Rugby’s Dilemma: Adapt, or Die!

Two weeks ago I watched England and Ireland battering away at each other in the 2019 Six Nations. The record books show that England won, and Ireland’s aspirations to climb into the No.1 slot in the World Rugby rankings took a blow to the heart. The English media promptly hailed England as the favourites for the 2019 World Cup and praised their sublime efforts in a “spellbinding” and “uncompromising” encounter.

Yes, the game was uncompromising. Yes, the collisions were brutal. Yes, the game was hugely physical. Yes, England scored four tries and Ireland just two.

And I was bored stiff.

The rugby on offer, for all its brutality and physicality, was boring. 

It was a one dimensional confrontation, with little in terms of innovation, and even less in terms of entertainment value. 

There was just one moment of sublime rugby. In the first two minutes of the game, when Jonny May rounded off with a good try in the left-hand corner after some exciting running and carrying by England. Owen Farrell’s pass to Elliot Daly, and then Daly’s offload to May was what rugby is all about.

Those first two minutes suggested that we were in for a spectacle of rugby the way it should be played. Open, fluid, fast, exciting, innovative, skilful, and entertaining.

It was not to be.

The overriding memory of the rest of the game is one of defence, defence, and more defence. England deployed the modern Rush Defence system, and shut Ireland down behind the gain line and simply stifled the game to death. Consider that Mako Vunipola, a prop, and Mark Wilson both made 27 tackles in the match. Jointly, they equalled the most ever made by an England player in a Six Nations match. Ever.

There was plenty of kicking too, as is to be expected with the modern game of rushing defenders.

England picked off the Irish runners coming round the corner, and stopped them in close and in the midfield,  forcing Ireland to play behind the advantage line, slowing down their possession and forcing them to kick on the back foot. It was a superb example of how to use the rush defence to pressurise opponents into submission and then to use their increasing desperation to force errors and counter-attack into the spaces left open as Ireland tried to break through the wall.

Winning rugby? Yes, certainly. 

Attractive, crowd-pleasing entertaining rugby? 

No!

A week later I watched England demolish France, and it was yet another game based on defence, defence, and more defence. I watched England make no less than 172 tackles while France made just 126. England missed 33 tackles while France missed just 18. France had the possession too, 57% to England’s 43%. England’s kicking game ensured that they spent 61% of the game in French territory, forcing the French to try and run from deep. Life was also made easier for England’s kickers as the positioning of France’s back three to field those kicks was atrocious.

England carried the ball 112 times for just 641 meters, as France carried the pill 144 times for 810 meters. France made 10 linebreaks, England just 3.

Consider then that there were no less than 205 rucks in this game.

And then the most telling statistic: England made 29 dominant tackles. (A dominant tackle is considered one where the ball carrier is either stopped behind the gain line, or is carried backwards in the tackle.)

The French may have dominated possession, but most of the ball the French had resulted in nothing as Jacques Brunel’s players were unable to hang on to it long enough, were stopped in their tracks by England’s defensive focus, or they simply lacked ideas when they did breach the English defence.

However, the French ineptitude did not change the way England were playing one iota. It was defence, defence, and more defence, with very little to suggest innovative, entertaining rugby.

I despaired as I sat watching this game. Once again, I was watching yet anothersuperb example of everything that is wrong with modern rugby.

The Ireland vs Scotland game gave us yet another dour game of one dimensional rugby, as boring as watching paint dry.

These Six Nations games were, in my opinion, the culmination of a change in modern rugby that has been building for the last couple of years.

The year before last, in 2017, the British & Irish Lions toured New Zealand. They brought a new, modern defensive strategy with them.

And they changed the way rugby is played across the world.

Rugby is a game that is based on a recipe with the essential ingredients of Space, Surprise, and Speed. This is the recipe that provides for a sport full of entertainment and excitement.

At the moment rugby players are being denied the one essential ingredient in that recipe. 

Space.

Without Space, Surprise and Speed become impossible.

Warren Gatland, an astute thinking coach if ever there was one, figured that the only way he could beat the All Blacks was to shut down their attacking game from the outset. He conceived of a disciplined, focussed rush defence with massive line-speed to shut down the All Black playmakers and deprive them of space and time. 

Let me say that again: “Deprive them of space and time.”

Deprive the All Blacks of their most important weapon and they will struggle. He was correct!

