We talk to the Lions and Scotland assistant coach, and some star players he has worked with, in order to better understand the art of defence
The evolution of Lions defence coach Steve Tandy
IT’S PROBABLY not that a problem shared is an attacker halved – things rarely get delivered so perfectly. And best practice right now likely won’t be so in five years’ time. But to arrive at his coaching philosophy today, Scotland defence coach Steve Tandy has readily sought the counsel of others. In fact, the foundations of his approach seem rooted in dialogue.
So in order to better understand how the British & Irish Lions 2021 may approach defensive work on the upcoming tour of South Africa with Tandy in charge, we pressed the Welshman and some of his defensive charges over the years about his methodology and how that has evolved through time.
To hear the former flanker speak, the journey of a thousand collisions started with a realisation.
“I played in a blitz defence for the Ospreys and then when I was coaching defence there for three or four years, it was still very much about pace, getting off the line and blitzing everything,” Tandy tells Rugby World. “I can remember one day thinking, ‘This takes so much energy.’ You need moments when you can do that, but you need to actually tap off and make everything more efficient.
“Everyone gets into a 1-3-3-1 or a 2-4-2 in attacking shape, for efficiency. So I thought maybe we needed to flip things and look at it a little bit, defensively. For all the roles I was doing at the Ospreys (as head coach), I needed a defence coach so I could do other things and I remember watching Wasps and seeing how efficient their defence was, how smooth.”
This is where the art of conversation comes in.
The Wasps defence coach in 2016 was Brad Davies, who happened to be heading towards the end of his contract. Tandy drove to London to meet him and over a stint in the beer garden (“having a Coke, obviously!”) they chewed over hours of rugby ideas. The spark was evident.
He got Davies in at the Ospreys and the latter’s approach, his detail, impacted Tandy in a way that would vibrate through later years. Well beyond the moment in 2018 when the Ospreys let Tandy go and he was left with a big choice to make.
Admittedly not an adventurous man by nature, the coach did something he had not done previously: he took a risk and opted for a period of exploration away from Wales, heading to Australia for a new challenge with the Waratahs – initially without a financial safety net – when finding work at home would have been the much easier option.
And it is on the other side of that sliding door that we can hear so many chattering voices hailing Tandy. Perspective here, fittingly, is key. But with so many different timelines at play, you need to jump ahead to explain what he learnt then. And we need other narrators.
According to one current Scotland star, when Tandy became the defence coach for the Test side in 2019, his approach to one aspect of their defensive work in particular represented a departure from their previous norm, but one that paid near instant dividends. And it all relates to ‘zonal defence’.
As the Scot explains, amidst a flurry of praise for a no-flyer, no dog-leg, no showboat structure, that “instead of picking out your man to defend, you have a zone that if they come into it, you tackle, instead of trying to make one-on-one reads”.
It is by no means the one principle to rule them all and merely serves here to illustrate Tandy’s changing mindset. But it did, we are told, receive unanimous buy-in from the Scotland players, such was the difference it made.
Now let’s jump back again, this time with Canadian flanker Tyler Ardron, who has such respect for Tandy that he says the coach’s personality was what kept him at the Ospreys for so long, before he headed to Super Rugby himself, with the Waikato Chiefs.
“That is really interesting to hear, because Steve used to really love the outside-in man blitz at the Ospreys,” Ardron tells us. “When we brought in Brad Davis he introduced us to the zonal defence. It is the way all the teams I have been on lately have gone and Tandy obviously used some of what he learned from him and then developed it into his own style.
“Steve’s style of coaching has definitely developed over the years.
“What he did to go to Australia, on his own, and just get back the love of the game is incredible and has clearly paid off. We are still in touch and I talk to some of the guys he coached at the Tahs and they all say the connections he formed stood out to them. To me that shows he was able to grow his rugby knowledge while going back to what had made him so successful in the past and connecting well with the boys.”
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To hear Tandy tell it, he could not have gone on to evolve the Waratahs’ defence without the support of his wife and girls back in the UK, or without then-Tahs boss Daryl Gibson. The former All Black put Tandy up in a ‘granny flat’ and pored over ideas with him. When Tandy said he wanted to try the zonal defence, it was Gibson who put in a shift picking it apart and debating the merits, so when it came to selling the idea to the players, the concept was solid.
It was still hard. Unlearning years of man-marking isn’t done on one sun-baked afternoon.
