Attacking An ‘Umbrella’ Defensive System - Green and Gold Rugby

Attacking An ‘Umbrella’ Defensive System

Attacking An ‘Umbrella’ Defensive System

With nearly four weeks off from pre-season training for club rugby, I’ve got some spare time on my hands, so what better way to fill that time than to analyse some rugby.

I asked my Twitter followers what they wanted me to take a look at and Luke Baird @bairdey has asked if I can show ways to exploit/attack an ‘Umbrella Defence’.

The System

The aim when using an umbrella defence system is to stop the opposition getting the ball to the extremities of the field by cutting off the ball in mid-field and turning the attack back inside where the majority of defenders are.

When an attacking team has an advantage in numbers out wide there are essentially two ways to try and deal with the issue – containment or attack.

If you choose containment, a ‘jockey’ system can be used where the defenders back off to buy time for inside defenders to work across field to assist. Players move sideways and sometimes also backwards. Territory is conceded but the main aim is to gain time to get more defenders in position to prevent a big line break that could lead to a try. As you’ll see in the video examples this sideways movement often leads to opportunities for the attack to run back in behind the defenders.

Jockey Defence Structure

If you choose attack, the umbrella system can be used where it’s all about coming up hard on the outside to pressure the opposition and stop the ball being passed out wide but it’s not just an outside man rushing up ahead of the line.

The widest defender, ‘the defensive end’, leads the line up and gets in front of the other players. Whilst I say the widest defender, that excludes the winger, who hangs back to provide wide cover in case the attacking team can get the ball outside the defensive end. The defensive end also angles from outside in to attack the attacker inside them, ‘the attacking end’. When it works, the defending team usually shuts the opposition down well behind the gain line.

Umbrella Defence Structure

The following video shows some examples of the jockey and umbrella systems in use.

[youtube id=”j4gimAfnJhk” width=”600″ height=”350″]

How To Attack The Umbrella System

The umbrella system offers two primary spaces for the attacking team to try and take advantage of – in behind the defensive line and outside the defensive end.

Getting the ball into the space behind the rushing line is obviously achieved through a chip or grubber kick but the depth of the kick is very important – kick it too far and you’ll just be giving the ball back to the opposition. The other thing that’s important when kicking is having chasers – there’s not much point in attacking with a kick if there’s only defenders there to regather the ball. The issue with an attacking kick is that you are largely subject to the bounce of the ball as to whether you can regain possession or not.

Getting the ball into the space outside the defensive end offers a better opportunity to retain possession and can be achieved in a number of ways.

One way that doesn’t work is to stand deeper to try and pass your way around the defensive end. If the defensive end can still get to the attacking end and stop the ball there, the attacking team will have lost even more territory. If the defensive end isn’t going to be able to get to the attacking end they can slow their pace and turn out to target the wider attackers. Even if the ball can be passed to the wider attackers the extra depth of the line gives plenty of time for the inside defenders to get across in cover.

One option a lot of teams use to try and beat the umbrella system is to use the attacking end as a decoy and pass the ball behind them to the wider attackers as the defensive end comes forward – what’s known as ‘playing out the back’. That can be a good tactic but the timing of the pass is critical – pass too early or too deep and the defensive end can slow their pace and turn out to target the wider attackers – pass too late and there’s the risk of an intercept.

Another option which isn’t used as often but is even more effective is a ‘loop’ play with the attacking end receiving the ball early and either an inside attacker or a deeper attacker, such as the fullback, looping around them and receiving a short pass once the defensive end is committed to tackling the attacking end.

The following video includes examples of those options being used.

[youtube id=”Kc113p3UA6A” width=”600″ height=”350″]

Other teams may use different options to try and attack this type of defensive system but hopefully this gives you an idea of how the system works and how most teams try to deal with it.

  • Zuriel

    nice. Good to know and recognise the patterns. thanks

  • Luke_Baird

    Thanks Scott. Appreciate the hard work you put into these sort of video analysis. I can definitely imagine Gatland employing the same Welsh defence he’s got them using against us, for the Lions. Very informative video. :)

  • Kiap

    Top quality analysis, once again. Thank you.

  • Morsie

    I love this site, serious rugby discussions in mid summer. How good is that!!!!!