Gatland also realised that the rush defence is also an offensive weapon of sorts. It can, and does, force turnovers and penalties. 

The system worked very well, putting the All Blacks under all kinds of focussed pressure that they had not previously encountered. The system worked so well that the British & Irish Lions drew a series in New Zealand, although some may still suggest that the wayward decisions of a couple of Frenchmen, a combination of referee/linesman contributed to that drawn final test.

The reality, however, is that Warren Gatland and his British & Irish Lions showed the world how to contain, and beat, the All Blacks.

Across the world of rugby every team (well, almost every team…..)watched the Lions, and immediately sought to adopt the same defensive system and strategies. 

Generating defensive line-speed became the main focus for all international teams, with the focus on closing down the space between defender and attacker as quickly as possible. The primary focus was to tackle the man just as he gets the ball, preventing him from kicking or passing. There were slight variations to this “blitz” defence, with players on the outer fringes inserting themselves between the ball carrier and his support runners to prevent passes and offloads. It is all about asserting maximum pressure with a fast-moving wall of defenders, forcing opposition decision-makers to think and act quickly on attack and then execute with pin-point accuracy. Just the slightest inaccuracy resulted in the attack breaking down and creating opportunity for the defenders to counter-attack.

An immediate counter-attack in that pressure situation will always cause severe problems for the attacking team that has to suddenly turn and defend.

After the British and Irish Lions used the rush defence in 2017, the Australians were quick to borrow and adapt what they learned from the Lions. The Wallabies hit the All Blacks with a super-fast defensive plan, and an unlikely win, in Brisbane. At the end of the 2017 year the Scots and the Welsh followed suit when they hosted the visitors from New Zealand.

The Northern Hemisphereans used the same defensive tactics against the Springboks and the Wallabies during their 2017 end-of-year tours.

The All Blacks struggled with their opponents newly developed defensive tactics, but they managed to cope. 

The South Africans and the Australians did less well.

The North was out-thinking the South for the first time in many a decade!

The 2017 Wallabies had already learned the lessons of the rush defence. 

The All Blacks followed suit, they too started to use the system successfully.

Allister Coetzee’s 2017 Springboks were the only top tier international team that did not adopt the rush defence as standard practice, preferring to play some of the older systems, deploying the “drift” or out-tackling system as their first choice, or the “outside-in” or outside shoulder system as a sometime variation, and a variation of both that included the “hook” where the outside centre and the wing shot up out of line to block the longer skip passes while hoping for the intercept. They also tried the “lag” defensive system, where the entire backline hangs back momentarily, giving the opposition the space to make their tactical moves before they actually reach the “tackle line” where the defenders close in to make their tackles. (None of these defensive systems worked terribly well for the Springboks, but that was likely simply another symptom of a broken team and a completely dysfunctional game plan.)

South Africa abandoned their ongoing infatuation with the older defensive systems the day they fired Allister Coetzee and his defence guru, Brendon Venter. 

As soon as Rassie Erasmus had taken the reins, the Springboks adopted the rush defence, and their entire game stepped up a gear or two.

Onwards to 2019.

With the “Blitz” or “Rush” defence everyone’s favourite at the moment, the game of rugby finds itself in yet another phase where static play, constant collisions, and ruck after ruck have become the norm. 

Backs, who have no room to move and no chance of building momentum revert to the “crashball” game and take contact, go to ground, and recycle the ball. 

Teams opt for using pods of forwards as first receivers from rucks and mauls in an attempt to suck in the defenders before releasing the ball to the backs.

The entire problem is compounded by match officials that turn a blind eye on transgressions over the offside line at rucks and mauls. 

Already rugby is stifled by the application of ruck laws that do not allow a fair contest over the ball on the ground. Once the ball is on the ground and a defender has had an instantaneous go at capturing the ball and failed, he is warned off the ball by the referee’s call of “ruck” – at which stage the contest for the ball is over, with only a counter-ruck being able to attempt to turn the ball over. The counter ruck is most frequently stymied by players going to ground over and around the ball, effectively sealing it off and making any effort at an old-fashioned ruck-over-the-ball impossible.

The moment a ruck is called, the superfluous defending forwards spread themselves across the field, starting with the now-standard pillar and post defence, and then lining up outside those first two defenders as a wall of muscle to stop any ball carrier who gets the ball from the base of that ruck.

