Why defence is the newest form of attack

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The Independent Online

Is the rush defence ruining rugby? Supporters of South Africa, who used it to win the Tri-Nations, and Wasps, who blitzed their way to a Premiership and European double last season, may beg to differ. Spectators who saw a meagre four tries in two matches at last week's Twickenham double-header might take another view.

Undeniably, "collision" and "hit", the language of destruction, have entered the sport's lexicon alongside the sidestep and spin pass.

"People like to see tries," says Clive Griffiths, the defence coach for Wales, who has a counterpart at most of the world's major teams. "That's how the game started, running with the ball."

But on Wales's summer tour Griffiths began deploying the physical and confrontational "up-and-in" brand of defence. It is transplanted from rugby league, where the onus is on the defensive line to move forward rapidly to overcome the 10-metre buffer zone at the play-the-ball. In union, where the defence is required only to stand behind the hindmost foot at ruck and maul, the effect can be suffocating and, critics say, is killing the art of attack.

Griffiths does not entirely disagree with the latter version, predicting a "game of chess" if two opposing teams use the rush defence efficiently. But he and the other prominent defence coaches in these isles - Phil Larder with England and Leicester, Mike Ford (Ireland and Saracens), Shaun Edwards (Wasps) and Dave Ellis (Gloucester and France) - insist they are innovators in attack, too.

"Head coaches are no longer paying lip service to defence," says Griffiths. "There's a huge emphasis on it. If you are going forward in defence, you're likely to turn it into an attack soon enough. Every one is trying to win the battle of the gainline."

The days of Barry John wafting past opponents wedded to the up-and-out drift or slide defence seem long gone, and Griffiths, a full-back for Llanelli and Wales in the 1970s before switching to league, should know.

Perhaps counterattack is the new attack, fuelled by what the cognoscenti call "dominant tackles", the kind the defence coach is looking for among the 100-plus tackles in a match.

Northampton ran in four tries from turnovers against Bath last week, and some thrilling ones at that. "A team is most vulnerable when it's just lost the ball," says Griffiths. "In winter conditions, the up-and-in defence can have the ball squirting out like a bar of soap. When it goes wrong, it can look awful, because the attacker can break through and it is difficult to cover back."

Whatever the argument over aesthetics, Sir Clive Woodward is set to name two defence coaches when he reveals his backroom staff early next month for the Lions tour to New Zealand. Larder is in pole position to handle the Saturday team, having worked with Woodward since the autumn of 1997.

Both Griffiths and Ford are keen to take on the midweek role, though neither man has yet been contacted. "If asked, you'd be stupid not to accept," said Ford, who has assisted Ireland for three years. Griffiths coached Great Britain RL with Larder in 1996, and his Wales contract, conveniently in the context of the WRU's policy of non-cooperation, is up in May.

The more these men succeed, the more the lawmakers may ponder ways of reining them in. For the play-the-ball in league, read the tackle area in union. A five-metre buffer behind the hindmost foot has been suggested, but would be difficult to police and would radically alter the dynamic of the tackle and the ruck.

"My defensive systems begin where the ball is," says Ford, an ex-league player who added Saracens to his Ireland duties in June. "Wasps start wider, usually at outside-centre. It is very aggressive, and their line speed is excellent. I think a lot of teams, including South Africa, have tried to copy that, but it's evolving all the time. You need options, and it is still up to the players to make the right call."

Saracens' Dan Scarbrough made the right call against Wasps, conning his opponent Joe Worsley into believing there was a gap to run into as the champions sought a late match-winning try. Worsley delayed what looked an obvious pass outside to Peter Richards. When he realised his error, his basketball-style pass was snuffed out by Scarbrough's team-mate Kevin Sorrell. "Fool's gold" is how Saracens' head coach, Rod Kafer, describes the bait taken by Worsley.

"Scarbrough would have given Worsley the 'lying eyes'," says Griffiths. "The defender knows he is going to make the tackle, but kids the attacker he is going to cover the pass."

For Scarbrough, who lines up at home to Worcester this afternoon, it was a neat twist of fate that would please any fan or coach. He had blown a try of his own in similar circumstances in a friendly in South Africa a couple of weeks beforehand, and learned his lesson well.