There’s no denying that in international rugby today, the blitz defence is definitely on top. Whether it’s South Africa using it to win the Rugby Championship, Wales using their own variation in the 6 Nations or even Japan employing something similar to win the Pacific Nations; teams are getting a lot of mileage out of rushing up off the line in defence. Blitz defences thrive when the ball is slow or stuck in the bottom of a ruck in the wide 15 metre channels. What this analysis will show is how teams are trying to keep the ball on the move in the 15 metre zones and take away the oxygen from blitz defences ahead of the World Cup.
Before we proceed, what does a Blitz defence look like? South Africa are probably the best practitioners of this style of defence today. Looking at how they set up against New Zealand this year, at a first glance, the Springboks’ defensive line looks like any other.
However, having managed to slow the All Blacks’ ruck ball to 5 second recycles in the previous two possessions, South Africa have succeeded in trapping their opposition near the 15-metre line and have their entire defensive line on their feet in a strong position to blitz the All Blacks.
Rather than waiting for New Zealand to bring the ball to the gain-line, South Africa race up to shut off the wide option and eventually force the All Blacks to set up their next ruck behind the halfway line.
No team wants to be forced back 15 metres in attack so how are nations trying to combat this ahead of the World Cup? Let’s first take a look at how the All Blacks are attacking this issue themselves.
When ‘caught’ in the 15-metre channels of the pitch, traditionally teams would have set up a pod of three forwards and tried to move the ball back into the middle of the pitch with a series of short passes off 9. However, with defences often only needing to commit one defender to the blindside, teams have become very adept at racing up and driving back attacking forwards in these 15-metre zones.
To counteract this and get the South African defence on their heels, New Zealand have developed a tactic that has two forwards running hard lines back towards the ruck.
The rationale behind this is to hold the South African defenders on the inside from rushing up and indeed you can see Franco Mostert-circled in red in the image above-on his heels here as result. It also allows the playmaker time to come relatively flat onto the ball as Jack Goodhue-circled in yellow-does here and move the ball into the middle of the field quickly. Having the ball in midfield splits the Boks defence and slows the blitz defence.
Although the All Blacks attack breaks down in midfield after a loose pass from Brodie Retallick, you can see how this new way of holding the blitz could serve the All Blacks well in the World Cup. A little fine-tuning of roles, and perhaps another back behind the midfield pod of three players, will allow the All Blacks to keep the ball moving and the blitz guessing.
Turning our attention now to the Northern Hemisphere and last weekend’s World Cup warm-up between England and Wales, this was a game played between two teams known for their blitz defending and a prime opportunity to test out blitz-beating tactics ahead of the showpiece tournament.
As the example above shows, Wales are taking a near identical approach to New Zealand with two forwards cutting back against the grain and the scrum-half passing to a playmaker standing behind them-marked in yellow. The pace of the running lines from Alun Wyn-Jones and Dillon Lewis is a little off here and doesn’t disrupt the England defence but again the signs are promising for Wales.
The Welsh didn’t use this tactic often on Saturday, usually preferring to carry through the forwards or kick in the 15s. However, this example shows a willingness from the Welsh to stay ahead of the curve tactically that is encouraging with the World Cup looming.
While there are a number of teams trying to get ahead of the rest tactically, the most impressive new approach to beating rushing defences came from Wales’ opponents on the day, England.
In a similarly precarious attacking position to New Zealand and Wales before them, instead of using two forwards, England use three like a traditional forward pod.
All three forwards show great attention to detail in their roles. Their hands are up, they’re running at pace onto the ball and posing a genuine threat to the Welsh defence. This animation from the English forwards visibly distracts Wales’ inside defenders and narrows the Welsh defensive line as a result.
Having established the threat inside, England’s 9 Willi Heinz plays a tunnel pass through the space between the English forwards to George Ford-on the ball in the image below. However, Billy Vunipola’s job as one of the three decoy forwards hasn’t finished.
Keep an eye on Vunipola circled in yellow and the effect he has on Wales’ defence as the play runs on. Rather than switch off and drift across the pitch, Vunipola disrupts Adam Beard’s running line. It might seem incidental but that millisecond of disruption pays off a few seconds later as it creates a half-gap for Ellis Genge and England’s attack is suddenly over the half-way line in the middle of the pitch.
England would go back to this tactic once more in the second-half with even greater results.
Again, there are three players running decoy lines-two forwards and the circled Joe Cokanasiga this time-and again there is a tunnel pass. Moreover, as the GIF below shows, there is again a subtle attempt at a block from Cokanasiga as the lead runner on a Welsh player-Wyn Jones this time. A second later Wyn Jones is missing a tackle on George Ford and England are racing towards Wales’ 22 before winning a penalty to extend the lead.
With the World Cup just over a month away and blitz defences still very much on top in international rugby, there has been a scramble from attack coaches worldwide to maximise their preparation time ahead of the tournament. As this article shows, we are already seeing signs from a number of nations of how they intend to beat the blitz. With a little more training time and tactical ingenuity, we might just see a World Cup full of running rugby yet.
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