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Defense in the Open Field

"Invincibility lies in the defense." Sun Tzu, The Art of War


This chapter will deal with the challenges facing a team that does not have possession of the ball. Defensive assignments immediately upon losing the ball at a set piece are outside the scope of this chapter, and are discussed in the chapter on the particular set piece in question.

Forcing the attackers to turn the ball over, however, is a topic that will be covered in this chapter.

Although I have chosen not to cover kicking in the chapter on attack in the open field, defending against the kick will be covered in this chapter, as one key challenge confronting the defensive team is to determine to just what extent it will be prepared to cover a kicking, rather than running, attack.

Too many responsibilities, too little help

In 15-a-side rugby, although backs have one-on-one assignments, they are assisted by forwards that come across the field to help "double-team" defenders, and to provide, along with other backs, cover defense on breaks that get past the gain line.

In sevens, on the other hand, not only must each defender guard an attacker, but the team must find a pattern to protect against a successful kicking attack. In comparison to fifteens, the amount of cover support is extremely limited.

Because of these factors, as well as the relatively vast amount of space per player, defenses in sevens are penalized very severely -- often directly in the form of tries -- for most mistakes. Thus it is imperative that all members of a team have a thorough understanding of the pattern of defense they are playing and what their individual roles are at various situations. In many cases, as implied above, they will be very different from 15s.

Back row forwards, for example, usually props or hookers in sevens, must learn that they cannot think of their prime role on defense as foraging for the ball; they must learn that they are but one of seven all fulfilling similar defensive tasks.

Patterns of Defense

Zone vs. "Man"

Most patterns of defense are based on a zone-type of defense. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as a "switching-man" type defense: first each defender picks out an opponent, and lines up opposite that opponent, followed by zone defensive reactions to offensive moves such as switches, loops, etc.

This is similar to the defensive strategy employed by backs in 15s, so only a couple of brief examples will be given. Figure B3-1a shows defenders A and B lined up against attackers A and B. In Figure B3-1b, B comes across A, for either a switch or dummy switch. A and B remain in their lanes -- talking all the while -- so that A ends up defending against B and vice versa.

Figure B3-1c represents the case where attacker B loops attacker A; defensively A and B will slide so that at the conclusion of the loop, A is marking B and B is marking A. (Of course, if defender A commits to attacker A, B must follow B across.)

These are the principles on which most defensive patterns in sevens are based.

Whom should you mark?

From set pieces the defensive pattern should make the initial assignments clear; when confronted with attackers in the open field, however, it becomes necessary to count.

Count players from the end and make sure that each attacker is marked. For simplicity, let's assume you're playing a 7 up defense (see below). If you find yourself opposite the second attacker from the touchline, make sure that you have exactly one teammate outside you. If there is no defender there, you will need to move to that position and move an inside defender across (by communication) to take that second attacker.

Finding yourself in the same situation (facing the second attacker), but there are two teammates outside you, you will have to move inside and get one of those two outside defenders to come in to take that second attacker.

The "6 up" defenses (see below) present you with a different scenario, but you must still count: counting, and knowing where you and your teammates are vis a vis your opponents is critical to successful defense.

(The above all assumes that you're away from the ball and have time to shuffle people; if you're facing the ball carrier in one of the above situations, then you and your teammates must go into "react" mode and pick the best option to stop the attack.)

Defensive alignments

There have been a lot of approaches to defense in sevens, but most defenses are a variation of a) 6 up plus a sweeper or chaser, and b) 7 up with varying degrees of protection against kicks and missed tackles.

6 up with a sweeper

In this defense, 6 players guard 7 by leaving the attacker furthest from the ball unguarded, and by sliding as the ball is passed, from one attacker to another, as shown in Figure B3-2. Figure B3-2a shows that when the ball is at the left of the field (from the defenders point of view), the right attacker is left unmarked, and the sweeper lies anywhere from 10-30 yards back (depending on field position), roughly in line with the ball. As the ball moves across the line, the defenders, always talking to each other, slide across one slot (attacker), so that by the time the ball reaches the right-hand side of the field, the leftmost attacker is left unmarked, and the sweeper has followed the ball across the field (Figure B3-2b).

