Dylan talks about the defensive breakdown


I am Dylan Hadzigrigoriou. I was born in Johannesburg, bred in Cape Town. I have been a sports freak since I can remember and rugby always held top spot on my list. As a player I enjoyed the ever changing tactical nuances of the game, as well as the intensity of play, which forces one to push physical and mental boundaries constantly. 

I was schooled at SACS where I played first team in Grade 11 and 12, before moving on to UCT play u20A for 2 years. Unfortunately my playing days were cut short due to a recurring back injury, however I feel it was a blessing in disguise, as for the last 4 years I have been coaching at both a junior school and high school level. Coaching has become my obsession…

At the age of 22, I am currently studying a BCom Charted Accountancy at UCT. I plan to go into Rugby coaching professionally, with hard work, determination and my goal of staying a student of the game and giving back everything that the game has given me, I hope to leave my mark on international rugby both at a senior and grass roots level.

I am currently the forwards coach for the SACS u16A/B squad for the 2020 season.

On today’s instalment of ‘Coaches Corner’ I will be focussing on one of my favourite parts of rugby…The BREAKDOWN, specifically from the defensive side. 

Rugby is a game of constant contesting for possession and the breakdown is the most frequent contest of the ball at an average of 110 rucks per game at the U19A level, therefore a solid plan for both attacking breakdown and defensive breakdown is imperative for any team looking to dominate a game. A noticeable statistic from the 2019 u19A league shows that 39% of penalties take place at the breakdown, thus there is much room for improvement, which could result in far fewer opportunities for the opposition when executed well.

Defensive Breakdown

Before I dive into the role players within your defensive breakdown, I would like to highlight a general rule for any player on a rugby pitch. The ‘Stay Sticky’ rule, which is the idea that whenever a player is committed to a situation within a game, make sure you commit at least 1, but more desirably 2 or 3 opponents to the situation in order to create more numbers in play for your team

Role players in a Defensive Breakdown:

The defensive breakdown starts at the tackle. As a defensive line, we should aim to create situations within the tackle to allow for us to compete for the ball.

The Tackler:

-The tackler sets the tone for our defensive breakdown. The tackler should be aware of the situation the ball carrier finds him/herself in, in order to plan where he/she would like to land once the tackle has been completed. It is important to understand that if the attacking player is isolated, we would aim to get him/her on the ground sooner than if we were under pressure and need to slow the ball down.

3 options for the tackler post tackle:

  • When a positive hit has been made: (land on top of attacker)
  1. Release and contest for the ball
  2. Stand up and counter ruck as to upset the attacking breakdown 
  • When a negative hit has been made:
  1. Roll away from the ruck and RETURN TO ACTION. Do not hide in the ruck or behind the ruck as hard work back into the line gives us an important extra defender on his/her feet.
  2. Tackle Assist:

-Tackle assist is the player who is involved in the tackle, before the attacking player has at least one knee on the ground, which is a completed tackle

-Tackle assist has very similar roles to the tackler post-tackle

Coaching Tip:

Many penalties come from tackle assist not releasing or entering through the gate, so make sure your players are aware of their duties as tackle assist

1st Arriving Player: (Also known as Catch-up)

-The first arriving player to the ruck, outside of those involved in the tackle is our primary stealer/jackal. 

-If you as the first arriving player get to the ruck before the attacking ruckers, your aim is to jackal the ball first and if not successful, slow down the ball of the attacking team and force as many attacking players into the ruck as possible. 

-When you do not beat the attacking ruckers to the breakdown, understand that it may be better to leave the ruck alone and join the defensive line once again, rather than fighting a losing battle.

Coaching Tip:

Ensure that in your defensive system that your jackals are coming from your catch-up defence on the inside and not from the outside, as it allows for smoother folding for the next phase and doesn’t limit defenders available on the same side.

Cohesion of Breakdown and Defensive Systems:

Modern attack is built to create mismatches, thus defences should aim to minimise mismatch frailties and one way to do so is to make sure your Defensive system and Breakdown system are aligned. 

Let’s look at 2 extreme examples to dive into my point:

Example 1:

Your team’s breakdown system is to commit the tackler, as well as 2 other defenders to every ruck in order to compete for the ball and slow down the opposition’s momentum. As a result your team would only have 12 players available to defend following each breakdown. If you are not able to commit at least 3 attacking players to each breakdown, they would naturally have more numbers on attack than you do on defence. (Mismatch) 

How would you align your defensive system to your breakdown system?

In this case you could use a jockey defensive system to somewhat passively guide the opposition to the touchline. This would result in not getting beaten on the outside with fewer numbers, which would happen if your defensive line overcommits. 

Example 2:

Your team’s breakdown system is only to commit the tackler to every ruck, with his sole purpose to slow down ball and contest. Although you would not be able to slow down momentum as effectively as the aforementioned example, you will now have 14 players available to defend, which would outnumber the attacking side who would have committed at least the ball carrier and one cleaner to secure possession. 

How would you align your defensive system to your breakdown system?

In this case you could use a Blitz defensive system where your defensive line would come up fast, to get in the faces of the attacking side in order to drive them back and maintain constant pressure, allowing for 2 on one tackles too. 


  • Analyse opposing team’s attacking patterns and adjust your systems to counter act and manipulate the opposition. 
  • Make sure  your team’s breakdown system matches your defensive system
  • Empower your players to understand that even though you may be running a jockey system, there will be times in game where you have more numbers on your feet and thus your marshal on defence needs to be able to pick this up and call “Blitz” in such a scenario and vice versa
  • A common mistake for schoolboys is to congregate around rucks. Practice high intensity drills with live opposition to ensure they get used to defending across the field

I hope these tips are helpful to get your defensive breakdown working properly within your defensive system and highlight the clarity you need to have with your players in order to succeed

All the best for the season ahead,


*Special thanks to Johan Potgieter from Statspro for the breakdown statistics used in this article.

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