The opening round of the European Champions Cup can often take on a strange character for teams as they begin the tournament. With the inevitable disjointedness of international players being reintegrated back into their club teams; away teams are often happy to get any kind of match points from the first pool game. By comparison, home teams are often saddled with the pressure to make their home advantage count. This analysis will look at how Ulster’s defence made the most of that pressure on Bath and used the hard wedge to edge an away win.
The first thing that may come to mind when a hard wedge is mentioned is a golf club but, in rugby terms at least, this usually means an up-and-out defence. Let’s put the words into pictures to see how this looks on a rugby pitch.
While the alignment of the 10, 12 and 13 can change here depending on the number of attackers on the edge, the general movement in a hard wedge defence is for the defenders to rush up ‘hard’ initially, before ‘wedging’ across the pitch. The idea behind this movement is to pressure the initial pass, whilst giving yourself enough time to cover across if a tackle isn’t made in midfield.
Although Bath do get over the gain-line marked in yellow in the still image above, they have to work hard for it with an offload. In the grand scheme of things, a loss of 2 metres isn’t a bad return for Ulster in a potential 6 vs. 5 situation and the defence is able to comfortably reset for the next phase.
When the play does runs on, Bath are repeatedly forced to play offloads in wintry conditions in order to make any dent in Ulster’s harrying defence. After 4 phases of trying to pass through and around Ulster, Rhys Priestland eventually kicks the ball away for the English team and turns over possession. With Bath clearly feeling an obligation to win with style at home, this is a huge defensive moment for the away team in the circumstances.
While the primary role of Ulster’s hard wedge defence is to frustrate the oppositions attacking efforts, it can also create attacking opportunities for Ulster, as shown in the 14th minute of the game.
At the start of this play, Bath initially do get a chance to go around Ulster’s defence but crucially, there is pressure on the passing.
Luke Marshall defends this situation excellently.
Faced with two defenders running at him, instead of blitzing straight up, Marshall pushes high up enough in the line to pressure Jonathan Joseph passing the ball, while still giving himself time to tackle or wedge out wide.
When Freddie Burns does get the ball, Marshall doesn’t allow him the simple pass before contact and Burns must throw an offload; giving Ulster time to wedge across and make a covering tackle on winger Semesa Rokoduguni.
5 phases later, Bath have been forced back to outside the 22 by Ulster’s press.
With Joseph not even looking outside him as the playmaker behind a pod of three forwards, it’s pretty clear in this picture that Bath are going to try and set up a midfield ruck. Ulster recognise this too with Eric O’Sullivan and Sam Carter rushing up hard in midfield to make the tackle.
Once Joseph does bounce out in attack with Priestland, Ulster wedge across as Stuart McCloskey and Marshall do a great job of pressuring the pass again.
With Sam Underhill running a short line for Joseph and Burns looping in behind, the Ulster centres keep their body positions neutral for long enough to make Joseph think twice about passing and decide to take the ball into contact instead.
Joseph’s choice compels Underhill and Burns to commit to the following ruck, leaving only winger Ruaridh McConnochie as an attacking option on the left. When scrumhalf Will Chudley looks to kick the ball to release the pressure, Bath’s lack of attackers on the left allows John Cooney to gamble….
and foot-block Chudley’s kick before running in for a crucial opening try for Ulster.
Ulster’s second try would also start with their defence, albeit in more fortunate circumstances.
Once again there is an initial hard press on the pass, this time from Billy Burns and Jacob Stockdale.
While Billy Burns missing a tackle before intercepting is far from intentional, it’s Ulster’s deliberate pressure on the pass and ability to scramble that wins the turnover.
Despite the best efforts of the Bath physio to disguise the space out wide, the ball eventually gets out to Will Addison who kicks through for Rob Lyttle to score.
Away wins are never easy in the Champions Cup and with a 17-16 lead in the dying minutes for Ulster, Bath get one last chance from a scrum to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. With tiredness starting to take over, Ulster stick to their system
As Bath run a loop play off Priestland, we can clearly see Ulster still moving up and then out in defence. The wedge might not be as aggressive but the Ulster men do well to keep their line integrity.
Having committed Ulster’s backs to one side of the pitch, Bath then look to isolate the slower forwards retreating from the previous scrum.
Ulster’s pack show that it’s not just the backs who can hard wedge and hooker Rob Herring does excellently to pull down the pacy Joseph and buy his teammates time to realign in defence.
With Bath now having fallen into their 1-3-3-1 pattern in attack, Ulster are in survival mode. Bath work the ball back to the right in three phases, before looking to go wide-left once again with a midfield screen.
Ulster’s ability to move up to cover the screen of Bath forwards, and then out to cover the wide threat, is superb with Herring again making a telling tackle. As the game hangs in the balance, Bath look to test Ulster’s edge defence one last time.
With an overlap beckoning out wide, Marshall and Stockdale do well to pressure Max Wright’s pass to Chris Cook at first. With no sound of a referee’s whistle, Stockdale puts in a match-winning effort to wedge back to the wing and snatch away Zach Mercer’s pass to Rokoduguni.
It’s also worth noting the ability of both Cooney and Stockdale to communicate their men in the tackle here, with Stockdale clearly leaving Mercer to Cooney. That kind of trust in their defensive system will please Ulster’s defensive coach Jared Payne to no end with Stockdale’s pace doing the rest to secure the win.
Champions Cup games in mid-November are rarely pretty and, in wintry conditions, teams often find it hard to get into full flow. While it wasn’t a perfect performance from the province, Ulster’s ability to be structured in these circumstances, and make the hard wedge defence work, bodes well for their future prospects in the competition.
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