An alternate way of thinking of this defense is that each defender is actually sharing the responsibility for 2 attackers, the actual choice being dependent on the direction in which the ball moves. This can be seen in Figure B3-2c: with the ball being held by attacker #4, either defender 3 or 4 will mark #4, depending on how the ball got there to begin with.

A sliding defense is not particularly aggressive. One way to add aggression to the 6 + sweeper defense is to pressure so hard that the team can never bring the ball back to the side that is shy a defender; that is what sides that try to both sweep and pressure attempt to do.

An additional negative aspect of the slide part of this sweeper defense is that the constant sliding on defense relies on continual and reliable communication between teammates, and is more vulnerable than a 7 up defense to a communications breakdown.

Six plus a sweeper is probably the defense probably employed by most teams today, certainly by most of the British Isles teams: both Middlesex champion Harlequins and regular Melrose champion Kelso use it.

In Mike Williams' book, he describes the sweeper as needing to be fast and an aggressive tackler, and comments that the most likely candidate is the scrum half.

Jim Hewitt notes that it is the experience of his team and his scrum half and sweeper, Bob Hogarth, that has made Kelso able to both pressure and cover kicks:

Bob Hogarth will go back and sweep and what we'll do then is go up and put pressure on them -- we don't stand back off them, we put pressure on them, we never give them a chance.

And if their sweeper gets caught up making a tackle?

Well, we don't have anyone assigned to cover for him, but it would be wrong to assume that no one would go back. Although they won't be saying "Bob's in, someone's got to go back," instinctively someone will fill that role if he's needed.

The scrum half tends to be the most common sweeper. Often, however, the scrum half is vacating a position near midfield, and the team needs to make sure that the gaps are filled. John Maxwell says of Mark Ella, who was the Randwick scrum half at the 1990 Melrose Sevens:

Mark can usually read what's happening, and he might drop out of the line [to sweep], but if he drops he'll call someone across: you've got to make something happen, because you're starting to play with too many short.

Fiji's Waisali Serevi, the MVP at both the 1989 and 1990 Hong Kong Sevens, played fly half in 1990 but was still assigned the role of sweeper. At the scrums, Serevi moved to scrum half on defense, but in the lineouts he stayed at fly half and swept from there, with one of the four "up" players (the scrum half and three forwards) assigned the job of guarding the attacking fly half. Being further back than the scrum half to begin with, he was able to get in a sweeping role more quickly.

I think that it's possible to carry this one step farther: assign the role of guarding the fly half to the scrum half or hooker, and let the fly half sweep even from a scrum (after checking off against the immediate break). The Eagles have experimented with this -- successfully -- in cases where the attacking fly half lines up directly behind the scrum.

Dick Best, while affirming that the Harlequins prefer to play with a sweeper in most situations, cautions:

except in our own 22, where I will play 7 up. Basically because if you play a sweeper in your own 22, and the man on the wing chips, it's a straight one on one race, and you're going to be too far away form the ball anyway, so you may as well have 7 up in your own 22 with the wings hanging back deeper, and expecting them to cover the middle of the field.

The sweeper defense is particularly effective against a kick, and against opponents that rely heavily on kicking: despite their stated dislike of this defense, New Zealand in fact used it against Fiji in the 1988 Sydney Sevens after Fiji had scored about a dozen kicking tries earlier in the tournament.

This defense is also effective in situations where an attacker breaks a tackle or otherwise gets through the first line of defense. Critics, however, claim that this advantage is not a real one: attackers are in fact more likely to get through the first line of the 6 up defense than through the 7 up defense.

