Allan Massie: Attack, attack, attack only works if teams can defend

Rieko Ioane scores one of New Zealand's eight tries against Australia. Picture: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images
Rieko Ioane scores one of New Zealand's eight tries against Australia. Picture: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images
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I have written often enough – too often perhaps – that since the All Blacks will surely score tries against you, you have to score tries yourself to beat them; and that this is especially true now that most tries are worth seven points – though, oddly, not so regularly when Beauden Barrett is the goal-kicker. I still think this is probably true, but Warren Gatland’s Lions and the first 
Bledisloe Cup match last weekend are calling it in question.

The Lions drew the series without showing much flair in attack. The fact that Tommy Seymour, who didn’t play in the Tests, was the tour’s top try-scorer with only three tries says a lot about the Lions’ approach. They based their game on disciplined defence. In contrast nobody doubts that Australia can be, and usually are, a brilliant attacking side, lovely to watch. Indeed last weekend they scored four good tries. Unfortunately for them, the All Blacks scored eight, and Australia lost the first half 6-40. In these first 40 minutes their defence was lamentable, with players frequently out of position or coming up ahead of the line to leave gaps. Winning the second half 28-14 may have been some sort of consolation, but the horror of the first half offered the more important lesson: defence matters. It’s no good being brilliant with ball in hand if you miss tackles and leave inviting gaps for your opponents.

Defence isn’t glamorous, but it matters in all ball games – in boxing too, one might add. If you can’t defend you get knocked out. It’s an old footballing truism that you build a team from the back; get the defence right and you’re in with a chance. If there are holes in your defence you will lose more 
matches than you win. Andy 
Murray reached No 1 in the world because his defence is outstanding. As commentators frequently
remark he so often makes his opponent play one more shot in a rally, and that one may go out or land in the net. The quality of his defence compels opponents to take risks and go for winners. A lot of tennis matches are won by the player who makes fewer unforced errors.

Nobody ever became a great Test match batsman without having a well-organised defence. The reason is obvious; in any long innings a batsman will defend or elect to leave more balls than he will score off. This is true even of attacking players like David Warner and Ben Stokes. It’s also why many who are successful in T20 cricket fail in the long form of the game; they play brilliant shots, but their defence is as poor as Australia’s was in that match against the All Blacks last weekend.

We all know that Gregor Townsend likes his teams to play attacking rugby, with a fast off-loading game, and happily he is taking over a Scotland side capable of that style of play. But winning rugby isn’t only about attacking and scoring spectacular tries. If it was, Australia might be world champions instead of lagging behind New Zealand. Good defence not only thwarts the opposition, it creates opportunities to attack. I don’t know what percentage of tries in top-level international matches come from turnovers, but I would guess it is quite high, and it is the quality of defence which makes turnovers possible.

Last season’s Six Nations tournament was odd from our point of view. In most matches the defence was good; at Twickenham it was shockingly poor, with knock-on consequences as we know for Scots’ chances of being selected for the Lions. There were extenuating circumstances – Fraser Brown’s early yellow card and then injuries; but it was still perplexing that such inviting gaps should have appeared in midfield. It was rather as if they had been caught cold, mentally not switched-on, rather as Glasgow were in their Champions Cup match at Thomond Park, when Munster were inspired, the week after Anthony Foley’s death. Of course both Thomond Park and Twickenham can be daunting places, the latter for Scots especially. All the more reason to make sure that a team is mentally prepared for the first quarter of a match especially.

This is the other important thing about defence. It can demoralise the opposition just as attacking brilliance can. The passing of time may gild memory, but, as I recall, the Scottish defence was so good in the second half of the 1990 Grand Slam match that, though nerves were never quite stilled, it came to seem that England had run out of ideas, and that only a momentary lapse in concentration could cost Scotland victory. Happily, the lapse never came.

On a final note, with this season’s visit of the All Blacks in mind, there are three occasions on which we have come near as dammit to beating New Zealand at Murrayfield. In 1954 they won 3-0 (a penalty goal kicked by Bob Scott. Ten years later there was a no-score draw. In 1983 another draw; this time 25-25. Defence, defence, defence. “Ils ne passeront pas” as the French Army said at Verdun.