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Analysis: The risk-reward of Shaun Edwards' linespeed defence with France

The French have started the Six Nations strongly in defence but there are potential weaknesses to be exploited.

THE INFLUENCE OF Shaun Edwards as France’s defence coach has been illuminating in the opening two rounds of the Six Nations.

Heading into the first bye weekend of the championship, Les Bleus are ranked first for turnovers won (17), first for dominant tackles made (54) and third for tackle success (89%).

The trademark Edwards blitz defence has an impressive track record of delivering trophies for well over a decade now and early indications suggest that France are primed to be the latest beneficiaries.

frances-defence-coach-shaun-edwards-222020 Edwards has had a fine start as defence coach with France. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The implementation of Edward’s new defensive system has been significantly aided by the emergence of a new generation of French players who look athletic, coachable and motivated to continue the winning habits of their underage international careers. 

The first two statistics mentioned above are indictive of the aggressive nature of France’s new-found defensive linespeed. The system is predicated on work rate, demanding that defenders sprint off the line, make dominant two-man tackles over the gainline, and either force the turnover or slow opposition ruck speed so that the cycle can start again next phase. Rinse and repeat. It’s simplistic by design, which is often the strength of a successful defensive system.

This article will analyse the merits of the defensive system, the demands it places on specific players, and one area of weakness that has been apparent in the first two rounds. 

Stifling the opposition

The suffocating linespeed denies opposition attackers time and space between the two 15-metre channels and sinisterly offers the allure of space on the edges.

The flawed strategy against the system is trying to find that space by having deep attacking alignment and wide passing patterns to go around the defence before going through it. Whilst such an attacking shape places high demands on the last two defenders in the system, which we will also discuss, it predominantly plays to the strengths of the Edwards framework.

Italy started the game in the Stade de France last week with exactly this tactic and found themselves 13-0 behind after 10 minutes and were it not for the wayward boot of Romain Ntamack (1/4 off the tee), France could have been out of sight.

The image below is from the opening minute of the game and gives a good visual of France’s set-up.

Antoine Dupont is set as third defender and is responsible for the first Italian attacker, whether this be Dean Budd (blue) or Tommasso Allan (red).

Picture 1

Gael Fickou at fourth defender is set to adjust on Allan if Dupont gets checked by Budd, otherwise, his man is Braam Steyn.  

Arthur Vincent nominates Jayden Hayward (yellow) while Teddy Thomas is charged with closing on the second last attacker, Luca Morisi (white).

As I’ve already mentioned, a premium is placed on the last two defenders in the system to have the capacity to cover a huge amount of distance and also make good reads. I’ve visualised capacity by displaying the metres travelled, whilst from a decision-making perspective, the complexity is being able to close on the appropriate attacker while the ball is in the air. At this stage, it is also important to note that the Edwards defensive structure will often leave the last attacker unmarked in the 15-metre channel.

With the allure of space on the edge, Italy attempt to transfer the ball there by utilising a deep attacking alignment. Vincent reads the cues very well and lands on Hayward man-and-ball while Thomas is loaded to tackle the second-last attacker.

Picture 2

Vincent’s defensive action pushes the Italian fullback to the inside where he is met by Dupont as an assist tackler.

The diminutive scrumhalf dominates the collision and instigates a counter-ruck with the assistance of François Crois, leading to France’s first turnover with the game not even a minute old.

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The clip also highlights the importance of the assist tackler in the defensive system.

Whilst adding dominance to the collision and preventing the offload is the primary role, a second action is then required whether this be to counter-ruck, jackal or reload in the defensive line.

For aggressive linespeed to be effectively implemented, either the opposition ruck speed needs to be slow or adequate numbers must be in the line.

Three minutes later and Italy persist with a similar attack structure. This time Gregory Alldritt and Dupont are the key defenders, marking Allan (yellow) and Carlo Canna (white), respectively.

Picture 2

The positioning of Dupont highlights the modern-day approach of utilising the scrumhalf in the defensive line to plug holes, make tackles, force turnovers and pressure opposition kickers.

Despite Italy’s numerical advantage, a lack of deception and the willingness of Alldritt and Dupont to get off the line shuts the threat down and this time it’s the number eight’s turn to land man-and-ball on an Italian attacker and produce another dominant tackle.