6 up plus a chaser (or "rover")

In this defense, the 6 front line players defend as above, but the 7th defender "chases," i.e. harasses the attackers by chasing the ball, doubling an attacker, filling the passing lane, or otherwise being troublesome (maybe "rover" would be a more generic description of this 7th defender). This can be a very dangerous defense, both for defenders and attackers. It's deficiencies -- not only does it leave one attacker unmarked, but it's also a poor defense against the kick -- are obvious, but it may be worth trying when regaining the ball immediately is imperative or when rattling the attackers is a real possibility.

If you're used to playing a 6 + sweeper defense and you come against a team that you know won't kick, the 6 + chaser will give you the bonus of a defender that can create havoc in the opponents' line.

7 up defenses

End players "sweep"

In this defense, shown in Figure B3-3, each defender takes one attacker (although the standard zone options, such as when the attackers switch, loop, etc. are employed once initial responsibilities are determined). The two defenders at each end alternate taking responsibility for covering kicks (sometimes called "semi-sweeping," and Figures B3-3a, 3b, and 3c show situations with the ball at three different areas on the field. Figure B3-3d shows the ground the end defenders cover as the ball moves from one end of the field to the other.

The furthest these end defenders normally travel is about 1/3 of the width of the pitch, and about 15-25 yards back. Their range, however, shouldn't be measured in specific distance, but by the requirement that if the ball comes back their way, they need to get back in time to be in position to defend against their assigned attacker

With this "one attacker, one defender" responsibility, this defense can be more aggressive than the 6 up + sweeper defense, but it offers less protection against a kick, and even less against a broken or missed tackle.

When the ball is away from them, it may be advantageous for the two end defenders away from the ball to reposition themselves so that the faster of the two has the "end" responsibility.

Thus, for example, your two props may find themselves together as the two outside players after a set piece. If, as is often the case, they are your two slowest players, this is not a good situation. When the ball gets to the opposite side of the field, it will be very helpful if they can move infield and have the next player in, probably the scrum half or the hooker, take the end, and hence "semi-sweeper," responsibility.

The 7 up defense as described above is that preferred by the All-Blacks. At the 1986 Sydney Sevens, New Zealand used a 6 up sliding defense on Saturday, when they lost to Wales. They decided, based on a team meeting that evening, to go to a 7 up defense on the following day. They not only beat Wales in the semi-finals, but then thrashed Australia in the final, 32-0. New Zealand technical director Bill Freeman, who was part of that decision, reckons that the 6 up defense is not one that suits the aggressive New Zealand style.

The words that we hear from teams that play the slide defense are not "I'm going to take that player out," but "I've got him covered," "I've got him covered." And [when we're on the attack] I like the opposition thinking that, and we'll try to do something with them. Now what we're saying [in the 7 up defense] is "He's my man," and we'll endeavor to cat and mouse him. We'll shuffle, and endeavor to get as close to that guy with the ball as we can. And then all of a sudden our defensive player will move in rapidly on that player.

We'll also have players on either side doing the same thing, and positioning their bodies between the opponents and their ball carrier, between them. That reduces the ball carrier's options on both sides, and he has to have retention of the ball a little longer, which is of assistance to the defensive method that we're using.

As the distance from the ball increases, the defenders can drop back slightly to help cover other options:

The next pair of defenders [two away from the ball on each side] will be back a wee bit. We've got three players putting that pressure on. Now if the ball carrier decides to put a long looping pass over the top to the other players, these players off the ball can still run onto it, whereas the opposition player is up in line, and has to stay still to catch it.

Freeman notes also that, although the defenders at the far end have the primary responsibility to cover the kicks, the defenders in line with the kick need to help as well:

[Even as the player comes across from the other side], we expect the two players in the area where the ball has gone through to get back quickly, very quickly.

We'll turn the two players to go back, and they will race back in line with the ball. As the opposing player has to pass those players, we make every effort to get our body between that player and where the ball is, while our other player [the "semi-sweeper"] is coming back. That becomes a wee bit of a hindrance, because that attacking player has actually got to run around them, and they may not be running as fast as what is necessary to run, which slows down the attacker (but not illegally of course).

