By DR. J. ZIMMERMAN
An old adage in sports is that defense wins games. This saying applies to rugby probably more so than any other sport.
In rugby, possession can change with the drop of a hat, or a team can keep the ball for as long as they can. What doesn’t change with both these scenarios is that defense is constantly working to prevent a score and recover possession of the ball.
I watched a rugby match on TV last weekend. The score was 10-6 with the end of regulation time rapidly approaching. The losing team had the ball and was pressuring to score as the match reached the end of regulation. In rugby, the match does not end because the clock reaches full time. If the losing team can maintain possession of the ball and keep it in play, the clock and the game will keep running until the team with the ball either scores, makes a mistake, causing a penalty or the winning team recovers the ball.
At that point, the winning team will kick the ball out of bounds to stop the clock and end the game.
In this particular match, the losing team kept the ball alive and threatened to score for eight minutes. At the eight-minute mark, they were able crash the line and make the score to win the game.
It was a thrilling end to a very good match. What was also thrilling was to watch the defense hold the offense nonstop for eight minutes, during which 27 phases of play occurred.
In rugby, a phase would be analogous to a play in football. Since the clock and the rugby game doesn’t stop, the phases are continuous and extremely exciting.
But as it would be, the offense found a glitch in the defense and was able to win the match.
Defense wins games. If they were able to hold together for more time and force an error on the offensive side, the team winning at full time would have won the match instead of losing it.
Defense wins games, but defense also loses games. That is why in rugby, defense is so vitally important.
I have repeated the “defense wins games” mantra many times this season to my team, the Jersey Shore Sharks.
There is an aspect of rugby that is not that noticeable in the professional and international matches. That aspect is fitness. Fitness is not noticeable because the players are pros and they take their job seriously. They are fit.
Fitness may be the most important part of defense. Because without fitness, you can’t properly defend.There needs to a sense of urgency in defense that can only be fulfilled with physical fitness.
In addition to fitness, there is also an aspect of rugby that is 100 percent noticeable at any level of the game, be it professional or the local club level from kids to adults.
This other aspect of rugby is also a very important part of defense. This aspect vital to defense is an individual’s bravery or intestinal fortitude (guts). Coaches and players may disagree with me on this, or even take offense (no pun intended) but, offense is the easy part of the rugby match.
Everyone wants a “run” with the ball. And most everyone can catch a ball or pick one up and sprint for a few meters or even half the field without a problem.
Personally, I remember as a player — especially as I got older — that I never minded running with the ball. You have your burst with the ball and your shot at glory and then you took a second to catch your breath.
And, for some reason on offense, I never had a fear of being tackled. The thought never crossed my mind. I later came to the conclusion that being tackled wasn’t so bad because being tackled didn’t hurt (so much). Plus, being tackled was something that happened to you, it was not caused by you.
Defense is a different story. On defense, you have to attack. You have to put your body on the line and go up against another player one on one. You have to tackle, you have to ruck and you have to jackal (ruck and jackal are rugby terms involving fighting for or maintaining possession of the ball).
Tackling can hurt, especially when you don’t do it correctly. Fear keeps a player from tackling. Fear keeps a player from being a good defender. Fear will ruin the defense.
To win rugby games, you have want to tackle, as much — if not more so — than you want to run the ball.
Not only does a player have to want to attack and tackle, but they have to want to be aggressive enough to steal the ball from the opposition or somehow keep them from releasing it, just like a wrestling match.
Offense is easy. Defense is not.
Defense is what takes incredible fitness. Fitness takes training. Tackle after tackle, breakdown after breakdown. Fitness is the key. Lack of fitness makes a player lazy. A player being too tired or too sore to move around the field are the excuses that come with being out of shape and having a lack of match fitness.
In summary, defense winning matches or not winning matches can be broken up into four parts. Three of those parts are mental: 1. Defensive mindset. Having an offensive mindset and only wanting to be an offensive player will ruin a rugby match. Rugby isn’t an NFL football game with two separate teams (offense and defense). We can’t sub players out with every change of possession. Defense needs to be the priority. 2. The tackle. Improper tackling skill is unsafe and leads to fear of tackling. Learning to tackle and overcoming fear of the tackle leads to greater defensive skill. 3. Waiting to be attacked, instead of attacking. On defense, a team has to be proactive and not wait for the offense to get the jump on them.
Lastly and just as important is No. 4: not being fit. Not preparing your body for competition so that you are able to properly defend against an offensive attack.
To be able to come up evenly with your team, to be at the breakdown, to spring up, to get back, to be ready and focused. That is what fitness accomplishes. It also keeps your body from getting injured. The stronger the body, the tougher the joints and muscles, which helps a player’s body handle the physical pounding of not just rugby, but any sport.
A physically fit, ready body gives you the confidence to attack without fear.
Dr. J. Zimmerman is the president of the Jersey Shore Rugby Club Board of Directors. He is the men’s club head coach and director of youth rugby. Dr. J. is also the team chiropractor. For more information on Jersey Shore Sharks Rugby or if you are interested in playing, visit www.JerseyShoreRugby.com or on Facebook at Jersey Shore Rugby Club or call 609-652-6363, email: Jerseyshoresharks@gmail.com.