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Talking Tactics: Shutting down the edge

Talking Tactics: Shutting down the edge
Edge defenders need to be flexible and proactive in their movements and also respond to imminent threats in the blink of an eye – or else second-man sweep plays from stars like Greg Inglis will prove disastrous. Credit: NRL Photos Copyright: NRL Photos
It’s a given in rugby league that defence wins games – the opposition can’t win if they can’t score!

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how most NRL teams use a second-man sweep play behind a lead runner to try to catch out and penetrate well- structured defensive lines. This creates try-scoring opportunities. 

So how do teams defend these plays when they have the likes of Billy Slater Greg Inglis and Jarryd  Hayne opposing them, sweeping around at pace to create the extra man.

Defending on the outside edges at wing and centre can be very challenging. It’s tough out there – especially when players of that calibre are coming at you, with support.

Edge defenders need to be flexible and proactive in their movements and be prepared to respond to just about anything. The location can be very lonely and often disaster awaits you should you make the wrong call. 

All these decisions have to be made in a split second. There is no time to debate your options. It is instinctive, from many hours of practice at training – however, under pressure it only takes one player not working on the same page as his teammates for the structure to break down.

Under pressure even the best players panic and can make the wrong decisions. 

There are a few key areas that defending teams can concentrate on to give themselves a chance of stopping attacking players steaming through on the edges.

The secret to any good defence is for your defenders to be sticking to the team’s defensive principles and working together – i.e., doing the same things.

Anytime you’re talking about defensive structures on the edge, more often than not it depends on what support you get from the men on the inside – often your tight forwards. Those middle men have their work cut out.

The markers initiate the speed of the game and have the power to remove all momentum that the attacking side has built. The markers’ first priorities are to engage the hooker – to either shut him down or limit his options at the defensive line.

The ‘A’ defender controls the speed of the line and it is his aim to get forward as quick as he can, limiting progress over the advantage line while still keeping an eye on the first receiver and in touch with his markers. Once the hooker has released the ball, his focus instantly shifts to zero in on the first receiver, accompanied by the ‘B’ defender. 

No defending team can afford playmakers like Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk, Mitchell Pearce, Todd Carney or Daly Cherry-Evans the luxury of going to the line with support.  It is most important for the inside defenders to pressure the first receiver and work from the inside out. The last thing a defending team needs is to allow the likes of Thurston – one of the game’s smartest ball players – room to move and time to think. 

Working from the inside out is crucial in any good defensive structure; every edge defender is trying to get their inside teammates to force the playmakers to play earlier than they intend to. The earlier the inside defenders force the playmakers into a decision, the easier it is for the edge defenders to summarise and commit to what’s coming at them.  

It’s extremely tough to defend the whole field. So when attacking teams are in the middle of the field, the defensive team should have two markers and five defenders on each side of the play-the-ball and a fullback directing his defensive line.

Plenty of teams use the saying ‘shut the gate’. It’s a term used to get their middle defenders to move up and slide with the play, keeping a uniform line and not dropping off too early, ensuring they are ready to collar a runner on an inside line. 

The smart halfbacks are looking for the advantage, like a quick play-the-ball when the line is not set or when there are only four defenders on one side of the field. The defensive team then has to make a decision: Do they rush forward and ‘wedge in’, trying to shut down the attack? Or do they wait and hold, and wait for the inside defenders to come and help, perhaps giving up 10 or 15 metres before stopping this attacking play?

All clubs will have different theories as to when the third man in the line can leave the lead runner and drift onto the fullback, but most would want that defender to check the lead runner first. The third man in is usually a half – he determines what the outside two defenders do. 

However, late sudden movements in any defensive structure can cause problems for their outside teammates.

It may not look too different, but all teams have their own defensive structures. Manly and Melbourne both tend to ‘wedge in’ when under pressure on the edges, while other teams such as the Cowboys and St George Illawarra tend to not engage the attack and instead herd the opposition towards the sideline.

Teams like Manly have very competent edge defensive structures simply because they have two very experienced centres in Jamie Lyon and Steve Matai. The pair are calm when it comes to making the right decisions on the edges. Also, they have two competent halves who are not afraid to put their bodies in front of charging back-row forwards, and are switched-on enough to check the attacker before committing to a decision if they feel the ball player is going out the back to a sweep runner.

This foresight is one of the reasons these team have displayed among the best defensive records for a number of seasons now.  

So while many teams have different defensive structures, all display the same key principles. They are: move up fast; stay on your defender’s inside shoulder; communicate and nominate your attacker; don’t go past the ball; and ‘shut the gate’.

Tackling is the individual’s responsibility. Defence? That is the team’s responsibility. 

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