The offside line, already way too close when it is drawn through the last body part in the ruck, allows defender to get to the gain line with just one or two steps, shutting down any enterprise or attempt to carry the ball. Add the fact that most referees are not adept at policing the offside line as they are forced to watch the ball and carrier, and the entire game is weighted in favour of the team defending the ruck ball!

It is all so very static, slow, and ponderous. 

Not great viewing for the fans and TV audiences.

Small wonder than that so many potential fans have chosen to look for some other entertainment?

Is there a way out of this mess?

The answer is “Yes” – but that would require the rugby authorities and law makers to engage in some innovative thinking, something that they appear loath to do. 

The most obvious answer is to shift the offside line at the ruck back 5 meters behind the last player in the ruck. 

If you are not bound in the ruck, you have to retire behind the 5m mark, unless you are the scrumhalf. (Identical to the offside law at the scrum! Law 19.31.)

The immediate benefit is to give the backline and ball carriers a 10m space to move, to be creative, and to effect plays. An additional benefit is to encourage scrumhalves to snipe around the fringes with quick ball.

We are restoring some space to the game!

The rush defence will still be deployed by most teams, but now they have an extra ten meters to cover before they reach the tackle line. 

As I said at the beginning of this discussion, Rugby is a game of Space, Surprise, and Speed.

The present state of the game is that rugby players are denied the one essential ingredient in that recipe. Space.

As a consequence, the game has become a boring repetition of bumper-car forwards bashing into each other, and big muscular backs trying to smash their way through defensive alignments.

Something has to change.

Whilst the rugby authorities dither, the only way out of this “mess” is for the teams that favour attack to find new ways of breaking apart the inevitable onrushing wall of defenders.

The “rush” defence could be the trigger for a whole rethink on attacking ploys with all manner of new variations that seek to negate the line-speed of the defenders.

During the 2018 Super Rugby season we saw far more chip kicks, grubbers, and kick-passes out to the wings than in the previous decade.

These are tactics that do disrupt the “rush” defence somewhat. 

There needs to be more work, more ideas, more innovation to effectively counter rushing teams.

The immediacy of pressure on attackers requires hugely improved skill levels to ensure absolute accuracy in passes and offloads. Hand-to-hand movement becomes paramount.

Support runners, especially the loose-forwards need increased speed across the turf, increased mobility, to reach the contact point as quickly as possible in order to take the ball through the tackle point.

In addition to the increased demands on high-end skills, I am guessing we will see plenty of new variables introduced into the game, with the tactical kicking game coming back into fashion somewhat, longer kicks for position or space coupled to the chips, grubbers, and kick-passes. Accurate box-kicks, are likely to become a focus for some. 

It will be essential for all the back-line players to add kicking skills to their running and handling skills.

Sadly, the kicking game deprives us of the excitement and entertainment of fleet-footed backs carrying the ball, with sublime running lines and angles.

But there are other ways of beating the rush defence. 

Using different attacking alignments is but one such tactic. Stand deeper and “buy” time, taking up the old fashioned deep-angled backline set up, with the wing very wide and as much as 25m back from his flyhalf’s position on the field.

Perhaps the backs can line-up shallow and rely on hand-and-ball speed to move the ball, not running at pace when they receive the ball, but rather looking for the chink in the rush defence line. If you are very shallow and happen to break through the defending wall, you are in the clear and can run with the ball with your support pouring through the defenders to take up position left and right of the carrier. The defenders are forced to turn and chase, while the shallow line-up creates all kinds of problems for cover defenders. Mark Ella’s great Gland Slam Wallabies of 1984 perfected the shallow-attacking line back then. A modern variation of that tactic will certainly work today!

The bottom line to the “Rush Defence” is that the whole system simply offers more challenges to thinking rugby coaches and players, and will require the rapid improvement of many of the basic skills.

However, the real issue is that rugby itself has to effect changes that will make the game a more exciting, innovative, and entertaining prospect for potential fans. As we read report after report of rugby’s dire financial position across the entire world, and the tiny fan base that supports the game every weekend, we simply have to change or our game will wither away.

In the words of an infamous and never quite forgotten politician: “Adapt or Die” – that very same politician refused to adapt, and the system he promulgated died, as did he.

It is rugby’s turn: Adapt or Die!