COACHES CORNER: HOW THE BACKS AND FORWARDS WORK TOGETHER
The three main elements of rugby are kicking, field position and defence, and they’re all interlinked. To get possession you need a good set piece, and you definitely have to ensure all of your own possession is competitive. On top of that if you can steal a bit of their possession that makes life easier for you as well.
So the way the forwards and the backs work together is the key to both defence and attack.
As a defensive coach I’m always looking for that seam between where the forwards move away from the set piece. For example the back of the lineout is a weakness, in between the forwards trying to steal the opposition ball, but still being available to protect the inside shoulder of the backs. And it’s the same off the scrum.
In attack it’s how the backs can use the forwards because our key points of attack are our number nine and 10, and we can attack from both the inside and outside. Normally the forwards do the heavy lifting, the hard yards to get over the advantage line, and they protect that possession by getting to the breakdown and clearing the way so the halfback can get access to the ball again.
One of the balancing acts we’ve got to come to grips with is our kicking game. When you kick poorly you provide possession to the opposition in good field position, and that puts us under pressure straight away. If you look over the last couple of weeks we’ve certainly put a lot of pressure on ourselves. We haven’t put the ball out from penalties or from inside our 22, therefore we haven’t slowed the game down and structured our defence. We’ve given the opposition too much unstructured attack, which means there’s no real point of attack. It could come from anywhere so there are no set roles for our defenders, and until you make that first tackle you’re not in a settled defensive position.
Secondly, being able to shift the point of attack is important. The backs are really our points of attack, particularly our nine, but also our 10 if we want to go a little wider. So providing quality ball to our backs who should be running the right lines is vital.
Having coached at club level in both hemispheres, as well as the Georgian national team, defence and attack is a lot different wherever you go. I remember we played a Test match one day, we kicked off, and the opposition dropped the ball so we got a lineout. We mauled, got a penalty, took a scrum, got another penalty, took a scrum, got another penalty, took a scrum, and then were awarded a penalty try under the posts. So for the first seven minutes of the game there was absolutely no football played, but we were 7-0 up. The players were over the moon high-fiving everyone in sight. That was their strength so we tailored our game plan to take advantage of that.
In the southern hemisphere we like to shift the point of attack. This has great value as it keeps the defence guessing and it makes them work very hard. When you work a defence hard, they’re not ready to tee off on you when they finally do get possession. We’ve been a bit of a punching bag for both the Highlanders and Brumbies in that we’ve only had 20% possession so we haven’t been able to tire them out. We’ve been expending lots of energy through our high defence rate, then when we’ve got the ball we’ve coughed it up giving them the ball back cheaply. The number one rule in either hemisphere is you can’t defend all day, eventually you just run out of puff.
It’s a much slower game in the northern hemisphere because of the weather conditions. It’s much more forward oriented, and because there’s not much of a chance to move the ball, the kicking game is far more important. It’s all about kicking the ball into the corner and making sure you don’t give away penalty goals, because on a cold and windy night in Ulster, the final score might only be 9-6. If you pop the ball down the other end, the pressure on team’s up their own end of the field is immense.
During Saturday’s game against the Brumbies, even though we conceded five tries for the game, we completed over 90% of our tackles which is a very good statistic. But when you’re always 15 metres out from your own try line because you’re not using your possession well, one missed tackle can cost you a try. In fact, you might not miss a tackle on your try line but still concede a try because the opponent is bigger and stronger and can push himself over.
As we go forward and develop, we will get the balance between our attack, defence and kicking game right. When we do, which we did in the second half against the Blues, I think you’ll see much better results. At the moment we’re putting ourselves under too much pressure. When you’re five metres out from their line you’ve got to come up with the ball if it’s your lineout. When you’re five metres from your own try line you’ve got to come up with the ball to stop them getting a good attacking opportunity. Whether it’s a scrum or a knock on or something else, they’re the mistakes we’re making which highlights the inadequacies in our game. We need to clean up those errors and develop to be a real contender, and stop losing games that we should be more competitive in.