Brendan Venter, who spent most of the 1995 Rugby World Cup final on the bench before replacing James Small, watched a replay of the final just the other day. He was astounded by what he saw.
“The guys scrambled helluva well, they were courageous and hard-working,” said the former London Irish and Saracens man. “But there were no discussions or drills about defensive alignment in those days – you just went out and played. I could give you countless examples of defensive mistakes in that game but the guys compensated by working for each other.”
Twenty years later and defensive philosophies are the cornerstone of the modern game. Whether it’s the drift defence, the pressing defence, (sometimes known as the banana defence) or the rush defence, the game has become more cerebral, more tactical and more enriched by the defensive philosophies of rugby league.
“The first thing to note with defence is that teams have to defend as a unit, otherwise it doesn’t work,” says Pieter Rossouw, the former member of the Bulls coaching staff fondly remembered as “Slaptjips” from his playing days with the Stormers and Springboks.
“Within that, there are also individual moments – being brave and not missing your tackle, standing up in the collisions – so the one-on-one moments count as well. It’s also important, of course, to keep your discipline and get the basics right – first phase lineout defence and first-phase scrum defence when you don’t have the ball.”
Of all defensive orientations, the most high risk is arguably the pressing or inside-out defence, perfected this Super Rugby season by the Brumbies. The high risk nature of this philosophy comes from the defensive wing and outside centre closing off the space from the outside, leaving space behind them for grubbers and tactical kicking (although of course, for the attacking team this means surrendering the ball); the breakdown also becomes more contested than usual because the attacking side tend to get bogged down in a congested midfield, making the battle on the floor absolutely vital.
The pick ‘n go can also be a useful way to attack the side operating a pressing defence because they could be vulnerable to attacks through the middle after their first wave of defenders attack the breakdown, although the pick ‘n go doesn’t always find favour with the purists.
Whatever the preferred form of defensive orientation, all the pundits canvassed were in agreement that it is defence that wins World Cups.
Venter pointed out that in 1995, the best attacking team in the competition (All Blacks) met the best defensive one (Springboks) and it was the Boks who won. Who, for instance, will ever forget Joost van der Westhuizen’s midfield heroics against Jonah Lomu, or Japie Mulder doing likewise against the thundering Kiwi wing.
Along with the tireless Springbok forwards, the bravery displayed in neutralising Lomu defensively was one of the reasons why South Africa won their inaugural World Cup. There is no reason to believe it will be notably different at this year’s World Cup.