  • p.Tah

    @ 1.35min in the first video. I think it’s Beale paying 1st receiver. In that situation he should have thrown out a looping cut out pass to Horne, who would have gone through a very very large gap. Easy to say from my vantage point, but I’m certain Quade would have attmpted it and pulled it off.

  • Madflyhalf

    I’d be happy if the Lions will select Jon Davies as starting 13 (don’t think so btw).

    He’s the worst defending centre in world rugby, an he’s always been explored by the Wallabies during the last tests, as he use to do the blitz defence (umbrella defence without structures).

    The only time (I can remember) he did it well is right that one showed in the vid against France, and Wales scored.

    All the other times (MANY!), he left the line, lost the tracking of his man, creating a space that always has been explored by attacking team.
    This guy is a tremendous liability in a defensive line.

    I really can’t understand how Gatland and especially Edwards (defence specialist) still sticking with him, btw not suprised of 7th defeat in a row.

  • USARugger

    More articles like this, please.

  • Chris

    What are the cues for teams in defense for teams to switch from say “inside man” to “Umbrella”

    • Johnny-boy

      Good question Chris. I’m also curious to know Scott’s opinion on what percentage of players he thinks actually ‘get’ this stuff regularly on the run in say Super XV and test level. It’s a lot easier to see it in on paper, or in pixels than in real time

      • Scott Allen

        I think the teams that use this tactic are coached to be more aggressive overall in defence. It can go wrong so the coach would have to give the team confidence that he’ll back their decision even if it does go wrong.

        The outside defender, ‘the defensive end’, calls this play so his coach must have a lot of trust in that player.

        Like anything, if they try it and it works more often than not, they get confident in it’s use. If it keeps failing they’ll lose confidence and be reluctant to call it.

        This would not be something left to players to work out – a lot of time would go into practising this tactic at training in the pre-season at Super level so that it becomes almost a default for players. It’s a bit harder to introduce at test level unless you have a decent training block with the team before a test – hence the importance of camps for the test team to work through developing this sort of play.

        Obviously with a coach in place for a long time the tactic can be developed over a number of test seasons, which Wales have done.

    • Scott Allen

      The use of this tactic can be something pre-planned from a set piece – it’s an aggressive tactic which depends on a team’s attitude to the game overall.

      In general play the cue is looking up to see the attack has an advantage in numbers on the outside – you have to do something to overcome that as to just keep running with a ‘drift’ defence will lead to an overlap – the decision on what to do is what I described as contain or attack – whether you choose to go into a ‘jockey’ to contain or attack with the ‘umbrella’ is again something that comes from a team’s philosophy.

      The Wallabies usually go with the jockey approach – Wales usually go with the umbrella approach. The defence coach’s philosophy will have a big part to play in this. Shaun Edwards seemed like an aggressive little player when he played league so that may be his nature.

      • Chris

        Cheers. I assume also though that if defending in your own 22 philisophically it would be better to adopt an aggressive man on man or even umbrella as the ground given up by the Jockey would most likely lead to a try. Fair call?

        • Scott Allen


      • Nick Hill

        Shaun Edwards previously coached London Wasps and they were famous for implementing this high-risk high-reward ‘umbrella/rush’ philosophy.

        Am I right in thinking that these differing varieties of defense were originally picked up on and established in league?

        PS fantastic analysis as usual.

  • Sharpey

    thanks scott. been thinking about this one for a while. you’re analysis is fantastic as always

  • Nutta

    I used to have a coach at school who insisted “If you fancy yourself as the 2nd toucher then make sure you get a 2nd touch”. His point was that the No10 (being 2nd touch after the No9) was expected to pass off then loop to create the extra man to get a 2nd touch. If you couldn’t do that then you weren’t good enough to be the No10. This was in the days of Pigs were Pigs and backs were scared so he wasn’t looping to clean-out. I think the principle still applies – pass-off and loop to make the extra man. I think I also recall at least 2 of the Ella’s giving the same message at fat-man lunches over the years

    The way we defended that in other teams was to make sure you ground their distributor. Even if he had passed-off you were to still complete the tackle and ground him to prevent him offering close support.

    I don’t understand where such simple fundamentals became disconnected from the “modern” “professional” game. I appreciate your work Scott – I really do and am not having a shot at you at all – but I lament the loss of IP in our game to the extent where fundamental, elemental, bread & butter shite like this needs to be relearned by folk who get paid hefty sums to do fk-all but this for a living.

