Articles

Getting your defence right: when to ‘dig’ and when to ‘wrap’ Posted 5 months ago

Photo: The Rugby Site

Getting your defence right: when to ‘dig’ and when to ‘wrap’

Ireland beat New Zealand in Dublin on 17 November on the back of an inspired defensive performance in which they conceded only two penalty goals and one drop goal to an All Black side which typically averages over five tries per game.

At the core of that defensive performance was Ireland’s defence guru Andy Farrell, who has since been appointed as the successor to Joe Schmidt after the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

Over the past three seasons, ever since Farrell took up his post as Schmidt’s defensive organizer in 2016, the systems he has designed have been particularly effective against teams from New Zealand.

During the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour, the All Blacks and regional sides below them managed only 16 tries over the eight tour matches. Add in the three matches between Ireland and New Zealand since Farrell’s appointment, and that becomes 23 tries in 11 games, an average of just over two tries per game.

It is probably no accident that the teams with Farrell-coached defences only lost two of the six Tests they played against the All Blacks. Against other opponents in the same time-frame, New Zealand have scored tries for fun, averaging a runaway 5.7 tries per match on their way to a 90% plus win rate.

One of the aspects of defence which is key to success at the highest level is maintaining the balance between keeping numbers out in the line and judging the right moment to contest the ball after a tackle has been made – when to ‘wrap’ around into a new position, and when to ‘dig’ for a turnover.

One of Ireland’s two most outstanding defensive sequences occurred early in proceedings – from a lineout only ten metres from their goal-line in the fourth minute.

Our main point of interest is the decision-making of the Ireland number 8 C.J. Stander, as Ireland gained the upper hand in the ‘chess-game’ of numbers during the course of the 11-phase sequence of play:

Stander starts as the defender closest to the side of the ruck, which means he will be expected to wrap around the next breakdown to the far side as play moves across field. This is the role C.J. Stander fulfils on the first two phases:

Watch the first phase

Watch the second phase

In the first example, when New Zealand number 6 Liam Squire takes the ball into contact, there are two Irish tacklers already committed and no less than four All Black forwards in close support. Decision? Stander stays out and moves across for the next phase.

In the second instance, the process is repeated. The same two tacklers are engaged (#1 Cian Healy and number 4 Devin Toner) as Stander circles around to the open-side of the field.

This is already a small sign that Ireland’s defence is beginning to win the numbers battle. Healy and Toner have not yet been ‘eaten’ by the attack, they are still alive as defenders over two successive phases – and in the wider shot at the beginning of the play Ireland already have one extra forward supporting their back-line.

That advantage is increased by C.J. Stander’s activity on the next phase:

View it here

Both he and Rory Best look as if they are going to have a dig at the tackle ball, but then pull out into defensive positions instead. This leaves three New Zealand forwards committed to the situation, against only one Irishman.

The difference in numbers is very clear as the shot widens on the very next phase:

It rightly persuades C.J. to have his first proper dig at the tackle ball:

Watch now

For a moment the ball is exposed as Kiwi #13 Jack Goodhue takes it into contact, but Ardie Savea just manages to save the situation with a late cleanout on Stander.

The damage has however already been done. When play starts to bounce back to the near side of the field, Ireland already have seven defenders in the frame, versus only four loosely-grouped Kiwi attackers:

On the phase following, Stander uses the same technique as in third sequence, faking a dig at the ball but then pulling out into the line as soon as the cleanout is committed (Ardie again) and his opponent is on the floor. Stander does not ‘die’, he stays alive while his opposite number expires – and that is crucial:

View the sequence

Events find a climax on the 12th phase, with the imbalance of attacking and defensive numbers finally reaching a tipping point:

View it now

As both Josh van der Flier and Stander dip down over the ball, Sam Whitelock and Savea are on this occasion late to the cleanout, resulting in an Irish turnover penalty. Stander has won his mini-battle over several phases with Ardie Savea.

It was a critical sequence which set the tone for the rest of the game.

Summary It is no longer enough for a defender to simply stick his head in close to the goal-line. At the highest level, he has to read numbers and momentum and make a judgement whether to stay alive and wrap around into a new defensive position, or sell himself and enter the tackle situation in expectation of a turnover.

As Ireland’s C.J.Stander demonstrates, it is a fine balance – and a battle of man-on-man. If you can persuade your opponent to sell himself first and end up off feet while you remain upright, you are winning. The ability to fake a ‘dig’ at the ball and then pull out into line is especially useful.

When you finally get your chance, dig in with all your might and commit totally to the steal. Ireland’s ability to stay alive in defence and to pick their moments to turn the play on its head was one of the main reasons why they kept the All Blacks tryless, and won the game in Dublin.

The Rugby site is the only online coaching resource to offer a truly global perspective, subscribe for 12 months – now at a lower price point.

Enter your email address to continue reading

We frequently post interesting articles and comment from our world class content providers so please provide us with your email address and we will notify you when new articles are available.

We'll also get in touch with various news and updates that we think will interest you. We promise to not spam, sell, or otherwise abuse your address (you can unsubscribe at any time).

Comments

comments powered by Disqus

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."

Comments
Topic Defence
Applicable to Coaches   Players   Others   Supporters and fans  

Related articles

How to mix backs and forwards at the set-piece!

Backs can help the forwards in the tasks that used to belong solely to the pack – but only if they understand what their roles are and how best to apply their power. Analyst Nick Bishop investigate how that overlapping understanding is evident at the driving maul.

How to find mismatches against the single-line defence

Arguably the biggest change in Rugby’s professional era occurred when the game started to import defensive coaches from League. Analyst Nick Bishop looks at how modern professional sides are looking to break through increasingly tighter rugby league style defences.

How Warren Gatland won the preparation war in Cardiff

Warren Gatland’s knowledge of the game in the UK and Ireland is anything but one-sided. He has coached in Ireland, Wales and with Wasps in England and more importantly, he has coached on three consecutive British & Irish Lions tours. Analyst Nick Bishop details how that ‘inside knowledge’ gave him and Wales a priceless advantage against England in Cardiff.

How to play the ‘libero’ like Faf de Klerk

The ‘libero’ is an evocative term in the Soccer vocabulary. It describes the free role played from a defensive position occupied by outstanding players like Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer, Ronald Koeman from the Netherlands, and Gaetano Scirea and Franco Baresi of Italy. Eventually the libero died out of the professional arm of the game with the demise of man-marking. However as Analyst Nick Bishop illustrates in the use of the scrum-half as the free man on defence have occurred recently in rugby through players like South African Faf de Klerk.

What attention to detail at the cleanout really means

Ireland’s Joe Schmidt already coaches with the same values as his All Black counterparts, Sir Graham Henry and Steve Hansen. He insists on high standards of behaviour both on and off the field, on the need to ‘sweep the sheds’ and take responsibility for every individual action. I believe this makes him a New Zealand head coach-in-waiting. Analyst Nick Bishop explores the attention to detail from Joe Schmidt’s Irish team in his latest article.