The Art of Destruction

A good defence is the systematic destruction of an attack’s best-laid plans.

Rugby is pretty much a binary sport in my opinion, in that you’re either attacking or defending, with a small sliver of transition between the two to act as a “slipstream” between states. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past week looking at the attacking side of that coin, so I thought that this week would be as good a time as any to look at the defensive end and, in particular, Munster’s application of that defence over the past few seasons.

For me, defence is where you show the soul of your team. Attack is great – and vitally important in its own right, obviously – but the buzz of an excellent defensive performance can boost your group like few other things in the game.

Technically, this is poor enough technique from Sam Arnold – his head is on the wrong side – but in the context of the game? What a stop, young man.

In these kinds of situations, the professional player doesn’t give a Frenchman’s fuck about “technique” if the job got done and the player was good to go on the next phase, which was the case here. Sam Arnold was giving up 27kg to Mathieu Bastareaud in this direct contest – and many others during this quarter-final – but spent all afternoon having a chop off anyone that wanted some all the same. Stopping your opposite number in a big game and then getting up to fly-hack the ball through shows a lot about your mentality to everyone watching and spurs on your teammates to follow you into the fire.

How could you look at CJ Stander making two tackles in three seconds and not want to vaporise the next man who steps in your channel?

Good defence is contagious and builds in strength during a game, so it’s important to have a system that fits your personnel from a skillset and personality perspective.

This season just gone was a unique one from a Munster perspective in that we changed our defacto head coach and defensive coach midway through a season which, in organisational terms, is about as much fun as standing on rakes, forever. It’s a bit like changing personalities halfway through a school year and hoping there isn’t a catastrophic breakdown between the old you and the new you.

While there would always be an element of forced continuity in that situation, any people that are worth hiring in those roles wouldn’t want to spend the rest of their season being judged on someone else’s plan. The personality of Johann Van Graan and JP Ferreira would come out sooner rather than later, especially in how Munster approached defence.

The changes between Ferreira’s defensive system and Jacques Nienaber’s system are subtle in practice but quite different in overall mentality.

Up until the end of 2016/2017, Munster defended using Jacques Nienaber’s Overlapping Cover Wide Blitz defensive system.

When I show you an example of it (Munster vs Racing from 2016/2017) you’ll recognise it right away;

Jaco Taute makes a hard blitz from the “C” position onto the ball carrier which generates enough contact to alter the carrying path and force the runner back inside to be dealt with by the overlapping cover that swarms to the space left behind by the blitzing defender.

This system of defence looks like it puts a lot of pressure on the blitzing player but all he really has to do is force the ball carrier back inside with the pace and intensity of his outside shoulder line. If he hits him – great, job done – but if he doesn’t, he’s altered the path of the ball and brought it back inside for our defenders to punish the carrier and disrupt.

The real pressure in this system comes on the overlapping cover defenders who have to be in a position to mop up the ball carrier.

Even when the ball has moved beyond “C”, our system demanded a high blitz from the edge defence to encourage the ball back inside for our cover to hit.

We’re pressing really high on this passing sequence and it works by squeezing the fourth receiver’s passing lane and then hitting the cut back runner with the rest of our heavy defence, which has moved across from the initial ruck.

Bleyendaal’s responsibility here is to take away the pass option to those three support players at the point of release.

Once they can’t go outside, they have to come back inside where they’ll meet our cover defenders. You can see that system to shepherd the play back inside on almost every defensive set we ran from September 2016 up until last October.

Basically – take the lateral space in front of you to squeeze the ball wide and then force the carrier inside.

Here it’s Rory Scannell operating the cut off blitz and you can actually see the Racing player realise the outside option has become too dangerous to risk.

That’s basically the system in action.

Of course, it was all dependent on making dominant hits once we forced the cut inside, and it needed good, pacey reads on the outside edge to effectively corral the opposition.

Our ruck mentality in this system put a premium on one man tackle defence and bodies in the defensive line while deprioritizing extended ruck competition. That isn’t to say that we didn’t double up on tackles, or go after the ball at the breakdown when it was on but for the most part, it looked like this;

O’Mahony effects the tackle, Scannell and Ryan consciously avoid competing at the ruck and Racing commit two men to secure.

It was set up to consistently win a numbers game (more defenders in the line than attackers), brutalise carriers and force opposition kickaways and turnovers.

Nienaber’s system was hugely effective for most of 2016/2017 and the slightly tweaked version we used this season was pretty good.

Earlier in the season – while still under Nienaber – we had reduced the intensity of our defensive press somewhat (a partial response to the trouble we had with the Scarlets the season before) but still had an “outside-in” mentality.

The high blitz is still there – although somewhat reduced – but the basic premise is still the same; to press the outside edge to force the play back inside.

The strengths of this defensive style are obvious; when used correctly, you punish the attacking team, march them back phase on phase and generate a lot of kickaways. The weakness of this particular style of defence is three-fold, in my opinion.

  • It gives the opposition a lot of space to kick into.
  • Any ball that goes beyond the point of the blitz creates a massive linebreak opportunity.
  • It naturally creates a lot of centre-field rucks that are generally harder to defend.
  • It limits the work on transition that you can do (which was a large reason why we kicked a lot of our transition ball away in 2016/2017).

