the defenders on the outside have up to two seconds to change their angles. Your plays need to be sharply executed so the thinking time is reduced. 


I split my training into two main intensities – quiet and loud. Quiet training has little or no contact at all. The players are simply working on their passing or lines of running. We then change up into loud, where there is contact. 

Now, if the skills are there, your players will not have time to think about them and can execute correctly under this type of pressure. 

One of my favourite “loud” intensity practices is to play with leg tackles only. First, it forces good tackle technique. Second, it allows the ball carriers to get their hands free. They are encouraged to get outside their defenders. Whatever the restrictions on the game, I like to keep the complications to a minimum so the players can be free to play. 

Move from quiet training, where there is no pressure on the technique, to loud, where there are tacklers.

In loud training, I like to use leg tackles, to encourage offloading.


One reason that backs in particular find themselves running at half speed onto passes, or overrunning the pass in the effort to arrive at pace, is that they look for the wrong cues. 

Normally we tell players to take their timing off their inside player. That, unfortunately, can lead to systematic errors if just one of the inside players starts their run too early – the rest of the line will follow. It is better for the players to time their runs based on the quality of the pass from 9. They might have to dig the ball out from the forwards or have their pass disrupted. 

The alignment can also help force the defence to come forward slower. You shouldn’t be afraid to mix up the shape of the attack, to keep the defence guessing.

Normally outside backs time their run off their inside player. However, they are likely to overrun if the pass from 9 is poor for some reason. Better to judge the quality of the pass before setting off.

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