Line speed, pillar, kick chase … these are all phrases commonly used in today’s game when referencing defensive plays.
While it is impossible to pinpoint the origins of the jargon, there’s a good chance the words were first uttered by one of the Rugby League defence coaches who crossed over when rugby union went professional.
In those early years, imports from the 13-man code helped shaped the way rugby union would be played, with a watertight defence essential to achieving success as players got fitter and stronger and the battle for the gain-line more intense.
Australian John Muggleton was the first to blaze the trail in 1998, and plenty of others have followed him since, most notably Shaun Edwards.
“I was the first full-time defensive coach in rugby union. I met Rod Macqueen, who was at the Brumbies at the time, so I was employed there to work with him. When he became Wallaby coach after the demise of Wayne Smith after a big loss in South Africa, he called me, and as of 1998, I was defence coach with the Wallabies.”
A Rugby League player with Parramatta Eels and New South Wales, Muggleton had some previous experience coaching rugby union before his Wallabies appointment, acting as a consultant for Sydney-based Gordon RFC.
Whether there or later on at the Brumbies and the Wallabies, Muggleton always found the players he worked with receptive to his new ideas and ready to buy into his defensive structures.
For Muggleton, the initial challenge was getting players to be disciplined in their defensive roles.
“There was a lot of disconnection,” he stated. “Even in future years, I’ve called it ‘the domino effect’, where one person would make the decision to charge out of the line and try and stop the attack and put all his team-mates into a position that they hadn’t been in before, and they didn’t know how to react.
“So the first thing we did we looked at the rugby union pattern of positions. The first player next to the ruck, we called the pillar, because that’s what he was called in Rugby League at the time. We stabilised that area, and it worked well for us for a couple of years until that test in Sydney, in 2000, when the All Blacks cut us to pieces.”
By then, though, Australia had won a second Rugby World Cup with a system that was nigh on impregnable.
The meanest defence the tournament has ever known only conceded one try in six matches, and the name of the US Eagles player to ruin the Wallabies’ clean sheet will forever be stuck in Muggleton’s mind, even if he wasn’t present in person in Limerick to see the 55-19 win.
“I wasn’t there, I was off scouting. Wales were playing Samoa that same weekend, and I was down watching it live because one of them would be our opponent in the quarter-finals,” he explained.
“It was one of those things, when I watched the footage back, our winger went up and tried to take the outside centre, causing the domini effect I mentioned, and they were smart enough to go over unmarked.
“Grobler, his name was, no-one forgets him; he became a bit of a superstar after that.”
Australia restricted Romania and Ireland to four penalty goals between them in their opening two games. Following the USA match, they beat Wales 24-9 and then South Africa 27-21 (AET) – again with no tries conceded – to reach the final.
“We’d been at it for three years and didn’t have anything new as a defensive pattern, as such, but we did tweak a few things with regard to who we played,” said Muggleton, about his team’s pre-tournament preparation.
“Over the previous couple of years England, the All Blacks and South Africa, in particular, wanted you to go high (in the tackle) because that would enable them to drive in behind, get across the advantage line and go further and further upfield. So we went into a low-tackle focus. If you chopped them, often their support over ran or they went to ground, particularly the big blokes, and you’d be able to contest the ball on the ground.
“Blokes like Toutai Kefu, David Wilson, Matt Cockbain and Owen Finegan, they were all good on the ground and would go in and try and steal the ball or slow it down to give us a couple of seconds to get our defensive line in shape.”
Rewriting the script
In the Cardiff showpiece against France, Les Bleus were prevented from producing the sort of attacking rugby that stunned the All Blacks in the semi-finals.
A side boasting class individuals like Emile Ntamack could not find a way through the green and gold defence and only had four Christophe Lamaison penalties to show for their efforts in a 35-12 defeat.
The unpredictability of the French had caused Muggleton to do extra homework in the build-up.
“I watched their semi-final against New Zealand and, at half-time, I had to turn most of my notes around. My attacking notes on New Zealand (who threw away a 24-10 lead to lose 43-31) became France’s defensive notes and my defensive notes on New Zealand became France’s attacking notes,” he revealed.
“We really had to make sure we stopped the offload, getting them to ground as quickly as possible, and secondly, we had to work that extra metre or two to close the space and make sure the ball was dead.”
Muggleton, 60, stayed with the Wallabies until 2008 before serving as Georgia’s assistant coach at RWC 2011.
Not surprisingly he believes in the old adage, defence wins you Rugby World Cups.
“If you have a look at the tradition of World Cups, there is a million points scored in the rounds, a couple of hundred in the quarter-finals, because there are usually one or two mismatches, but in the semi-finals and final, games are normally won on defence.”
That was true again in 2003, when former Great Britain Rugby League head coach, Phil Larder, was the brains behind England’s dominant defence.
“The guys who have been successful are the ones who have taken the time to study the game and adapt to rugby (union) rather than bringing a Rugby League defence,” Muggleton added.
“Rod made it clear from day one that we’d have a rugby defence, not a League one.
“There are different types of tackles in rugby you’d never make in League. If you were standing on your line in League, you’d never get a 120kg prop peeling off the side with two 120kg team-mates locked onto his backside trying to drive him over. Doing a high hit, wrestle-style tackle just wouldn’t work. The games are different.
“Phil Larder and I were the first two who’d done it and been successful. Not every Rugby League bloke has been successful and there have been plenty of us; it’s been a bit of a cottage industry.”