Ospreys vs Munster: Defensive Line Speed And How To Check It

Andrew Bishop - the key to the Ospreys' line-speed and defense against Munster

The Ospreys’ quick line-speed in defense severely hampered Munster’s attack for the greater part of the match. Sean Holley and Scott Johnson have done an extremely good job with the region over the last six months; they’ve shed some seriously talented but somewhat egotistical players in Mike Phillips, James Hook and Lee Byrne, and in the recent past have been operating with a number of important players unavailable due to injury.

When the on-pitch talent is reduced, you get a much clearer picture of who is doing a good job from the coaching perspective. Great players can make things happen on the pitch out of very little, whereas good players are far more reliant on a structured game plan and recognizing situations they have seen on the training park.

Now, the Ospreys still had plenty of experienced internationals in the side – Duncan Jones [57 Welsh caps], Jonathan Thomas [67 Welsh caps] and Ian Gough [64 Welsh caps] all started in the pack – but Wales’ international fixture the same day clearly showed that none of those players are vital fixtures in Warren Gatland’s team. And, as mentioned in yesterday’s match report, that was essentially the same squad that Munster sent out against Castres in the Heineken Cup a couple of weeks ago.

Even allowing for some topsy-turvy refereeing, the key element of the game was the Ospreys’ defense. There were a lot of similarities with the defensive performance that Wales showed against Ireland in the quarter final of RWC11: ball carriers were hit low, or were hit with two tackles almost simultaneously, one chopping the player down around the legs and the other looking to prevent the offload.

A defense built on 2 vs 1 tackles can look impregnable if you don’t vary your gameplan well enough, or if you play exactly the same way for 80 minutes. It’s especially difficult to beat if you just use your forwards one-out or ship the ball across your back line.

However, from a theoretical viewpoint, if they’re tackling the ball carrier 2 vs 1, there’s got to be space somewhere else on the pitch. How can you

  • find that space?
  • exploit it?

1] Chips & grubbers – if the defensive line is rushing up very quickly in midfield, they’re going to leave space between the three-quarter line and the fullback. A chip over the top for a blindside winger and centers to chase uses that space, and even if it doesn’t pan out perfectly, it still puts some doubt in their defense. If they’re rushing up, it’s going to take them that second longer to turn and get back to the ball.

Think of how often Dan Carter used it as a tactic in the opening stages of the World Cup: opposition defenses knew they had to get up on Nonu/Williams/Smith before they got in stride or shipped the ball on, and to counteract this quick rush, Carter dropped or dribbled ball behind them to get them second guessing.

2] Fake line – as Conor O’Shea consistently alluded to in his color commentary, using a screen of dummy runners/amblers in front of the pass creates momentary confusion about who’s supposed to pick up whom in defense, while also giving the extra depth that allows players to build up speed without as much fear of being smashed behind the gainline.

3] Go around the corner – pick and gos at the base of the ruck, backfoot pick-ups [where a player almost beyond the ball scoops it up from his back foot and goes right through the middle of an empty ruck] and the old George Gregan inside pop [scrum half runs wide to drag the defense near the ruck wider and then leaves the ball behind him in the air for a forward coming from depth] all have the same goal: to try and get attacking forwards in behind the ruck/breakdown.

Munster started doing this after O’Connell came on in the build-up to that farcical series of scrums on the Ospreys line. True, there wasn’t a huge amount of variation in the tactics, but if you’re not going from one-out, you’re not providing targets to line up and hit. A guy at the base of the ruck can go open or blind; a guy standing one-out on the openside is providing a focal point for the defense. If you get in that space behind the ruck, the entire back line has to retreat, and its far more difficult to generate the same cohesion and speed from a retreating back line than it is from a static, well-organised one.

4] Maul it – and not just off line outs. If you have a big carrier in the back line like ex-rugby leaguer Will Chambers, use him closer in to the pack and get him to try and stay on his feet in the tackle, then maul him forward. The opposition either have to contribute men to the maul or else just watch it while it takes yards out of them and forces their back line to retreat, killing their line speed, as outlined above.

5] Offloading in the contact – if they’re tackling low [and thus negating the above tactic], offload from the tackle to a supporting player rather than forming a ruck. Obviously this requires both personal skill to pull off, co-ordination with your fellow players so that there’s actually somebody coming on to the ball and judgment so that you’re not giving 50-50 passes, but after all, these players are professionals.

Munster’s inability to recognize how to defeat what was a very good Ospreys defense was the deciding factor in the match. There were obviously other contributing factors, but in the coaching stakes, you’d have to say it was Holley/Johnson 1 – 0 McGahan/Foley/Holland.

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