Attack and Defence

Attack and Defence

Principles of Defence:

Contest possession and … go forward … applying pressure to … prevent territory being gained … supported by (or in support of) team-mates to … regain possession and … counter attack.

Coaching Defence

Notes taken by Lee Smith, IRB Regional Development Manager for Oceania, at a presentation by John Mitchell

1. Statistical evidence shows that defence wins games and that if time is pressing it is better spent on defence disproportionately to get a result.

2. Patterns and individual roles should be planned for scrum, line-out and phase play. Phase play may be modified for those on the right and left sides of the field.

3. Align in relation to teammates, not getting ahead of those inside, and opponents, being in a position to move up and across into the tackle.

4. Get off the line quickly to close down time and space.

5. Go directly forward after positioning in the channel between 2 attackers.

6. After closing down most of the space use "reactive agility" to keep moving at a slower speed so that adjustments can be made to the behaviour of the attack.

7. Tackle to contest the ball based on the situation. This may depend on the "match-up" with the relative strengths of the ball carrier and the tackler being taken into account. The overall aim is to regain possession, but this may take some time, so initially the aim is to stop forward movement and contest the ball. This may be by the tackler or the tackler and support players. In this second example the tackler stops the forward movement by taking away the legs and the support player support the ball.

8. If a pass is made the defender maintains the line for at least 2 further passes to defend cutback moves.

9. The quality of tackles can be graded and points allocated based on effectiveness. The highest mark can be given for a turnover, the next for preventing forward movement and delaying the recycling of the ball, the next for preventing forward movement, the next for completing a tackle and no marks given for a missed tackle.

10. Players should move into tackles with their arms in the ready position. Players with their arms down react by raising them, causing high tackles.

11. As play continues it becomes more and more important not to infringe because, in infringing, the player negates the effort of all those in the preceding play.

12. As a guide at the post-tackle our shoulders must be under theirs.

Principles of Attack:

Gain possession to … go forward with … the support of team-mates to … maintain continuity … applying pressure to … score points.

Coaching Attack

Notes taken by Lee Smith, IRB Regional Development Manager for Oceania, at a presentation by Aussie McLean.

1. The defence gives the attack its options in time and space. It is therefore important that when a player is tackled the tackler is noted to give the attack a signal as to what the defence is doing.

2. Defenders who drift give the ball carrier more time on the ball and more time to manipulate the defence.

3. Players should avoid ball watching, as by doing this they don't see the options available, especially those wide out.

4. Under current practice the #8 taking the ball from scrums merely creates the opportunity for a defensive screen unless a substantial advantage is created.

5. The skills of attack apply to all players just as the skills at the tackle and post tackle do. This is emphasised by the number of phase plays that exist in the game.

6. Decisions are made on the following criteria:

a. Attacking numbers compared with defensive numbers.

b. Miss matches at a particular place in the defensive line.

c. The use of the width of the field.

d. The grouping of players at points across the field.

7. This will be further helped by recognising the characteristics of individual defenders:

a. The type of tackle they most likely make.

b. The defender looking in.

c. The defender who rushes across the field in the drift.

d. The defender who rushes up out of line.

e. The defender who is a ball watcher.

f. The defender who lacks pace and stands wide to compensate for this.

Breaking the Gain line

By Lee Smith, IRB Regional Development Manager Oceania

The Basic Situation

1. Players entering the contest at the tackle are at a disadvantage if they have to go back before entering play through the "gates".

2. As a result the defence has an advantage at the tackle, as the tackle line is on the attacking teams side of the gain line. The defence can move forward while the attack has to move back before it moves forward.

3. As a result it is a priority for the attacking team, should the attack be ball in hand, to make sure that primary possession is retained. To do so most easily, the tackle line and gain lines must be broken.

4. In doing so there is a dilemma as the shortest distance to the gain line is closest to the source of possession. It is also where there is the greatest number of defenders. Where there are fewer defenders there are fewer attackers and they are even further from the gain line.

5. As a result it is a matter of varying play so that attempts to reach the gain line are effective.

Lineout Possession

1. All things being equal, where there are not positional strengths and weaknesses in the players of both sides, the players attempting to reach the gain line should receive the ball close to it, taking advantage of the opposition's inability to tackle them prior to receiving the ball.

2. As the blueprint the attack can take place close to the lineout, in the midfield or wide out beyond Nos 12 and 13.

Attack Close to the Line-out

1. Play close to the lineout aims to exploit the space between the defensive No 7 and No 10. Initially the channel on the outside shoulder of No 7 can be breached using linear support down the channel.

2. Once the gain line has been broken the ball carrier should run into the space behind the defensive lineout. This will have the effect of drawing the backline defenders into this area. If they succeed in stopping the ball carrier, quick phase play can result in the ball being moved into the space they have been drawn from.

