'Attack gets you noticed, defence gets you picked!'
ANALYSES: Each week of the Six Nations, former England Sevens international and broadcaster Rob Vickerman will shed light on a pivotal aspect of the weekend’s matches.
In this series on The XV website he goes from balance to chaos, mauling to offloads, and kicking to scrums, this is your stats and snapshots guide to Europe’s greatest championship.
“Attack gets you noticed, Defence gets you picked!”
The players who are often first on the team sheets are ‘The Dependables’.
They are also often the stalwarts in defence who have more trust with the coach than any others. They are the lieutenants of the squad, as uncompromising as they are dogged. The type of players that sacrifice their bodies, shoulders – and occasionally faces, to do their defensive dirty work.
This year more than ever, the definitive moments running into the last plays of the game have been outstanding courageous efforts from the likes of Wales’ Justin Tipuric vs Ireland and Owen Watkin vs Scotland.
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The theme of watertight defences from winning teams is consistent, and perhaps somewhat obvious, but the ability to trust your defence has seen game management change. But before we look at the how, here’s the evidence why defence is key; two of the last three Guinness Six Nations have been won by the team conceding the lowest number of points – and four out of six games so far this year’s Championship have been decided by 5 points or less (the other two were Italy’s defeats against France and England). So why is this relevant to game management?
Teams are adopting new ways to probe and breakdown defences with attacking kicks, as we showed last round’s analysis – but this tactic is also result of trying to play against much more aligned and combative defensive units.
Defensive coaches talk about ‘systems;’ creating sub-units to work in tandem working away from the breakdown and react to moving threats against them, such as pillars (side of the ruck), to ‘generals’ (aligned opposite the first receiver), all the way out to wingers who have to respond to their centre’s decision.
The collective line-speed a defence exerts is a great example of pressure being applied to an attack, forcing errors and winning the space, therefore gaining territory on the attack.
This only works if the teams combine and react to each other’s movements – a ploy in which France are setting a new standard under their talismanic defence coach, Shaun Edwards.
The thin blue line
Edwards has put his faith in the work horses up front. No longer is it down to the back-row and centres to be the defensive leaders – their ‘low numbers’ are doing brilliantly, with Paul Willemse yet to miss a tackle this campaign, making 34.
When the big men are making their tackles the system is clearly working – a scary prospect for teams playing against the French, not usually known for their unity without the ball.
One man who is growing into this new system is Gael Fickou – another member of the 2021 French ‘renaissance,’ thus far yet to miss a tackle. He is clearly thriving in this role, leading by example and making some astute defensive plays to become Edward’s new dependable to build the system around.
One final stat: the last time France conceded less than 80 points in the Guinness Six Nations was in 2010 with 69 against them. This was last time they won the Championship. Let’s hope Covid doesn’t stop them having a run at the Grande Chelem.
Source: The XV