    • Scott Allen

      Nutta, there is still merit in passing early and looping but modern defences are much better than they were so the defenders are much better at drifting once the pass is made so that once the passer get the ball back the defence has more often than not adjusted and shut down the opportunity.

      A lot of the breaks we all remember so fondly from the amateur days were made on the outside as defensive lines were much narrower. Once league coaches came into union and players were professional so could get a lot fitter, defensive lines improved dramatically and the space out wide was better covered.

      All teams now use variations of the ‘drift’ defence system so a #10 these days has to be able to stop the inside defenders from drifting as much as possible to preserve some space for wide attackers. This means staying square and taking the ball towards the line before passing later. They can add in the early pass and loop from time to time as a surprise tactic.

  • Nutta


    Leveraging off a question already posted by Chris on how/when to change defence mode…

    I noticed in the last test vs Boyos that AAC & Taps (I think it was – it was early morning and I was half-cut) were working to basically double-team their OC and that left the Whinger and/or FB free to scoot the touchline. It happened 3 times I think with one being that huge break from inside the Boyo’s quarter. I get that perhaps this was a pre-game tactical instruction to DT on the OC because the Boyo was a big strong lad, but to persist with it when they were clearly gunned-up and IQ’d enough to go around such a one-dimensional containment plan asks questions of game intelligence.

    So questions from a life-time front-rower with bugger-all knowledge or appreciation of just what exactly the fast fairies do/desire/dream/accomplish:

    1. Was that what we were trying to do (DT their OC) or was it bad read?

    2. In your opinion was this pre-game tactical or bad reading? This leads to a question regarding on-field IQ

    3. What were/are the cues to shift off this approach (other then the obvious – you just got beat outside)

    • Scott Allen

      The Wallabies run a ‘drift’ defence system with the man inside drifting across field to the attacker outside them. The inside man has to call to the outside defender that it’s time to drift over or ‘push’.

      Using the break Wales made off their own line when Tapaui was beaten outside as
      the example, Wales had three attackers on the short side – the Wallabies had two
      being Tapaui and Mitchell with Phipps at the scrum base. Tapaui started defending attacker 1 and MItchell attacker 3. To cover attacker 2 Phipps had to drift across and take attacker 1, Tapaui had to leave attacker 1 and drift across to take attacker 2 and Mitchell would have come up and stayed on attacker 3.

      Where it broke down was that Tapaui didn’t start drifting until it was too late. Whether this was a communication issue with Phipps not calling for Tapaui to push or Tapaui just made a mistake and stayed on his initial man, we don’t know.

      In the ‘drift’ system if the outside defender drifts early and the inside defender isn’t in position the inside attacker is left unmarked and goes straight through the middle so the outside man is taught not to drift until they are told to by the inside man.

      The end result was Phipps and Tapaui both defending attacker 1 with Mitchell having to cover attackers 2 and 3. He tried to take 2 and 3 was left free on the outside.

      To defend that situation better, Phipps should have left the scrum base and dropped back into the defensive line so there were three defenders v three attackers but the Wallabies don’t ever seem to do that. The same issue arose in Bledisloe 1 this year so It appears the Wallabies defensive plan doesn’t include this tactic.

      The same issue happened on two other occasions when Tapaui was defending at #13 and AAC at #12. Why the Wallabies switched Tapaui and AAC around so they were defending in each other’s position beats me. When they adjusted so Tapaui defended at #12 and AAC at #13 the problem didn’t occur again.

      The cue to drift is the call from the inside man. On those three occasions in that match the defensive system fell apart – whether they just started calling louder or Tapaui got his act together we don’t know but the system worked fine apart from those three mistakes.

  • LRB

    That was an excellent piece on defensive patterns and ways to beat them. Another reason that I enjoy GAGR.

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  • Ross

    Scott, great work on all your analysing! Most of the examples of the umbrella defensive system are from phase play when the defensive lines are closer to the attack and therfore easier for the ‘defensive end’ to get up and cut off the attack. Would you use the Umbrella defence from set piece when the back lines are up to 20m apart? I would imagine a sharp back line could easily get around it?


Scott is one of our regular contributors from the old days of G&GR. He has experience coaching Premier Grade with two clubs in Brisbane.

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