Defense wins championships. Over the years, prominent coaches have said so, but how is this applicable to our game of rugby?

First, let¹s review why defense is so pivotal. With the advent of professionalism, the game of rugby has evolved greatly over the last decade.

Defensive strategies have become more and more sophisticated with the influx of cross-over athletes and coaches from rugby league. In rugby league, defenses have been emphasized and scrutinized for decades. The cross-over personnel have produced a new emphasis on being able to stop attacking teams from advancing the ball.

Additionally, there has been a lot of conversation within international circles about various defensive schemes that are being employed such as the slide, drift and rush defences. Little has been said about the skills required to be a good individual defender within these systems.

I contend it will not matter what defensive scheme a team employs if the individuals in that scheme are poor tacklers. It seems such a straightforward principle, yet many teams fail to appreciate that individual tackling skill is required to be successful.

The first and most important factor to being a good tackler is technique.

Rugby is a contact sport, not a collision sport. The technical difference between an American football tackle and a rugby tackle is that you must wrap your arms around the ball carrier when in the act of tackling in rugby. In football, this seldom happens. More often, you see players launch themselves at the feet or legs of the opposition. Wrap? Football players think that is something you eat. Needless to say, there is coaching work to be done with American football players who take up rugby to prevent injuries due to poor tackle technique.

Safe and effective tackling technique includes having your head up and behind the ball carrier¹s legs, not across the front of the attacker.

Once you have learned and trained safe and proper tackle technique, (head up, head behind), we need to confirm that we are tackling using a strong wrap technique (using our arms) at or just below the ball carrier¹s waistline. To accomplish this, the tackler has to be able to move their feet to be able to put themselves in the position to make a safe and effective tackle.

Technically sound defenders are the building blocks of any defensive strategy. This gives rise to another coach’s favorite: a team is only as good as it’s weakest link.

Tom Billups has been involved with rugby in the U.S. since picking up the game in college. He is currently the coach of Cal Rugby along side Cal head coach, Jack Clark.  Prior to joining the Golden Bears, Billups coached and played for the U.S national team, the Eagles.  In the club ranks, Billups has played with Old Blues from Berkeley, California as well as professionally for Wales’s Pontypridd and London’s Harlequins in the late 1990s.