Saying a competition has been ‘blown wide open’ is usually the type of cliché that should be greeted with a roll of the eyes, such is the insignificance of the event that generally caused the blowing open to happen. With only five rounds of fixtures in the Six Nations, however, one small upset can completely derail the expected course of a tournament that is too often all a bit predictable.
Last weekend, we got two such upsets. I’ll admit I got the predictions for both of those fixtures spectacularly wrong. In 2020, we all rather begrudgingly watched England morph into what seemed to be an unbeatable outfit. Despite how impressive they have looked — both physically and tactically — since their brush with World Cup glory in 2019, Scotland succeeded in making them look like a very ordinary side.
Singing ‘Flower of Scotland’ and the emotion it stirs has all too regularly been the high point of a fixture in Twickenham from a Scottish point of view. This year, it was a sign of things to come. An unapologetically relentless, dogged performance that didn’t offer much in the way of beauty but was exactly what was needed to starve England of the momentum and comfort they thrive on.
One of the more satisfying things in test rugby is seeing an English side that believes its own hype getting turned over by an underdog. And we shouldn’t underestimate how big an underdog Scotland were last week. Were England poor? Yes. Were the conditions bad? Awful. Did Scotland dazzle us with their attacking flair? Not really. The foundation of their victory was a rock-solid defence. There was evidence enough that the Scots may have cracked this element of the game to such an extent that they can compete with any side this year.
When Welshman Steve Tandy took over as defence coach shortly before last year’s Six Nations, it wasn’t greeted with much excitement. Despite only being in the role for five weeks before the tournament began, he had an immediate impact. Scotland finished fourth but that was due to problems on the other side of the ball. They coughed up a miserly 59 points across five games, but only managed to put 77 on the board themselves.
A solid defence is like a pot full of compost. Everyone knows it serves a purpose, but we all focus on what grows out of it. Without a defence that can neutralise the opposition’s game plan, all the creativity in the world won’t get you very far. An inspirational defence coach has an almost unique ability to rally his troops around the cause of protecting the honour of their team. Scoring tries is great, but nothing lifts and cements the morale of a team like battering the opposition’s attack into submission.
I have some first-hand experience of this, having been fortunate enough to work with Jacques Nienaber at Munster. Everyone was in awe at how easily and effectively he cultivated a belief in his system that would rival the DUP’s belief in the Old Testament (and saying no to everything). Getting the defence right was the catalyst for a season that saw Munster win 29 out of 32 ordinary games, something that probably won’t be repeated for a very long time.
France have recently learned how influential a defence coach can be. There is widespread belief that their recent success is a result of Junior World Cup victories and quotas on selecting French players at club level coming to fruition.
While these have played their part, I would put France’s ascent down to one man in particular, Shaun Edwards. Like Jacques, Edwards is notoriously demanding of his players, and such an impressive and relatable character that his men will put themselves through hell to get his approval.
Since Edwards came on board in 2019, France have evolved from a side in disarray to ruthless bullies. Once again, their defence has been the building block for all of it. The perfect illustration of this was the final of the Autumn Nations Cup in December. Watching a second (arguably third) string French pack with hardly any caps between them manhandle their star-studded English opponents was exhilarating, not least because many were predicting the very opposite.
Much like King Leonidas leading his 300 Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae, a defence coach can instil in his players the confidence to rise to any challenge, regardless of how heavily the odds are stacked against them.
Tandy, Jacques, and Edwards all have very simple defensive philosophies. In an age when rugby has become so technical and analysis-heavy, with even the most minor elements of the game having several layers of detail to examine, there is beauty in simplicity.
We shouldn’t confuse simple with easy, however. Simple defensive systems eliminate the need to overthink the task at hand, allowing the player to concentrate on working with manic intent, treating the gain line like the entrance to the family home and the opposition like burglars in the night.
If you put the three defensive systems on paper, they would look very similar; start on the outside shoulder of the man in front of you, accelerate with line speed that straddles the line between controlled and reckless, and hit the guy as hard as you can. And if your buddy has hit someone a couple of metres away, you had better go and help finish him off.
Jacques, rather than being preoccupied with tackle height or technique as many coaches are, had one simple mantra. ‘Sign your f***ing name on his shirt’. In other words, hit him so hard that he remembers your name.
It doesn’t sound like much of a secret recipe, does it? You’re right. It’s not. Nor does it have to be.
When you’re watching this weekend’s Six Nations games, look a little more closely at the body language of the French and Scottish players as they try and shut down their opponents’ attack. Simple, brutal and effective. Exactly how it should be.