3. So the pattern is to attack down a channel to break the gain line and when the defence moves across to plug the leak to move the ball laterally into the space.

Midfield Attack

1. A similar pattern can be used in the mid-field using No 10 but more likely No 12. No 12 receives the No 9's pass as close as possible to the gain line. Upon contact the player should be supported in linear fashion by No 10 and No 13.

2. No 10 should support on the outside shoulder and No 13 on the inside shoulder, each crossing behind No 12 as late as possible in order to lose their defender in the cross over. Both come from depth directly behind No 12 running into the space created by the ball carrier.

3. The effect is to draw defenders from those to the left or right of the channel and, should they be stopped, possession from phase-play can be moved to the space they have been drawn from.

4. When the defence compresses in expectation of this option No 12 passes back to No 10 prior to contact. No 10 passes wide to No 13 and an attack can be made into the space the defence has compressed away from.

5. Nos 11, 13 and 15, run into the space wide out. These 4 players can be used to perform a number of options that exploit the overlap that frequently exists.

6. As the initial channel caused the defence to compress persistent use of the lateral option will cause it to spread, creating space for the channel option once again.

Attacks Beyond No 13

1. Attacks wide out follow "the hinge" option that was explained in an earlier newsletter. By standing flat the attack draws the defence up to them. By standing close together the pass can be made accurately just prior to contact. This allows space to be created for Nos 11, 14 and 15 beyond No 13.

2. Several passing options exist:

Use all hands. No 10 passes to No 12 and doubles receiving the ball either inside or outside No 12 before passing to No 13 or the first of the back three. No 12 passes to No 13 and does as No 10 in the second option.

3. Unlike the other two in which the penetrator attacks the gain-line, receiving the ball close to it, in this last example the flat formation draws the defence forward. This is because of the opportunity to tackle an "easy" target, one close-by and not running very fast. This commitment prevents the defence from drifting and creates space on the outside.

4. If defenders do drift the ball carrier must retain possession and use the space to attack the gain-line.

Scrum Possession

Scrum Possession can be similarly exploited in this way with the wide out option being dependent on the width available. A summary of the close in options is explained briefly below.

Close to the Scrum

Close to the scrum the following are some options that come to mind:

Use the natural wheel of the scrum to go to the left. This is especially the case if the defending No 9 is positioned elsewhere but this is not a prerequisite. Various moves using No's 8 and 9 as the playmaker can be used. As mentioned above the positioning of No 9 offers options. The use of the right side has been covered in recent newsletters. Going either side does not have to be based on there being a blind side or open side. Left or right hand-sides offer options in both.

Counter-attack: decision-making

By Lee Smith, IRB Regional Development Manager Oceania

Counter attack takes place immediately after the defensive team has regained possession. Often the opportunity to counter-attack occurs when the ball has been deliberately kicked by an opponent. However, infringements from which advantage is played and the regaining of possession in close quarters are other situations in which the opportunity to counter-attack arises.

Decision-making variables

Once possession is regained the question is how to counter attack to gain the best result.

This will depend on field position, the position of team mates and the positioning of opponents.

Field position

The decision will be based on field positions both down the field and across the field.

Down the field the decision will be based on the pressure felt by the ball-carrier. The closer to the team's defensive goal-line the greater the pressure to get the ball further down-field. The option that will be taken in this situation will most likely be to kick to space or kick to recover. Depending on lineout strength, the kick may be to touch.

If the kick is made down-field but not to touch both a chasing pattern and a receiving pattern need to be established to prevent a running and passing reply in the first instance and to field a return kick in the second.

In zones of the field in which it is not necessary to ensure the ball is cleared from the danger zone, the kick option will just be a case of returning possession to the opposition. The kick is a poor option and the gain must be greater than the loss of possession; running and passing options should be used. The attitude should be to regard the ball that has been kicked to us as possession regained enabling an attack to take place.

In part the use of the ball to counter attack will be based on position across the field, as the ball carrier will want to avoid the touch line, so that both left and right options are available.

Position of team-mates and opponents

Of more importance will be the number of team-mates available relative to the number of opponents, their positioning and especially their depth on the ball. Depth allows them to move into play and to offer options. Lack of depth prevents this.

The principle that should be played to is to move the ball laterally away from the opposition while at the same time keeping opponents confined to where they are.

This will depend on how close the defence is to the ball carrier.

A Close Quarter Turnover

The ball is like a magnet drawing players to it. In close quarters players will be converging on the ball. Once possession is regained, the aim should be to make the ball beat the man and pass it quickly away from congestion to space from which the ball carrier can go forward.

Too often players regaining possession merely consolidate that possession and miss the opportunity to take advantage of the slower adjustment of their opponents and immediately counter-attack.

