How to locate and exploit the low-energy defender Posted about 2 years ago

Photo: BT Sport

One of the major ideas behind a modern professional attack is to create mismatches. This concept is usually understood as spotting a wing on a prop for example, and letting his extra skills, footwork and speed do the rest.

Mismatches can also occur indirectly, when the shape of the attack creates a low-energy defender. This means that a defender’s resilience or vigilance has been temporarily depleted. They have been overloaded with a second task before he/she has had the opportunity to recover from the first demand.

Teams that like to use multi-phase attack will often use a string of plays to create and exploit this kind of weakness. They can use the time during the approach to, and formation of a ruck to identify defenders who may prove to be soft targets on the next phase.

The recent European Rugby Champions Cup game between Bath and Leinster provided both short-hand and long-hand examples of this process at work. Towards the end of the game, Leinster were awarded an attacking lineout on the Bath 40 metre line:

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This is a two-phase attacking package with a midfield ‘punch’ starter, with both number 20’s involved on first phase – Max Deegan is the ball-carrier for Leinster, Mike Williams one of the two tacklers for Bath.

This is how the situation looks in a freeze-frame as the first ruck is completed:

The idea behind the play is to isolate the player who has just made the tackle (Williams) and force him to make a second effort on defence before he is ready for it.
Leinster use plenty of finesse to create the attacking space required. Number 4 Ross Molony drifts across the centre line of the ruck to seal off the two defenders on the far, or open-side of the ruck, while another carrying option (number 19 Ryan Baird, in the blue hat) drags away another potential Bath defender on the near side.

The real aim is run Leinster’s dynamic bench hooker Dan Sheehan at Williams on an angle, while he is still low-energy and ‘depleted’ after participating in the first tackle:

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The play works perfectly, and Williams is still trotting back towards his own goal-line as Sheehan receives the ball and makes his cut. The hooker runs away gleefully to score under the posts.

A much longer embellishment on the same theme had already occurred in the first period. It started from a scrum in midfield:

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It’s a great idea to move the ball wide at first phase from a scrum. Why? Because it commits the opposing front row to drop straight back into midfield when they finally dig their heads out of the set-piece. Once they are there, you can begin the process of manipulation:

This is the picture on third phase, with all of the Bath front rowers (#1 Arthur Cordwell, #2 Jacques Du Toit and #3 Will Stuart) grouped together and defending in the middle of the field. At this stage, the attackers directly opposite are also props so the situation is stable, but Leinster will look to subtly massage this situation to their advantage as the phases mount.

By 5th phase, Leinster had drawn one of the three (tight-head prop Will Stuart) into his second big physical effort of the sequence, a long six-second on-ball attempt as the ruck forms:

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Stuart has had one big scrum and made another big on-ball effort, so he will be a low-energy defender looking to recover over the next couple of phases. Leinster do not give him the chance:

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The situation looks roughly the same as it was much earlier in the sequence, but there is an important difference. The two Bath props are still defending together in midfield, but Leinster have swapped out one of their front-rowers for a much more dangerous ball-carrier (number 7 Josh van der Flier in the red hat) – and he is directly opposite Stuart.

The Bath tight-head is still in recovery mode when van der Flier bypasses him on the run. The low-energy ‘tells’ are as obvious as they were with Mike Williams in the first example – no pursuit after the break is made, all activity coming to an abrupt stop.


Running ‘repeat’ plays in the course of a multi-phase attack are great ways of wearing down the resistance of the defence. If you can force a big forward especially, to work harder than they would like – with insufficient time and opportunity to recover fully from a prior effort, it can be one of the best methods of creating the mismatches which are so essential to attacking success in the modern game.

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Nick has worked as a rugby analyst and advisor to Graham Henry (1999-2002), Mike Ruddock (2004-2006) and latterly Stuart Lancaster (2011-2015). He also worked on the 2001 British & Irish Lions tour to Australia and produced his first rugby book with Graham Henry at the end of the tour. Since then, three more rugby books have followed, all of which of have either been nominated for, or won national sports book awards. The latest is a biography of Phil Larder, the first top Rugby League coach to successfully transfer over to Union. It is entitled “The Iron Curtain”. Nick has also written or contributed to four other books on literature and psychology. "He is currently writing articles for The Roar and The Rugby Site, and working as a strategy consultant to Stuart Lancaster and the Leinster coaching staff for their European matches."

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