Rugby is a game brimming with jargon, and if you’re a newbie, watching or playing it can feel like you’re back in the first day of a high-school language class at times, such is the volume of unique terminology bandied about the place.
In the last few weeks we’ve taken you through some of the more esoteric language used in the game generally, and on the attacking side, and today we’re going to flip over to the other side, and dissect some of the more confusing bits of defensive rugby speak that you’ll probably hear the announcers mention next time you turn on a match…
There are two primary defensive systems used by modern rugby union teams, and the ‘traditional’ method is known as the ‘drift’. The purpose of the drift defence is to effectively use the sidelines as an extra defender by the defensive team pushing up diagonally, following the direction of the ball’s movement. If done effectively, the ball will eventually end up in a narrow pocket near the touchline with the ball carrier outnumbered by defenders with nowhere to run to. The downside of this is that if the line is broken, there’s a lack of cover.
A more modern development than the drift, the blitz is a term NFL fans will be familiar with and there’s a complicated family tree that leads from rugby union, rugby league and back to American football. In a blitz, the entire defensive line rushes up straight at the attacking line when the ball comes out of a ruck. The idea is to prevent the attacking team gaining any ground by tackling them behind the gain line and forcing rushed passes and kicks. However, the a blitz defence can be vulnerable to chip kicks over the top that exploits the space created by the line rushing up.
The key of an effective blitz defence is good line speed – namely the speed at which a defensive line rushes up to meet the attacking player to make the tackle. The quicker the line speed, the less time the ball carrier will have to make decisions, and the more likely he is to be tackled behind the gain line. Timing is key, because if you go early, the defence will be offside…
The offside line for both attack and defence at a ruck or maul is represented by the back foot of the last man on either side. While neither side are allowed to advance beyond the offside line until the ball is out, the offside line is more usually important for the defenders, who must time their rush up to make the tackle perfectly if they don’t want to concede a penalty.
When an attacking team has won the ball in the ruck, the defending team can attempt to regain possession by forcing the opposing players off the ball. This must be done by players attacking the ruck from directly behind the ruck (as opposed to the side).
A turnover, much like in American football or basketball, is simply the name for the defending team robbing possession from the attacking side. This can be done by steal the ball at a breakdown or ruck, ripping the ball from the ball-carrier’s grip, or winning possession at a maul or scrum.
Much in the same way that an NFL defence can attempt to block a punt, rugby defences can attempt to block kicks from open play (but not penalty kick attempts) – you will commonly see defensive players rushing with arms outstretched towards a player kicking the ball in an attempt to get a hand on it – known in rugby terms as a charge down. Charge downs, particularly in an opponent’s 22, can often lead to tries if the team charging down can gain possession, as there is usually no defence there to cover.
This type of tackle has become increasingly popular in recent years after Ireland enjoyed great success with it, and it gives the defending team a great chance to win a turnover. Adapted from a rugby league tackle, the purpose of the choke tackle is to hit a ball-carrier high, wrap him up to stop him releasing, and them keep him from going to ground (usually with the help of other defenders). If the defenders can hold the man up the referee will usually then call this a maul, and provided the ball does not come out, or the defender does not get to the ground, the referee will award possession to the defending team.
The type of tackle no player wants to have to make, but if he does, he may well be a hero. Despite its name, a tap tackle is a not actually a ‘tackle’ in the technical sense. A tap tackle is used when a defending player is unable to get close enough to the ball carrier to make a normal tackle (often when the player has broken through the line or has evaded the defender) but is able to dive at the other player’s feet and, with outstretched arm, deliver a tap or hook to the player’s feet, causing the attacker to stumble. When a player is running at full tilt, this ‘tap’ will often be enough to cause the ball-carrier to stumble or fall to the ground, allowing cover defenders to come across and make a tackle.