A Turnover from A Long Kick

If the ball carrier is some distance from the bulk of players, usually when fielding a kick, the space between the two allows the defence to adjust to the use of the ball.

As with the above the aim is to move the ball away from congestion to space. To do so the opposition must be held in place whether they are grouped so that the space for the counter attack is retained.

This can be achieved by running towards the defence holding them in place because they may have to make a tackle, and passing the ball to the space the ball carrier has moved away from i.e. passing to the space created by the ball carrier's running line.

If the ball is passed in the direction of running then the defence will have time to drift with the ball and stop the counter attack.

This will particularly occur when the ball is kicked down the field from a scrum or lineout.

In counter attacking, the ball carrier's running lines should be towards the zone around the set piece while passing to team-mates away from it.

Examples - "Box" kick to the blind-side wing (no. 14).

No. 14 runs at the source of possession and passes to no. 15. No. 15 angles to the source passing to no. 11 or no. 14 who should have doubled round after making the pass. Each ball carrier attempts to do the same i.e. run at the source, pass away from it and double round the receiver in support.

The same basics can be applied to a long kick down the field and the wipers kick.

The opportunity to counter attack from an up and under or Garryowen follows the same principle as counter attack from a close quarter turnover with the ball being moved quickly away from the point of convergence around the ball to space before it is moved forward.

This is the first option in a pattern of counter attacking that is based on the position of the opposition, i.e. hold them in the city while we retain space and attack into the country.

The fluidity of the game does not always create this neat positioning of opponents. They may be spread across the field and be in various formations based on depth down the field.

Using the 80:20 Principle, three further patterns can be identified. These are:

1. Opponents in a single, flat line across the field.

2. Opponents randomly placed across the field.

3. Opponents in an arrowhead formation aligned from team-mates closest to the ball.

A limited range of options can be practiced to exploit these formations:

Single, Flat Defence Line


Kick over the defence recovering the ball behind the defensive line to continue the attack. Attack the defensive line using linear support, knowing that once support breaks the defensive line at one point the whole line will be penetrated. This is very similar to attacks from phase play in general play. Kick long to space behind the line to the sides of the field so that the opposition can only move to the left or the right but not both. Chase to a pattern and have a receiving pattern to field a return kick. The chase should "offer" the opposing team the touchline creating the opportunity of driving them to touch.

Random Defence


The defence has moved forward in no particular pattern with players out of alignment.

In relation to the position of the ball, if players are ahead of those closer to the ball then they are creating "dog leg" gaps similar to those in a backline that is out of defensive alignment.


Initially the ball carrier runs straight at the closest defender to hold the player. This player may not be the defender who is furthest down the field.

Two options will then arise:

1. The ball carrier may attempt to evade the tackler to left or right. The best choice is to choose whatever side the defence is flatter. Their lack of depth will affect their ability to move towards the ball. If the tackle is made a support player will be in a position to continue play as the flat defence will have partly penetrated the defence.

2. Secondly the ball carrier can hold the nearest defender and pass to an unmarked player to continue the attack. As in backline attack with the defence out of alignment the support player will have to run passed a defender before receiving the ball. Upon receiving it space will be available to continue the attack.

Arrowhead Defence


An arrowhead defence will be that formed by a well-organised team.

One or two players will be at the point of the arrow aligning to give the ball carrier no running options.

Team mates will be aligned on the left and right of these players flat enough to reduce the time and space to counter attack to a minimum but in sufficient depth to see play clearly and be able to adjust to it.

The most likely adjustment is to be in a position to move to tackle should the ball carrier evade those at the point of the arrow. This alignment also allows them time to recover kicks made over the initial defenders and to identify and defend inside out the ball carrier they will most likely have to tackle.


If there are greater attacking numbers then the overlap should be used making sure that each defender is committed, i.e. no miss passes. Linear support playing down the channel can be used to draw defenders to the ball. If the attack is able to penetrate it keeps going if not then phase play will create space to continue the attack along a back-line.

General Considerations

Whatever option is chosen ball that is turned-over is possession regained and, in most circumstances, should be retained to build an attack. The ability of players to read the cues and perform these options will vary greatly. It may be necessary to limit the options to those that reduce pressure and/or create space to attack. Consequently in a progression that will develop counter-attack players may have just two options initially:

Option 1: Run, kick to recover or kick to space and chase.

Option 2: Run towards the greatest number of team-mates, use support to form a ruck or maul and continue from there. Experience indicates that there is insufficient practice time for most amateur teams to develop the skills to perform the most advanced options. The above two options may be all that can be achieved given the team's playing priorities. The highest priority in developing counter-attack is in the mental attitude to possession regained by whatever method. It is possession to be retained and it creates an opportunity to mount an attack that exploits the slowness of the opposition to defend.

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