One of the ways to defend a kick is to keep it from being taken. Freeman notes that

one of the things the opposition may well do to us is to just use that little kick: they get up onto our defending player, and just do that little chip kick for themselves. So what we do, we don't give that player a chance to get up onto us; we're getting up onto him to stop him from kicking by aggressively moving on him.

7 up "bubble" defense

Some aspects of the defense Freeman describes above (the defenders twice removed from the ball standing slightly back, for example) are related to what Mike Williams calls the "bubble" defense, illustrated in Figure B3-4, which shows the defense is in the shape of an arc with the top curve of the arc always opposite the ball.

7 straight up

This defense "dares" the attackers to kick; when employed, the defending team has got to have confidence in the speed of its players to turn around and sprint down and cover any kicks ahead. In practice, most teams don't go to this extreme, although their end defenders may only drop back a very small amount in both depth and width: if, in the previously described 7 up defense, the end defenders carry their sweeping too far, quick ball movement may get the ball to their end before they have a chance to recover, or, if they get caught rushing back to cover, they become vulnerable to a short kick past them as they are racing in the other direction.

This defense is (too) often seen in the US, where kicking is a much under-used art.

Blocking the passing lane (defensive swivel)

Although players should be aware of the dangers of coming up crooked defensively, there are times in the game, when the opposition is in a "possession" mode (sitting back and moving the ball back and forth), that we can pressure them by getting in the passing lanes, as shown in Figure B3-5.

In Figure B3-5a, the defenders off the ball are slightly forward of the defender marking the ball carrier, in position to block the inside of, and therefore a pass to, the nearest supporter. Similarly, two defenders away, the defenders are also close enough to be able to run onto a pass intended for their opposite. In this situation, the only safe pass is to the swivel player -- if there is one (for simplicity, no swivel player is shown in the diagram), who will have to act quickly and enterprisingly to clear the ball from pressure.

This defense is particularly effective when the ball is near one end of the line (Figure 5b). Here the defenders can really get in deep to the passing lanes: Mike Williams has called this the "swivel line in defense."

This is not the standard "straight line" defense that we've all been taught. The dangers of leaving a hole for the ball carrier are as real in sevens as in fifteens, but if the attackers are static, the defender on the ball carrier may be able to control the ball carrier's movement enough to allow the adjacent defenders to move forward (as usual, this is a read and communicate situation). Furthermore, the infrequency of rucks and mauls means that the offside laws at these pieces come into play much less frequently and the defenders can be "in the face" of their opponents.

A "1-2-1-2-1" Defense

During a 1989 interview, Bob Dwyer described a defense with which Australia had begun experimenting, that I have translated into a "1-2-1-2-1." In essence, it is a 7 up defense with the two end players sweeping. As an additional wrinkle, however, when the ball gets away from the center of the field, the middle defender in the formation (usually the scrum half) will drop back slightly to be in a position to cover a kick. As the ball moves back to the center, this defender must be able to quickly fill the gap and be part of the front-line defense.

According to Dwyer,

he'll patrol that center area, backwards and forwards across, but he'll slot up into the defensive line when he sees a problem. It's a very fluid arrangement, and certainly doesn't always apply.

In Figure B3-6, I've tried to show that that defense can be thought of as two parallel 1-2-1 defenses in half-width fields, with the middle player being the end player of both.

It certainly seems, on the face of it, to be a good way to improve the coverage of kicks in the 7 up defense. Like any complex defense, however, it suffers from the demands that it must be executed perfectly for it to work, and it certainly leaves lots of room for error if it isn't.

At the tackle

Often attackers will attempt to undiscipline the defense by running at gaps between them, making two defenders take one attacker, and putting a supporter through the gap; it is critical that the defenders communicate and not let this happen. It is important both a) that only one defender take the attacker, and b) that the correct defender take the attacker. The consequences of not doing this are often an immediate try.

