It’s time to shine a light on one of rugby’s toughest jobs: defending your own line. This feature first appeared in Rugby World magazine in February

Desperate bodies thrown with targeted ardour. There are few roles in rugby quite like defending your own goal-line. 

And you can understand the need for it in the modern game. By 2 January there had been 414 pick-and-goes in this season’s Gallagher Premiership, from five metres out or closer. The close-range try is as fashionable as it ever was.

The thing about defending under siege, though, is that it is, well, different. So often we talk of ‘defence’ as if it is one catch-all term, as if every defensive set is performed slap-bang in the middle of the park. But get closer to your line and your rearguard acts differently; thinks differently. And it ain’t pretty.

Related: The recent rise of tap-penalty moves in elite rugby

“Firstly, there has to be a team mindset around your goal-line defence,” begins Munster academy boss Ian Costello, once the Wasps defence coach. “You need a trench warfare-type mentality – that you’re prepared to do whatever it takes to stop opposition from scoring. From a team and individual perspective, there has to be huge pride in defending your try-line. For example, the Crusaders didn’t concede a maul try for years.”

The art of goal-line defence

France women defending on their goal-line (Getty Images)

Attitude is a must if you are to (sorry) lay it all on the line. As Costello adds, “A coach I worked with challenges his guys to be the type of player that other players want to defend with.” It could well be the ultimate selfless act.

During last year’s Six Nations, giant France lock Paul Willemse laughed with us about how some might look at a game and say he had a quiet afternoon, while a defence coach and team-mates could be buzzing about him slamming into counter rucks and pulling back someone close to the line – someone who eventually goes on to spill the ball. Those tiny but brutal interventions can add up and help secure a big result.

Heart can go far here. After we ask if a player can be world class on the goal-line, even if they are unheralded for their hits elsewhere, Cell C Sharks coach Joey Mongalo tells us: “It sounds like a very iffy answer but the guys with the most attitude often are the ones who get the most success on the try-line. And so even if their technique is not fantastic, the guys who have that stuff – that attitude of ‘you’re not getting over this line’ – you normally see them rock up on the try-line quite a bit.”

The technique for goal-line defence

Obviously, technique comes into play here as well, though. You can’t rely on aggression and mania alone. For example, Costello lets us in on a little tip he picked up a few years back, telling us that if a defender at the side of the ruck leads with their inside leg, it means the opposition can’t take any easy space.

Diving deeper with us, former Bulls defence specialist Mongalo says: “Most teams want to tackle underneath the ball in general play because they feel like that will stop any momentum. That wouldn’t be too dissimilar on the try-line. So you might have one guy underneath the ball and then one on the ball. That means that you are looking for double hits in that part of the field.

Holding ball up

The Sharks hold up Leinster on the try-line (Getty Images)

“Because if you rely too much on a one-on-one hit, and that hit is weaker or there’s a bit more momentum, it’s likely that a team will score. So I would say somebody hits under the ball and then somebody on the ball. You’re obviously trying to win the momentum battle, to drive the defender back, two bodies on one instead of a one-on-one.

“Further out wide, you wouldn’t mind tracking a defender to make a tackle on a 45-degree angle. But here (on the line) you’d fight to be front-on in the tackle, to get your body literally square in front of the other body. Again, if you don’t get it exactly right, and the try-line is five metres away from you, if there’s any momentum for them or you’re not front-on it will probably lead to trouble. So it’s best to be doing double tackles, and then being front-on in tackles.

“Normally when teams fold around the ruck in defence, further up the field you start with… Call them defenders one, two and three, closest to the ruck. Usually, if a tackle is made, defenders one and two would give way for defenders one and two from the opposite side, to fall into that space next to the ruck.

“When you’re defending on the try-line and the team’s doing pick-and-goes or short plays against you from nine, you’ll probably have your first defender on the openside stay in that position, and have guys fold between defenders two and three. The reason is that if you fold out of that space, and it’s a quick ball, the nine could just take the ball and snipe close to the ruck. But if your first defender is always close to the ruck, and he doesn’t move in that area, then it can stop the next pick-and-go.”

Held up tackle

Hope Rogers of Exeter Chiefs is held up (Getty Images)

No doubt with the inside leg leading, in a nod to Costello – who also says if a three-man tackle can be made instead of the two-on-one hit, even better.

One of the issues, of course, is contact time. Literally and figuratively. Specialist coaches only get so much time a week with units and if there’s a squad like Mongalo’s in Durban, who are fighting hard on three fronts in the United Rugby Championship, Champions Cup and Currie Cup, it’s a hell of an ask to also go through the mincer trying to emulate a five-metre siege weekly.

Ideally, Mongalo says, you want to have a minute or two going through a a goal-line defence set each week. But chances are even if you do it’s with players holding bags. You need to have faith that those players can go berserk on their own lines when it counts.

Frenzy in your goal-line defence

Why do we say ‘berserk’? Well, for all the theory and bonded connections you want as a defensive unit, as Benetton breakdown coach Julian Salvi explains, “More so than anything else, you’re trying to break their chain.”

The former Brumbies, Bath, Leicester and Exeter flanker tells Rugby World that while goal-line defence is different from defending in the midfield, in the perfect world you wouldn’t want it to be. It’s just that the pressure builds. Stances are low. If the attackers can’t roll over your heavy monsters or squeeze past them, they want to quickly cycle through carries until they are hitting into backs, rather than smacking burly forwards.

Related: Rugby World Cup-winning coach calls for ban on mauls

“So if you can disrupt their pick-and-go platform, that goes a long way to solving a lot of the issues,” Salvi adds. “Then you might get your opportunity to get someone onto the ball.

Art of goal-line defence

Taranaki in the NPC Championship (Getty Images)

“And what I mean by breaking the chain is, if you can draw a third or fourth guy towards that breakdown or into that ruck, all of a sudden their natural system or shape they want to get set up gets disrupted. You just want to disrupt that speed of ball, I suppose. If it drags a third or fourth guy in, all of a sudden they’re operating with fewer on their feet and you disrupt what they want.”

Salvi also offers another perspective on this too, having joined Benetton after serving as Exeter Chiefs’ defence coach. During that time, the Chiefs became the poster brutes for tap-and-go penalties close to the try-line. Nice and simple, nice and savage. Big men going direct.

Tap-penalty plays

Since that time a renaissance of tap-penalty plays has come in, with the Bulls of South Africa catching Leinster unawares in their URC semi-final mugging of the Irish outfit. Leinster have since taken that play and evolved it, and in England that didn’t go unnoticed either.

“It’s a new fad in a way!” says Salvi. “You just have to look at the last Premiership final, for instance. Leicester obviously scored off it. They worked on a tap play and they came up with a plan to attack coming back on the short side with a score through Jasper Wiese.

Goal-line defence beware, the five-metre tap is becoming more rewarding for the attacking team.

tap-penalty try

Jasper Wiese scores in the Premiership final (Getty Images)

“At Chiefs it was started a while ago and everyone’s looked at that. Now, the other side is obviously that if you can hold the attacking team up now, that relieves the pressure (with the defending team getting a goal-line drop-out, when previously it was a scrum five metres out for the attackers).

“So it becomes even more important from a defensive point of view to understand those different variations, of what everyone’s doing around the tap.”

Benetton, by the way, have scored a couple of corking tries this season from trick tap plays, five metres out. It’s the latest weapon in our trench warfare. But when it goes wrong, it goes horribly, howlingly wrong. Because you will never get away from the beautiful ugliness of contact at that line.

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