Picture 1

Forcing a ruck ten metres behind the gainline leaves Italy with few attacking options other than to kick long to France next phase. Another win for Edward’s defence.

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It was very apparent from the opening exchanges in this game that there was already a belief and excitement in the defensive system from the French players.

A pragmatic approach to the opening quarter based on a strong kick chase and aggressive defence was yielding big gains.

One of the implications of a high linespeed defence is the athletic demands it places on players, particularly in the wider channels. This is why the metres covered are visualised in the graphics.

The first two examples were from very early in the game against Italy. It’s now worth looking at a clip from the England game which is much later into proceedings.

England have a deep alignment, similar to that of the Italians, albeit the sophistication of their attacking shape is far more advanced.

Regardless, France are loaded with Virimi Vakatawa marking Owen Farrell (yellow) and Vincent Rattez responsible for the second last attacker, Elliot Daly (white).

Picture 1

Crucially in this instance, Rattez has not been able to close quickly enough which affords Daly the opportunity to catch and pass to Jonny May, the spare England attacker on the edge.

Whilst it could be argued there was a degree of surprise to the play as Farrell is the normal receiver of the pass from George Ford in this shape, Rattez is still responsible for making the read and to be in position to make the tackle as Daly receives the pass.

Picture 1

Despite the system error, it still requires a world-class finish from May to score the try and bring England back into the game.

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Whilst this is an individual error in isolation, energy systems are most definitely stressed utilising this defence and there have been signs of French players fatiguing in the later stages of both games.

Area of weakness

While France are topping the tables across multiple defensive metrics, interestingly they have also conceded the second-most tries (5) after two rounds which will be a source of frustration for Edwards.

Having illustrated how the defensive system thrives against a certain profile of attack, it is now worth looking at a potential area of vulnerability.

“Earn the right to go wide” is commonly used in rugby parlance but is very relevant when analysing how to try and exploit an Edwards defence. A direct approach needs to be taken with smart angles of running to isolate defenders and turn one of the system’s strengths into a weakness.

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A by-product of employing a hard umbrella-style defence is that it causes a disconnect between the ball defender and the defender on his outside. The outside defender is obliged to continue to move forward, apply visual pressure and also make the tackle if the ball is transferred to his opposite man.

This creates a big responsibility on the ball defender to make his tackle, as while he will have support from his inside, there will be no bailout if he misses on his outside shoulder with a linebreak almost certain. At least in a connected defensive line, the ball defender has the comfort of assist tacklers either side of him.

Tellingly, midway through the game last weekend, the Italians ditched their initial attacking plan and went to a far more direct strategy.

Italy had only thrown one pass in each of the previous 12 phases leading up to this example, as they sought to go through France as opposed to around them. On phase 13, Allan decides to pull the trigger and receives a link pass from Jake Polledri. Dupont has read the play well and is in a good position to make the tackle on Allan while Thomas has continued to press forward as per the system.

Picture 1

However, Dupont’s technique is poor and he is shrugged off by the Italian flyhalf.

Despite his hunt defender covering across and making the tackle, Thomas on the outside has no ability to jam and therefore Allan can get the offload away to Hayward which is the key to the Matteo Minozzi try.

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Having the ability and vision to play flat at the line with multiple attacking threats or late arriving players is another way to exploit such disconnects in the defensive line.

In the next image, George Ford has identified the separation between Paul Willemse and Ntamack and delays the release of his pass with three options outside him.

Picture 1

Courtney Lawes and Jonathan Joseph would be the traditional targets here and realising this, Ntamack has tried to cut off the pass.

However, Ford has the skill and subtlety to play late and put Charlie Ewels through the gap.

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Below, we get another good image of the fracturing French defence.

Tom Curry has presented outside Willi Henz in a traditional position which Vakatawa as ball defender has recognised and immediately disconnects with his inside defender, Jefferson Poirot, to apply pressure on Curry.

Picture 1

The English scrum-half has recognised the separation between the two defenders and delays the pass perfectly to the late-arriving George Kruis.

Once Vakatawa has committed to Curry it is impossible for him to make the adjustment which leaves a big gap for the lock to go through and he is unlucky not to score.

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Like any defensive system, the Edwards framework has its risks and rewards.

It will be fascinating to see if the man from Wigan can help to deliver France a Six Nations title for the first time in a decade.

About the author:

Eoin Toolan  / Professional rugby coach and performance analyst

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