By Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
I recently received an email from a rugby coach in Scotland. Having read my previous columns on defensive systems (April 18, 2011), teaching safe tackle mechanics (August 11, 2008) and becoming a good defender (April 26, 2007) Gavin wanted to know which defense I thought would be applicable for his club. I recommended he start with the drift defense. What follows is part of my exchange with him to explain the defense and suggested teaching progression.
The drift defense is powerful in that it is flexible. As an attacking team uses the ball from primary phase (scrum or lineout) or passes the ball from the base of a ruck to a first receiver, the drift defense launches upfield. If the first receiver doesn't pass the ball, the defense doesn't "turn out," but rather continues to run straight tackling the ball carrier. If, on the other hand, the ball is passed (which is likely) the defense can "turn" as they continue to accelerate "up and out" toward the attack. In my experience, if four players become connected and play defense together, they can defend vast areas of the field.
There are a handful of principles associated with teaching the drift defense that are “musts.” All defenders on the last foot must launch together. If one player fails to launch, gaps appear in the defense. The defenders nearest the source of possession must continue to run the tackle line after the first receiver has passed the ball and not corner flag behind fellow defenders. Another “must” is that the defenders communicate what they see in front of them. Calling out a switch or loop is critical if the drift defenders are to be successful.
I suggest teaching the drift first by having one player defend a solo attacking player in a grid that is narrow (1.5m) at the attacker's end and wider (5m) at the defender’s end. One line of cones is straight (left side), while the other (right side) is staggered to gradually to open up to a width of 5m. This positions the defender to make a right shoulder tackle, with his head up and behind the ball carrier if they run the correct tackle line.
The drill begins with the ball carrier moving, using his feet and speed to "beat" the defender. The defender should be coached to stay "inside eye" of the ball carrier and only let him try to beat you to the open (right) side.
The tackler will be required to launch himself (approximately 3 steps) and be prepared to turn, planting his left foot to turn and accelerate down the tackle line. It is important to emphasize that the tackler’s feet never completely stop moving.
He will likely make several common errors initially, either by running out into the middle of the grid and not staying inside eye, or by running too far up field, failing to anticipate that the ball carrier might plant their right foot and "go for the outside." The tackle lines in a drift defense should look similar to the attached diagram.
Once the defender masters keeping the attacker on his outside shoulder, introduce two more attackers and one additional defender. This is done in a 10m x 10m grid. The attackers should be asked to begin by running straight, passing the ball, while the two defenders align on the inside eye of their opposite. Once the first attacker passes the ball, the two defenders should turn the defense “out,” now running at the second and third attackers.
No switches are allowed initially because we are trying to get these two defenders to defend together before adding a third defender to defend 3 to 6 attackers. Once a third defender is added, the attackers are allowed to run whatever move they wish. Expand the size of your grid as you add in attacking players/defenders. As when installing any new technical system, dozens of high-quality repetitions will be required before every player is comfortable operating in the drift defense. Playing sound defense is as rewarding as a well-crafted team try.
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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