Rush defence is all the rage, and it seems it has the potential to turn the upcoming Rugby World Cup into a French Open-style slugfest.
The good news is that the Wallabies, if they employ the strategy effectively, are arguably a better chance of knocking over the teams that have beaten them consistently over the past four years. The All Blacks, for instance, look more beatable when sides – like the Springboks last weekend – shut down their attacking weapons with a rush defence. Get in the grind, keep them relatively quiet for an hour, they’re under the pump and you’re a big chance.
The bad news is the World Cup in Japan might not be the best spectacle.
The clay surface at Roland Garros blunts the pace and power of the top tennis players, forcing long baseline rallies. It can be dour. Some appreciate the subtleties; many just wait to hear that Rafael Nadal has won another title.
Rush defence can similarly play a major role in turning a rugby Test into a dull contest, one that leads to one-out ball-running, more kicking and a time-sapping fight for set-piece dominance.
Boks coach Rassie Erasmus reckons tries will be at a premium in Japan, at least in games between the top-tier nations, due to the tactic.
“I guess in the old days, the scores were 12-10, 15-12 and Test match rugby was like that… it was only one or two tries normally,” he said after South Africa’s 16-all draw with New Zealand in Wellington.
“I’m not sure it’s the way the game should go but it’s definitely the way the game is going when you’re under pressure.”
The Springboks bolted up on the All Blacks, stifling the best attacking side in world rugby. They were happy to get into the arm-wrestle and with the Kiwis under pressure in the last quarter – a situation they’re not used to – Herschel Jantjes crossed in the final minute to snatch a draw.
The Wallabies couldn’t handle South Africa’s rushing defence the previous weekend in Johannesburg, and the Boks were quick to seize on the errors made as they back-pedalled under pressure.
Argentina have also been charging up in defence in their two Rugby Championship games so far. They went close to beating the All Blacks in Buenos Aires and were in the contest until the final whistle against the Wallabies.
A blitz defence aims to shut down time and space for the attacking line, and often forcing ball-runners back on the inside. It means teams can back themselves to defend in the midfield and are less likely to get burned on the outside.
It certainly has its risks. There tend to be a decent number of missed tackles as players get beaten on the inside shoulder, but if the defenders further infield are committed and moving up with speed, they can mop up these misses.
It also means that if you get a side on the back foot, the job of a ball pilferer like David Pocock becomes easier and the chance of turnovers through counter-rucking become more common.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is well aware that opposition sides will use a fast defensive line to shut down his classy backs. The tactic is arguably the common denominator in their rare losses over the past few years to Ireland, the British and Irish Lions and South Africa.
It’s the blueprint teams will attempt to replicate against the Kiwis in Japan, and hopefully the Wallabies will adopt it over the next two Bledisloe Cup matches in Perth and Auckland.
Bolt up on Beauden Barrett at no.10 to try to suffocate him and the rest of the backline. It’s likely that Hansen shifted Barrett to fullback last weekend and moved Richie Mo’unga to five-eighth to get his prized attacking gem away from rush hour.
It’s been noted that Barrett has struggled at Super Rugby level against the Crusaders in the past because of their line speed, while in this season’s semi-final in Christchurch, the Hurricanes showed one way to combat a rush defence.
With the Crusaders smothering the Canes, Barrett and halfback TJ Perenara had success in turning the home side around with some smart kicking in behind the rush.
It’s something Michael Cheika should be aware of against the All Blacks, and for Bernard Foley, Christian Lealiifano, Will Genia or Nic White to kick in behind an aggressive defensive line – with Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani steaming through – is a smart option.
It goes against Cheika’s ball-in-hand preference, but it can create chaos if used prudently.
The other point to make is the Wallabies shouldn’t use the out-the-back, second-man plays too often as, against a fast-approaching defence, running the ball with playmakers so far behind the advantage line is a dangerous ploy.
Against the top teams, it creates too much stress. Using that depth to kick for territory is wise, while the risk of a turnover when running, with so many players in front of the ball, is high-risk.
A blitz defence usually leads to more kicking that means a strong set-piece becomes even more important. With tries at a premium, accurate goal-kicking also often becomes crucial.
But with defences naturally tiring around the hour mark, there’s added demand on an effective bench to come on and add energy and aggression. It’s an issue for the Wallabies, who didn’t get much out of Rob Simmons, Luke Jones and Matt Toomua against the Pumas. James O’Connor didn’t get much of a chance, while James Slipper and Taniela Tupou were solid. Tolu Latu was the bench standout, adding plenty of pressure at the breakdown and sparking up the Wallabies forwards.
The other option is to get expansive when given a chance from a scrum, but moreso a lineout with a lot of space to move in. Go for broke with a slick backline move. It worked for the Wallabies, their only try from Reece Hodge coming from a nicely executed set-play from the top of a lineout.
Blast away when given the opening as over the next four months with rush defence all the rage, there might not be many opportunities to get some room and wind up.