Kurtley Beale was with the New South Wales side then. He says: “When that was introduced, a lot of guys weren’t really understanding it! But once we understood the ramifications of it, we believed in it. And I think that’s another thing Steve’s good at – how he can get everyone believing in the system.”
Which takes us to Tandy the salesman. Beale believes that Tandy’s greatest skill at the Waratahs was getting players to buy season tickets for his ideology. The Australian side decided to make defence a weapon, to look forward to it, rather than treat it like the ‘work’ part of the job. So players were convinced to relish two-man tackles and work really hard on nailing the ‘fold’ around the ruck, filling in the right personnel in order to go again as a line.
As Beale goes on: “The best thing about Steve was one, he’s such a great bloke. He was very good to get on with and everyone respected him. That in itself is very, very important.
“Number two, he’s able to get guys believing in the system, and then he’s very flexible, to hear different ideas and collaborate with them. He’s able to make sure that the system is intact and strong and people believe in it. I think that’s why Steve Tandy is probably one of the best defence coaches in the world at the moment.”
In his first year with Scotland they conceded the fewest points in the whole Six Nations and shipped their lowest total for 14 years. In 2020, they only let in 59 points but the man himself is modest about it all. He tells you time and again how shy he is. However, when the passion comes through, it blasts a hole.
Tandy bashfully explains that he will bore you to death with coaching philosophies if you want, and he fears that fellow Scotland assistants Mike Blair, John Dalziel and his boss Gregor Townsend have been sent to sleep with some of his detail.
But looking ahead to the upcoming Lions tour, it is the little conversations with players he doesn’t know yet, from England, Ireland and Wales, he is relishing: the impromptu chats at breakfast or in the corridor or on the bus or anywhere else away from the more formalised settings of team meetings or planned rendezvous at the analysis suite.
Our Scotland player explains that no one is ever expected to solve a defensive problem on their own, but also that: “Steve is very good at making his defence principles and what he wants very simple and black and white. He sets his stall out, explains in depth how and why it will work and then answers any questions you have on it.”
In the wider world of elite sport, it is easy to bombard athletes with detail. And there are those coaches who want to prescribe every foot placement, every shoulder dip, every thought. Not Tandy. Not anymore, anyway.
“As a younger coach I’d give players all the detail, because you felt they needed to know all the details,” he says. “You’ve given them everything but a lot of that doesn’t matter.
“Getting different experiences in Australia or Scotland, you realise, ‘I need to unpick all this’ and I think what naturally happens with Super Rugby is you get less time than with regional rugby. Then with Internationals it’s so much less time again.
“If you want players to make decisions, you can’t be overloading them with information. So for me, it was just looking at what information I can strip out. What information really matters to enable them to make the best decisions within the system?
“I’m in rugby because of the people. I love working with people.”
“I think that’s probably a big reflection, but you only learn that by being in different environments, by speaking to different people.
“(Total buy-in is key) and as I always tell everyone, if I speak to other defence coaches, no system is the perfect system. Every system has got its flaws, and it’s okay to see the flaws in your system sometimes. It’s making the team comfortable that there will be a couple of holes, but if you encourage them and they believe in the system and you encourage them to make good decisions that are appropriate for your principles, then you have a real chance to get through that. That’s where a massive thing is connecting with the players.”
This chimes well with what players say. Beale talks about the one-on-one chats on the training field, which he says helped build up his own belief. Our Scotland player says that if you make a good read or put in a good, technical hit, he seeks you out to build you up because you’ve nailed the basics. He can be critical, they say, but if you have a go with the right desire and it doesn’t pay off the coach respects it. Ardron says he can recall many occasions when Tandy was holding a bag so the flanker could work on his technique, after training was done.
But Tandy adds: “If you take away the Tech-Tac (technical and tactical) stuff, try to understand what (players) see and feel when they’re on the field and given them best practice stuff. It’s easy to show them what it doesn’t look like but actually show them what it looks like when they are doing it. I’m a big believer in that sort of positive reinforcement.
“I’m in rugby because of the people. I love working with people. If you can have one little bit to help them be a better rugby player or be there when they need something, that’s great.”
Modest to the last, Tandy is assured that there are aspects of his approach the Lions stars from outside of Scotland will identify with. He is full of praise for coaches like Andy Farrell and Shaun Edwards, who have had big impacts on the defensive work on the international scene for several years.
And when asked if having some ‘Tandy Whisperers’ in the squad, to help proliferate his messages, he is comfortable enough to say he wants elite players from other environments to come to him with questions, to challenge, to seek collaboration and a group understanding.
It’s good to talk.
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