Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

All Blacks: A defensive platform

Few teams can handle the All Blacks' defensive qualities. Photo / Getty Images
Few teams can handle the All Blacks' defensive qualities. Photo / Getty Images

Offence sells tickets but defence wins championships goes the famous truism from the NFL. It will find increasing resonance in rugby circles this year.

While many like to focus on the All Blacks' range of attacking options, it is their formidable defence that has been one of the keys to success in recent times. The All Blacks barely had their line crossed in the 2010 Northern Hemisphere tour, and were equally miserly during last year's Tri Nations.

In last week's Tri Nations test against the Wallabies, the All Black defence was again impressive before the Wallabies ran in two tries; when the test was effectively over.

Defence will only become more important in 2011, with the World Cup to be played during New Zealand's 'rainy season' in September and October. World Cup finals are never tryfests - no team has scored more than two tries in a final since 1987, and the last five deciders have yielded a grand total of five tries.

Renowned defensive specialist John Muggleton says a combination of science and simplicity lies behind the All Blacks' defensive dynamism. Muggleton was Wallabies defence coach for their successful 1999 campaign, when John Eales' men famously conceded only one try in the entire tournament. He remained in the role until 2007, helping to plot the 2003 semifinal win over the All Blacks, and masterminding several other transtasman wins.

"The All Blacks have a very simple and effective defensive technique and everybody has bought into it," says Muggleton, who will be Georgia's defence coach at the upcoming World Cup. "Simple defensive techniques are always much better than trying to be too complex. There are some teams at the moment that are trying to be too fancy, but they eventually get worked out. Also, if it is complicated, there are more decisions to be made and more chances of a mistake."

Muggleton says that one of the keys to the All Blacks' system is the width they allow between defending players.

"They don't get too tight in the field. They are comfortable in width and confident about having a space in between themselves. If somebody runs between two players with width, everybody closes on that hole - you actually get a close from outside and inside. If there is a small offload, the receiver is going to get hit. If he doesn't offload, then the attacker will have two players coming at him and they often get really good hits. The first defender goes in with the shoulder, then the second defender comes in and drives and then they really hit the ruck."

Muggleton adds that if the second player in can't get near the ball, then he attacks the clean-out players and tries to disrupt the ball. Then a third and fourth player goes in there to try to get their hands on the ball.

"It is all about invading that space past the ball to allow the next players to come in," says Muggleton. "The All Blacks and the Crusaders have always done this and what you are seeing is a reflection of the role that Wayne Smith has taken back on defence instead of Graham Henry. It is around ripping in and blowing players away."

Former Waratahs assistant coach Scott Wisemantel is also an admirer of New Zealand's defensive patterns.

"Their decision making at the contest is best practice," Wisemantel says. "And that is the key area for detail now. The All Blacks' first tackler goes in low, with the second on the ball while the others read the dominance of the tackle. Obviously the second man and the tackler must release, but they fight to get on their feet and take space past the ball. The third and fourth defenders read this situation and are very good at making correct, quick decisions on whether to flood in or pull out."

Wisemantel adds that the All Blacks' defensive dominance is also a reflection of the lack of quality attacking from most teams they come up against, with many relying on one-out runners and attacking too laterally - failing to commit defenders.

"A good attacking marker versus the All Blacks is the amount of one-on-one shots you get in attack," says Wisemantel. "Often they are very few but the more the better as it pressures them and eventually you will break them down."

Muggleton has his own theories about nullifying the All Black offensive threat: "Teams need to make sure the All Blacks don't get quick ball and really attack that area," he says. "It is also important to play a lot of set pieces because they are so dangerous off broken play.

"If you stop the scoreboard ticking over, they get a bit frustrated. That's what we saw in the 2003 semifinal and in Melbourne in 2006 [when Australia won 20-15].

"Their whole life they have seen the scoreboard tick over constantly, even with penalties. They are used to constantly stretching their lead. But if you keep them in range, the pressure goes the other way because they are the ones used to getting ahead."

- Herald on Sunday

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