It was Napoleon who was first recorded as saying he that he knew a battle would be won or lost by the degree of resolve shown by his troops in the periods of the fray when they had to defend, as opposed to when they were ordered to attack.
Rugby, we know, is war without guns and cannons. It is physical confrontation, first and foremost, and he who is not resolute in the physical showdowns is lost. A willingness to attack and the skill to offload in the tackle is what scores you tries and in the long run makes you a winner of competitions as opposed to also-rans, but deadly attack cannot happen if it is not underpinned by steadfastness on defence.
It is not being negative to say that in sport you first and foremost have to shore up your defence, you have to become a fortress and, quite literally, have the mindset of refusing to let the opposition score. It is as much a basic premise of soccer than it is of rugby. The trouble with both sports is when a team does not embrace the need to attack once they have sorted out their defence.
English soccer, and indeed the national team of that country, for too many years were too conservative in focusing solely on defence and hoping that the odd breakaway attack would win them the game.
It is why soccer teams such as Argentina, Germany and Spain have won the trophies in recent years while a team like England seldom advances beyond the quarter-finals.
And in rugby it is why the All Blacks are sweeping all before them. You can’t score against them and then once they have absorbed your pressure, they cut loose in the last 15 minutes with ruthlessly efficient attack and annihilate you. Because they can … How many games in recent years, especially against the Boks at Ellis Park, have the Kiwis been behind only to win emphatically with a brace of tries in the dying minutes…?
It is not being negative to say that defence must be the initial priority. It is the foundation. And, in fact, you cannot attack with long-term ambition if you do not have the springboard provided by a solid defence.
Over the two decades of Super Rugby, there is ample evidence to support this contention.
The Hurricanes, Highlanders and Chiefs of New Zealand have historically illustrated the point. Those Kiwi teams for some 15 years of this competition naively believed that their maverick attacking play made them above the basic dictum that defence separates the men from the boys.
The Hurricanes, probably more than any other team, have illustrate that profligacy on attack and a secondary commitment to defence adds up to also-ran status.
Going back to the days of superstars such as Christian Cullen and Tana Umaga, the Hurricanes revelled in scoring memorable tries emanating from deep within their half with their devil-may-care approach.
And they were hugely entertaining, as were the Highlanders, Chiefs and also the Blues. But the bottom line was that those teams ultimately lost more games than they won while their more pragmatic countrymen, the Crusaders, monotonously won titles.
Which brings us to the Sharks … The Crusaders won 19-14 at Kings Park last week, their relentless attack ultimately prevailing over the magnificent defence and scrambled attack of the home team.
Almost a year to the day, the Crusaders had been back in Durban and hoping to emulate their 42 point win in 2015.
In that year, the Sharks were hopeless on attack and quite obviously the same on defence. This year the attack had not advanced, but the fortitude in the tackle mean that the result was in question going into the final ten minutes.
As coach Gary Gold said as the dust was settling on the result: “I am extremely positive because I know I have a team that is exuding character. As a coaching staff we can work with that. The players have the right attitude and that means we have the principle ingredient with which to craft something special. It was not like that last year.”
By Mike Greenaway
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