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Boring? It’s boom time in the tryless world of Mike Ford and Shaun Edwards by David Clarke

Boring? It’s boom time in the tryless world of Mike Ford and Shaun Edwards

From The Times
December 10, 2009
John Westerby

While much of the rugby world gnashes its teeth at the shortage of tries that is blighting the game, there is one group of people who may be forgiven a wry smile.

For the game’s defence coaches, the Scrooges whose job it is to stop tries, this could be seen as boom time, with attacking teams consistently struggling to pick a way through carefully constructed defensive systems.

Much of the blame for this season’s sterile rugby has been laid with the new breakdown law, which has denied attacking teams the quick ball they need to prosper. But another common complaint from players is that modern defences have become too strong, that it is harder than ever to find a path to the try-line. So have defence coaches become too good at their jobs?

Leading the case for the defence is Mike Ford, whom Martin Johnson, the England team manager, entrusts with preventing the opposition scoring. Although England scored only one try in three disappointing autumn internationals last month, they conceded only three: two against Australia and one against New Zealand.

“I think the amount of time spent on defence in rugby union is now greater than it has ever been,” Ford said. “When I came into union [from rugby league] with Ireland in 2002, we’d have a team meeting and it was all about attack, nobody would mention defence. In rugby league, defence is the first thing you learn and in training, it’s 50 per cent defence.

“Union has come a long way since then and now, with England, I probably get about a third of training time. A third on attack, a third on defence and a third on the set-piece is about the right split.”

In terms of defence, rugby union was dragged into the professional era by a legion of coaches from rugby league, led by John Muggleton in Australia and Phil Larder in England. Marshalled by Muggleton, Australia conceded only one try in six games when they won the World Cup in 1999, then Larder was Clive Woodward’s defence coach when England triumphed in 2003. Even now, 14 years after rugby union turned professional, defence is still dominated by cross-code coaches.

“I suppose we had a head start,” Ford said. “The joke among us is that none of us defence coaches could tackle when we played. Shaun Edwards, me, Alan Tait [now at Newcastle Falcons], we were all attacking players.

“The difference now is that when Phil Larder came into union, he spent as much time working on tackling technique as organising a defence. Now I get players from their clubs who are defensively sound. These days players are much more savvy.”

The main concern of a defence coach is to develop a system that works for his team. Like a grandmaster organising 15 very large chess pieces, he must decide on a defensive alignment and then make sure his players can reset the system after each phase of play. Ideally, his best defenders will line up opposite the other team’s strongest runners, tackling with their strongest shoulder. Slower players will stay in the middle of the field, with quicker runners out wide.

“The more intelligent coach will adapt his system to the players he has,” Dave Ellis, the France and London Irish defence coach, said. “It’s juggling the players to get them in the right places. You might have left-handed defenders who tackle better on their left shoulder.”

Although there are endless variations, coaches tend to work within three broad frameworks (see graphic). The best defences will use a combination of the three systems. The key is to keep the opposition guessing.

“There’s so much analysis going on now that other teams soon figure out what you’re doing,” Ford said. “So you keep tinkering with your system to counteract that.”

A prime example of this was provided by the blitz system, much in vogue a few years ago after its conspicuous success for South Africa and London Wasps, among others, but it is now used as more of an occasional weapon.

“When it first came in at Premiership level, it was a fantastic idea,” Ford said. “It still has its advantages, but people learn to play against it. I’ve always felt it would get unpicked if you used it all the time.”

It is rare for a team to make dramatic changes to their defensive structures during a game, but the longer a group of players stays together, the better their chances of adapting.

“The vision for England is to be able to change in ten-minute spells, or from set-piece to set-piece,” Ford said. “We’ve got fantastic defenders like Lewis Moody, Joe Worsley and Mike Tindall who can make those decisions. But you need a settled side. We had so many injuries in the autumn.”

For all that, Ford concedes that New Zealand are still setting defensive standards to which England can still only aspire. “I’m forever trying to get people in the right positions after set-pieces or turnovers,” he said. “From No 1 to No 15, they’ve got the skill and athleticism to defend in whichever channel. We’ve got to do that.”

As part of Johnson’s coaching team, along with Brian Smith, the attack coach, and John Wells, the forwards coach, Ford’s brief also extends to assisting the development of England’s attack. Working closely with Smith, he will analyse England’s offensive operations, while Smith applies his attacking nous to Ford’s defence.

So does Ford really enjoy watching a game in which no tries are scored? “Far from it,” he says. “I’m much happier if England win after conceding four tries, rather than losing after conceding none. But the laws are making it easier for defences at the moment. I’m a defence coach, but I really believe that the laws should favour attacks. We all like to see tries.”

Gentlemen of league

The influence of former rugby league players is still strong among defence coaches in the Guinness Premiership and home unions. In this list of coaches with responsibility for defence, an asterisk indicates a former rugby league player or coach Bath Brad Davis* Gloucester Dennis Betts* Harlequins Tony Diprose Leeds Carnegie Simon Middleton* Leicester (no defence coach) Richard Cockerill/ Matt O’Connor* London Irish Dave Ellis* London Wasps Shaun Edwards* Newcastle Falcons Alan Tait* Northampton (no defence coach) Jim Mallinder/Dorian West/Paul Grayson Sale Sharks (no defence coach) Kingsley Jones Saracens Paul Gustard Worcester Warriors Billy McGinty* England Mike Ford*, Scotland Graham Steadman* Wales Shaun Edwards* Ireland Les Kiss*

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