Teams had definitely begun to “work out” what the weak points in our system were by the end of 2016/2017. The Scarlets, in particular, showed up two of those weaknesses at multiple points of that season with their ability to kick over the top of our blitz and by creating play schemes that were designed to work around out outside blitz. Other sides, like Saracens, had the power to make the collisions naturally generated by this system come back to haunt us over a long enough period in a game that it hurt our ability to get our attacking systems into play.

The transition attack issue was a pressing one too, as our recruitment seemed to be shaped to suit a slightly different defensive style.

The Ferreira Method

When JP Ferreira was hired in December 2017, Munster faced a bit of a conundrum – do you continue with the systems in place or do you try to tweak gradually? Staying with the slightly amended OCWB (Overlapping Cover Wide Blitz) system would have made sense but when you hire a guy to be your defence coach, you want him to start stamping his authority immediately.

Munster’s work from October to early January was a majority OCWB hybrid of defensive styles, especially the Leicester back-to-backs. We weren’t blitzing as much as we had been earlier in the season but a lot of familiar elements were there. By the time Ferreira had been in place for a few months, our evolved defensive system was beginning to take place.

Compare these two sequences in similar parts of the pitch (centre-field ruck) and with similar forward/back alignments for an example of the change;

Ferreira’s Narrow Blitz Wide Drift (NBWD) system is inherently more conservative and reactive than the OCWB we had been using but it does give you a little more wiggle room against big teams when they get centre-field ruck position, especially when most sides play with multiple layers of attack against sides that use a shooter.

Essentially, the NBWD system makes carries close to the ruck less attractive to the opposition while incentivising play towards the outside edges.

Instead of shooting at the edges to corral the opposition, our narrow “blitz” punishes tight carries and shows the opposition our outside edge. Under the old system, Rory Scannell would be blitzing hard on this next phase to keep Toulon hemmed in the middle, but instead, Toulon make a go for the space.

Murray covers Nonu, Scannell lines up Bastareud and Wootton/Keatley cover the wide options.

We don’t blitz onto the ball. Unlike the OCWB system, we push up to narrow the space and then out with the passage of the ball. This mixture between a blitz and a drift puts pressure on the oppositions catch/pass and uses the best defender in world rugby – the touchline – as an active part of the defence.

Whenever you’ve seen Munster critiqued for “narrow” defence, it’s this principle that’s being misunderstood.

There are a few benefits to this system, but the biggest is the number of turnover opportunities it gives you on that centre field ruck position and in the wider areas. I’ve described the wider benefits above – just picture Cloete surging onto a scragged winger with other outside backs trying to provide ruck support – but what about the centre-field benefits?

This was a dream position for a Cloete/Beirne/O’Mahony (or even O’Donoghue if he wasn’t blocked by Murray) to make a go for the ball and punish Leinster’s ball carrier.

This is exactly the kind of scenario that our system is set up to exploit. Look at the work on the previous phase.

That’s a monster hit from Kleyn on a “narrow” blitz.

The next phase features the same narrow blitz, this time on Ringrose. There’s a jackal option for O’Donoghue but he leaves it, hoping for an “off feet” call against Conan that doesn’t come. On the next phase, you can see where we’re aiming for.

Leinster have Murphy on the charge but very little active ruck support.

Ripe for a breakdown steal. Expect to see more of this set up later in the year, as it’s perfect for bringing your jackals (and we have four in our starting pack alone) into the game.

This is a similar system to the one used by the Lions under Ferreira.

Isolated surge ball for the Hurricanes stolen by Jaco Kriel.
A narrow surge by the Lions that almost leads to a choke turnover.

This system has its drawbacks too, of course, as highlighted by parts of the Leinster game and the opening 30 minutes of the Racing 92 semi-final.

It puts a lot of pressure on the decision making of our last wide defender and “closing” back three players. If suboptimal decisions (or tackle executions) are made here, then the system breaks down in a big way.

Zebo is the “closing player” in these instances and was lucky enough to get bailed out by Arnold and Conway on the cover. This is a good example of what I mean here – Zebo has the “close the gate” role of knowing when and where to step up into the line while giving kick through insurance up until the last minute. Keith Earls is elite in these situations and we miss his decision making in these situations most of all.

Missed tackles, too, become incrementally more critical in those wide positions.

Murray just got caught here – it happens – but the linebreak it generated was catastrophic.

Our narrow blitz tendency is also dependent on not conceding cheap metres close to the ruck, due to the knock-on effects it has on the rest of the system.

We compact our forwards tightly around the ruck to ensure dominant defensive strikes and give us the numbers to compete over the ball. This helps us slow their recycle, draw attacking numbers into clean out, stretch the distance between ruck and the wide phase and give us time to work into position on the next phase.

When we don’t slow their ball down AND concede cheap narrow metres, it makes the out ball incrementally harder to defend. Here’s a prime example;

The second close in ball carry by Ben Arous gives Racing an outside shoulder angle to work with and Wootton ends up working very hard to get across to cover. We couldn’t step up to drift across, so it gave Racing an advantage.

On this instance, we gave up narrow field position and quick ball, which made our compact numbers on the defensive left side of the ruck a liability;

Wootton has to take on Thomas at a flat angle, which makes it incredibly difficult to make the kind of dominant tackle that we needed in that situation.

Every system has its weaknesses, but the more you train in that system, the harder it becomes to exploit those weaknesses.

A good preseason implementing Ferreira’s defensive system will be just what the doctor ordered to give the squad the certainty that a system requires to function at an elite level.