Drift or blitz: what really is the best form of defence?

In the second of our series of tactical analysis articles, we look at the differences between drift defences and blitz defences.

TOKYO, 20 Sep - Attack may be the best form of defence, but in rugby, your defence can be your best form of attack. 

The best defences will not just neutralise an attacking threat: an organised and efficient defensive line can put pressure on the attacking team, forcing them into errors and loss of possession. 

During the Rugby World Cup you will hear commentators talk about drift defences and blitz defences. But what is the difference between the two, and how can you tell which defensive method a team is using?

Drift defence

When an attacker runs into a defender and both go to ground, play enters what is known as the breakdown. At this point, teams compete for possession of the ball.

In order to secure the ball back, the attacking team generally put more players into the breakdown, leaving the defensive team with more men on their feet and in a better position to influence the game.

However, if the attacking team can recycle that ball through several phases and move play across the field, forcing tackle after tackle and taking more players out of the game, the defence is pulled out of shape and may eventually struggle to match up the number of attackers on either side of the breakdown.

If the attacking team has seven players on the far side of the breakdown and the defensive team only has four, we would call that a three-man overlap.

Any overlap is hard to defend unless you employ the drift defence. As the name suggests, each defender drifts on to the attacker to their outside once a pass is made. As the defenders drift so they reduce the overlap.

In this example, Japan have four defenders and Scotland have five attackers. Look at how the defenders drift towards the far touchline as Scotland attack that way and Ayumu Goromaru makes a fantastic tackle to push Tommy Seymour into touch.

Blitz defence

In a blitz defence a defensive line rushes forward at speed to reduce the amount of space - and time - the attacking team has.

When attackers are hurried they make errors and do not have time to execute their planned defence-breaking plays.

Such pressure increases the chances of an attacking player being isolated and forced to turn over possession by being tackled without team-mates around him to secure the ball in the breakdown, or by kicking the ball away. 

In this example, Uruguay have a set defensive line and they sprint straight out to close down the space Wales have.

They make the tackle behind the gain line and get the turnover when Romain Poite blows his whistle to signal that Wales have been holding on in the ruck.

If an attacker is tackled behind the gain line it is much harder for his supporting players to run backwards and secure the ball. That is why stopping the attackers behind the gain line is such a key part of defending.

Key points

  • When teams are defending overlaps, look for them to drift across the pitch, conceding metres but preventing the attack from running in unopposed.
  • Where there is no overlap, look for teams to try and get into the face of the attackers quickly. If a defensive team can consistently get out of the blocks and close down the space in front of them we say they have good line speed.
  • Teams will switch between the blitz and drift defences depending on the situation they see in front of them. Try and see whether you can predict what the defence will do.

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RNS sl/rl/bo