Analysis: Leicester’s defensive struggles

Date published: November 1 2016

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Our resident analyst returns to examine where Leicester’s defence is going wrong so far this season.

Leicester are sitting in the final play-off position in the Premiership. This is roughly the position that many would’ve expected them to finish at the start of the season.

However, they have conceded an average of 23.3 points per game which puts them third from bottom by points allowed. That figure rises to 24.7 when the Champions Cup games are included. Since 2005/6 Premiership season, no team that has allowed the least points have ever finished lower than sixth in the league.

In fact, in the last four years, the team that have allowed the least points have finished either first or second at the end of the regular season. In that same time, the Tigers have finished in the top four in all seasons, their defensive record reads; 2nd, 6th, 4th, 8th and this year they sit in 10th.

The poor performance in the last two years has resulted in the sacking of defensive coach Scott Hansen early in October. Against Glasgow, in the opening match of the Champions Cup, the Tiger’s defence was consistently found out.

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Their fringe defence was a particular area of concern, the above example is in the build up to the first try. The A defender, red, is Graham Kitchener, B, orange, is Dan Cole and C, green, is Ellis Genge.

When Henry Pyrgos picks up the ball and runs across the pitch he is no longer Kitchener’s responsibility. If Kitchener follows him then Pyrgos can pop the ball back inside and score an easy try. Cole steps up and prevents Pyrgos just running straight through the defence. However, Genge doesn’t grasp that Cole has had to step up and he begins to blitz out of the line allowing Zander Fagerson to gain easy yardage.

In the same section of play, we again see the fragility of the Tiger’s defence. Their A,B and C defenders get very tight and Lachlan McCaffrey, defending in the D position, has drifted too far over.

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Finn Russell is able to hit the accelerator and go straight through the gap, he is dragged down but he’s broken the gain line.

In the penultimate example from the Glasgow game, the fringe defence is again under scrutiny. This play comes directly after the one we looked at above. There’s potentially three people at fault here; Tom Youngs goes to the left side of the ruck when there are already bodies there. Genge is nominally the A defender, but he is so far from the ruck that he can’t cover Leonardo Sarto.

Kitchener is the player that misses the tackle, but he’s not in a position to make a high probability tackle. In the end, there’s three men stood looking at each other whilst Sarto scores under the posts.

Moving away from the fringe defence, the Tigers have also suffered with individual tackling. Their tackling stats have been solid if unspectacular, the worst performance of the season was a 70 percent success rate against Saracens at the weekend.

When the gain line is constantly broken because of fringe weaknesses it becomes increasingly more difficult to make one on one tackles – because you are tracking backwards and then trying to find the man you are marking.

In the above example, Kitchener is simply run over by Fraser Brown for the second Glasgow try, a lead that the Scottish team would then never relinquish.

Against Sale, at the start of the month, Leicester conceded 34 points against a Sale team who have averaged just 21.6 points per game this season. The first try of the game, scored by Mike Phillips, was depressingly similar to the opening try scored by Glasgow.

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The fringe defenders are so wide that anybody reading this analysis could’ve gone through the gap. Phillips does very well to finish the try but the initial break is a perfect example of just how bad the fringe defence has become. Dan Cole is caught looking to the outside, when he should be absolutely sprinting to get into his defensive position.

In the penultimate example, AJ MacGinty is able to hit the weak spot between the inside defenders and the outside ones. Although much of the focus in this article has been on the fringe defence, as we saw above with the second Glasgow example, another area of concern is the relationship between the ABC defenders and the D defender. In the below example, Mike Williams is the D defender and George McGuigan, a hooker, is the C defender.

There’s a huge level of disorganization in the defensive line and initially, McGuigan is comfortable. He is helping push MacGinty towards Williams, unfortunately for the hooker, there’s not enough communication and you can see the moment when he realizes he’s in trouble and the flanker has decided to blitz, rather than come to his aid.

The final example isn’t a structural failing but it says a lot about the confidence of the Tiger’s team in defence. Will Addison takes the bouncing ball and then runs directly at Genge, he misses the tackle, then the centre bounces off two more tackles before rolling forward for a few more yards. At no point does anyone just put their shoulder in to stop the centre, or dive on him when he’s on the ground.

By allowing Addison to gain easy yardage they instantly put themselves on the back foot and invite yet more pressure.

Conclusion

Every Wednesday night, and Sunday morning, I coach an U15s rugby team at the club I used to play at, before injuring myself out of the game. When we work on defence we focus extensively on the A’s, B’s and C’s. This involves reminding the players that the A position is the laziest position in rugby, they should never ever move from there. Unfortunately, when you tell a 15-year-old boy to do that they suddenly develop the work rate of Luke Charteris versus Ireland and immediately blitz away from the ruck, leaving a huge hole for the opposition scrum half to scoot through.

Leicester have skipped the initial step and instead, just failed to position an A defender at all. Scott Hansen has paid the price for the defensive woes of his players, but frankly, at any level of senior rugby, and especially at the highest level, players should not require a defensive coach to tell them how to post up at the breakdown.

The fact that Leicester are so close to the top of the table, and firmly in the play-offs, despite these huge defensive weaknesses means that the rest of their game is in a great position, as long as they can fix these simple issues.

by Sam Larner

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