Renowned defence coach Paul Gustard talks us through tactics with players sent off


When it comes to team systems, I have a crib sheet for carte jaune (yellow card) or carte rouge (red card). And for each person that might be carded, I have a response to that. 

When down to 14 players, you can make substitutions in the front row, should you need to, or make tactical changes. You need to adapt what you do in terms of organisation of forwards. So it could be a back-row going into the second row, it could be the tighthead prop throwing into the lineout or a nine throwing at the lineout. If it’s a front-rower that’s been sin-binned then you will be required to bring another one on for the scrum. So how do you adapt?

I have a plan for each position, I have a response for yellow and have a response for red.

14 players

We will see cards at this Rugby World Cup (Getty Images)

So for example if you take a yellow card on nine, everyone moves in one. You might have your ten plays nine, it could be that 12 plays at ten – depending on what type of 12 you have, you might also move the full-back in there to ten on attack. In defence, you might play without nine, without one around the scrum or defend with one less player in the lineout.

But if it was a red card for nine, you’ll probably make an immediate change because nine is such a pivotal position to organise and go from ruck to ruck, and attack. So then we’d have plans for which player to take off.

Attacking while a player down

Generally, I list my plans to have a forward or a back. Then it depends on the context of the game: are we getting beaten up front or are we winning there and need to keep up that stronghold? Or is it a movement game and I need all the backs on the field; is it a kicking game and I need a full backfield on there? For each position, there would be something we need to do for either a yellow card or red card.

After that, there are obviously tactical implications for the team. Do you kick more? Do you run more? Perhaps you need more possession because you keep giving the ball away and you have 14 players in defence now. If ball retention is good and your attack has been functioning, one player less doesn’t really impact your attack too much.

Teams tend to play with a pod system, with a 1-3-3-1 shape. So in that scenario you’d just go to a 1-3-2-1, and you’re 12 who is in behind the second pod in the middle of the field would just go into that ruck. It won’t impact you too much in attack, and of course the width of pass from nine to ten, or nine to first receiver, can often cut out two or three defenders anyway.

Defending with 14 players

Looking specifically at your defensive system with 14 players, if it’s a yellow card we won’t change too much.

We don’t stop getting off the line or rushing. The reason being that it’s difficult to go from one mindset to another. If you go to 13, you might look for more control. You can be a bit more passive; less linespeed. But you still the first defender rushing at their first receiver – the reason being that if you rush someone, they’re more likely to make the pass early, making it easier for the outside to get up and across. If you let them ply to the line, then you all get sat down and a wide pass can beat you.

ALi Price off

Scotland had their nine in the sin-bin against France in August (Getty Images)

Especially on transitional turnover, I really want to get after the ten again. To get them to make a pass early, to create pressure so that numbers down we can move across quicker, rather than them chopping into my line and making the other defenders sit and hold.

So with 14 players you stick to your normal policy. The only caveat is that we’d probably stay out of ruck a little bit.

We’d stay out of rucks, try and keep numbers on their feet, then challenge in the wider breakdowns to get a slower ruck, just to regain our shape and then go harder.

If we go down to 13 players, I’d bring an extra number into the front line and go with more of a pendulum of coverage in the backfield. This is probably the area that’s most challenging because you need to resource the frontline, as teams feel space.

Related: What Is The Sin-Bin In Rugby?

Generally I don’t want anyone to go through us because it’s the hardest thing to recover. If you go around us, good luck to you, because you’re going against our rush. Hopefully against the rush it puts your skillset under pressure. And if you kick behind us, I’m trying to give a full backfield. With 13, I probably have just one player back there and go with a pendulum – so a wing or the nine swinging from side to side.

Defending from a scrum is a lot trickier because of the numbers you need to combat. Because otherwise it’s a penalty and that’s a territorial gain or three points against you. But also you’ve the 50:22 law, and they have numbers, so I’ll try to use the No 8 to work behind the line and try to keep the nine way back to assist, and let the first two passes play before we try to engage again. The general philosophy is to encourage the opposition towards an edge, and then we come off the line again.

Energy levels after you’ve been carded

A real example of this is when England played Argentina in 2016.

Elliot Daly got red carded for a high tackle from a kick in the fourth minute. After that, the tenacity of the group was incredible in terms of defensive cohesion. We held out Argentina for most of the half. We went down to 13 just before half-time, and they had scrums on our line and we had to let them push us over or we could have conceded another card.

We then restarted after the half, kicked long, but Argentina almost ran the length. But we stuck to our resolve. We could have folded but we didn’t. In that scenario you’ll get stretched, you’ll bend, you’re going to get broken. But we had something in us that day. Argentina got more and more frustrated from not being able to break us down and we started getting more turnovers.

14 players

England’s 14 players overcoming Argentina in 2016 (Getty Images)

We were decent winners in the end (England won 27-14) and in the last few defensive sets we were marching them back up the field. It was really impressive stuff. And the important thing is that the more they tried and failed, the more we gained energy. The more excited we became, the more the crowd got behind us. It was one of the best defensive performances I’ve been involved in.

Being down to 14 players in defence doesn’t completely cripple you.

Another example was for us at Stade Français against Racing 92 at home. In the 34th minute they got a red card for a high tackle. We ended up losing that game; we literally couldn’t score. It wasn’t until the last minute we did, to get us a losing bonus point. They played a strong kicking game, turned us all the time, we tried to run and couldn’t get anything.

So I don’t think 15 versus 14 is a death knell. It doesn’t impact attack that much and in defence, it won’t hurt you as much as many suspect it would. You’ve just got to get through some defensive sets to give you confidence. If you get broken early and concede, it can raise the energy of the opposition and you’ll think, “F***, we’re in trouble here!”

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