Defence wins matches. "Defence is the best form of attack." How many times in recent years have we heard these phrases being trumpeted from the rooftops, usually by coaches who happen to specialise in...defence?
Such mantras have assumed the weight and authority of Old Testament commandments, and are faithfully repeated before any game of significance. Yet, to my mind, they should always carry the rugby equivalent of a health warning, for unless the messages are explained to players clearly, correctly and in context, there is always the danger they will create a negative mindset.
Something else occurred to me after reading the comments of Dave Ellis, the assistant coach at London Irish, namely, that the all-too-familiar messages about the importance of defence might usefully be adapted as follows: "Remaining silent wins matches," and, "A well-buttoned lip is the best form of attack."
Dave can boast a proven track record as a defence specialist: he has enjoyed a good deal of success with the French national team and has a wealth of experience at club level in England. Given the number of times he has been around the block, I can only assume he now regrets expressing some fairly pungent views before London Irish made their Premiership trip to Wasps last weekend. In case you missed it, he told The Independent on Sunday he had cracked the Wasps defensive code, insisted that they were using an old and therefore risky system from a bygone era of rugby league, and declared that this was a contributing factor to the team's inconsistent form.
Two things here. For a start, you would expect a coach of Dave's ability to crack a simple code, given the amount of video analysis technology available. Secondly, you can be sure Wasps players were made aware of his words before kick-off and took the field with their psyche refreshed. And guess what? Wasps won the game and denied London Irish a swift return to the top of the table.
Of course, Dave was making a perfectly valid point in saying that any team employing one defensive system and one only leave themselves seriously exposed to opponents who have the capacity to attack with flexibility and variety. I've argued for more years than I care to remember that an ability to read a game and adapt to situations as and when they arise is central to success on the rugby field, and that is every bit as true when you're not in possession of the ball as it is when you are. Where I take issue with Dave is over the wisdom of shouting the odds ahead of a contest.
The role of the defence strategist has been one of rugby's growth areas, yet it is far from the most difficult aspect of rugby to coach, practise and put into operation. There are fewer variables at work, and the key elements are relatively straightforward: getting your one-on-one tackling up to speed; making sure players understand the value of quick positional resetting; recognising the importance of having appropriate players defending particular channels; and, depending on the system you're employing, ensuring your line-speed is correct. However much defence coaches try to dress it up, there really isn't a great deal more to it.
I'm not suggesting for a moment that strong, aggressive defence is worthless, but I do think some people have stopped seeing the wood for the trees. A couple of weeks ago, I visited Gresham's School in Norfolk – the Alma Mater of the England scrum-half Ben Youngs – and asked a group of 10 and 11-year-olds what key word they would choose as a defensive rallying call. One of them removed his mouthguard and said: "I'd choose the word 'attack', because attack is the best form of defence."
How wonderful that a young player with no received wisdom, no historical rugby baggage, should come up with a little gem like that. He was absolutely spot on, because he was saying, in essence: "What are we seeking to achieve in defence? We're seeking to prevent the opposition scoring, and trying to pressurise them to the extent that they lose possession and give us an opportunity to mount an attack of our own." This might sound too simple for words, but I know of one team who base their entire game around this principle and do so to devastating effect. Yes, I'm talking about the All Blacks, and if it's good enough for them...
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