Similarly, attackers will often send a big strong player hurtling through the defensive line, attempting to force two defenders to make the tackle; again it is imperative that one defender make the tackle.

In answer to the question of whether to try to take the ball carrier to ground to release the ball, or to hold the ball carrier up and take "player and ball," the answer in real life is "it depends." It depends on the relative size and strength of the attacker and defender as well as the numbers and proximity of supporting players, both attackers and defenders.

If the defender is small compared to the attacker, the attacker is probably going to try to use that size (and presumably strength) advantage to drive through the defender, remain standing, and make the ball available to a supporter. In this case (not strong enough to tie the ball up) it will be best for the defender to simply use the attacker's own weight and momentum to take the attacker to the ground to force the ball to be released.

In other cases the better solution may be to take "player and ball" and keep the ball carrier from playing it immediately, allowing the defense either simply to regroup or, preferably, to close in on the ball carrier and take the ball away.

It is particularly important when the ball carrier has lots of support and the defense very little, that the ball be tied up as tightly as possible; if we simply take the player to ground, that player will be able to push the ball back to a support player and we will be under severe pressure.

Kitione Tuibua concurs:

If the would be tackler knows there is not enough support behind him, he'll go for a smothering tackle: wrap the man and kill the ball.

On the other hand, if the defenders have the numbers at the breakdown, if the tackler can take the ball carrier to the ground so that the ball is released, the second defender can step over the ball and either pick up a ball posted on the ground by the defender or pick off any intended pass back to support. Remember that, assuming the contact is between only one attacker and the defense, there is no defensive offsides in this situation.

Charlie Wilkinson opts for taking the player to ground as the default solution:

If you take the player to ground every time at the tackle, you'll rarely be making a mistake.

"Player and ball," combined with taking the player to the ground in the tackler's control, is usually the ideal. It is also a goal well suited to players of the size and strength of the Fijians: Kitione Tuibua notes that, at the tackle, his players' goal is to keep the tackled player down longer than the tackler:

What we do is this, we tackle a player not only to get him down to the ground, but to increase the time of getting up for him. We want him underneath us; we want to put him down for two seconds, but so that we can be up in half a second.

When a ball carrier has been grasped but not brought down, the next defenders to arrive need to decide whether to go in and help get the ball away from the attackers, or to stay off and play defense. Bob Dwyer on this situation:

If our guy's clearly got the ball covered, if our tackler's clearly got the ball secured, or the ball carrier and the ball secured, then we'll try and drive it. If he hasn't, if he's just got the guy secured, but not his arms, then our guy [second defender] would stay off.

The second defender may, as discussed earlier, get in the passing lanes to keep the ball carrier from clearing the ball; if the ball carrier's arms are free but there's no attacking support in sight, the second defender may come around the ball carrier (if the ball carrier has no teammate in physical support there is no maul, and therefore no offsides) and kill the ball. At that point it probably becomes a situation of who's going forward when the referee blows the whistle.

Facing a 2 on 1

When facing a 2 on 1 near the one's own line, the best play is usually to attack the ball carrier hard and force the attackers to execute the good pass that will give them the try. Eagle Will Brewington adds:

Try to surprise the ball carrier. Hesitate, then attack, fake an attack, or attack quickly before he is comfortable.

When facing a 2 on 1 much further upfield, however, given the speed to stay with the attackers, the best play is usually to turn, get between the two defenders, and play for time until cover support can get over and help, usually by taking the inside attacker. By getting in the proper position, the defender can get in position to tackle the ball carrier, or make the pass to support an extremely difficult one to execute, and still be able to tackle the supporter if the pass is made.

Defense after a turnover

Charlie Wilkinson feels that the most critical defensive moment is immediately after you've turned the ball over to the opponents.

At that moment it's critical that you organize quickly. If you see that you can take out the ball carrier before he can play the ball, go ahead and do it. Otherwise, count immediately and get yourself in the right position with respect to your teammates. It's also important that you communicate to your teammates if they have to move as well. A call for help, for example.