Super Rugby AU: Queensland Reds Defensive Analysis - Green and Gold Rugby

Super Rugby AU: Queensland Reds Defensive Analysis

Super Rugby AU: Queensland Reds Defensive Analysis

Defence has been a big focus in Super Rugby AU and compared to the more open fare displayed elsewhere it’s understandable that this may be seen as a negative.

But we need to keep in mind that with inexperienced teams finding their feet, which very clearly the Super Rugby AU sides are, Defence will always be the first focus.

Defence is generally the first thing we’ll notice. It’s a more immediate fix than attack, at least in getting a noticeable result, but it’s also something that teams can grow into and seeing the Super Rugby AU teams develop has been interesting.

Then you get a game like the Reds vs Rebels and you realise some days defence is about a bit more than just stopping a score. On those days you just have to stand back and admire the commitment and intensity a team brings to the game.

If you heard Brad Thorn talk after the game you couldn’t have helped but to be struck by his “Originesque” comment in regards to their defence.

You don’t need me to tell you what that means but as a compliment to Michael Todd’s work with these inexperienced Reds players it speaks volumes.

As does the fact they made 143 tackles to 9 in the second half (232 to 80 in total). That, to me, both flags up how much possession the Rebels had (a whopping 88%) and how much intensity the Reds brough to their defence.

Sure, the Rebels will be frustrated they let so much go to waste. Should they have done more? Well yes, of course but in this game the impact their defence had was the absolute stand out around this Red’s performance, so, you know, swings and roundabouts really.

So we are going to run through a couple of moments in the game that I think show some interesting things happening. Noticeably good decision making and intelligence that I felt grew throughout the game.

System wise it seems the Reds used,

Regular Phase defence:

  • 13 + 2 with usually JOC and Campbell or Hegarty taking a half pitch each
  • high edge defenders
  • Quick line speed then they go soft to push to the edges

In their Danger Zone:

  • 14+1 in their Red Zone (22)
  • Out to in tackle lines (we’ll look at this in a bit)

I say seemed because obviously there are variations on that (kick return for example). It’s a simple and familiar structure that it works, so there is no ground breaking defensive trickery going on. It’s just good hard work that on this occasions pays off.

As always we’ll start at the beginning.

Early Steps

I want to have a look at the Rebels first attack, at 01:2o on the game clock. It’s a relatively unremarkable attack that ends in a penalty to the Reds for Toomua sealing off.

But let’s go through it and it starts with the Rebels playing off a lineout and using Korobite directly off 9 as a set up play.

01 JP vs MK

Coaches talk about being square and defending the ball and essentially what they mean is keep someone in front of the ball and in a position to tackle both sides (so left or right).

Petaia does exactly that. It would have been easy for him to fade off and watch the next man out, safe in the knowledge McReight is going to make the tracking tackle but what’s key here is he knows his role, sees it through and instead of allowing soft yards he meets Korobite and gets a shot in and they stop him at the point of contact.



Reds reload quickly and set up 2 or 3 paces off the offside line so they can generate early line speed.

03 Reds Early Load and Off the rear Foot

Stewart is able to get up nice and early and in the ball carriers space forcing a decision and that allows Paisami, to make an early decision and he is able to come from out to in to get a dominant shot it in on Naisarani.

That out to in line is important in defence and we’ll see it a few times here.

Dominant hits are usually considered front on big highlight reel hits but the reality is one where the tackler controls what’s happening. Paisami doesn’t need to flatten Naisarani; he just needs to halt the Rebels’ momentum and make them reset..

In the next phase the Rebels have managed to create an overload but Reds first get in front of the ball and we can see Daugunu and Campbell start to jockey off to buy some time for the Reds cover defence to fold under.

04 Rebels Numbers Up Red Back Off

We’re now into the realm of one on one defence and that backing off allows Campbell change his focus and react to Toomua and Hodge, bringing the latter down and Straker attacks the ball.


Now, whilst none of this looks exceptional, and it isn’t, what it tells me is everyone understands what their role is and what they are looking to do. They have clarity and are able to work confidently within their system, no one shies away from the task at hand.

Let’s skip to 5:30 and the Rebels attack off a scrum on their own 10m line, this is slightly more promising for the Rebels and they make a good 40m.

The attacking shape of the Rebels tells us everything, with Deegan and Koroibete hiding they are looking to attack the thin defence out wide.

05 Rebels Attacking Shape

Toomua will act as first receiver to them floating around behind Magnay.

But the focus here is defence and I want you to look at Paisami here.

He is in a thankless position here, he has to decide if he breaks the line to pressure the slide around or hold his ground and get rounded.

Instead he treads water, importantly stays active and doesn’t plant and watches what happens. This means he’s able to make a late burst and swim through to pressure Deegan.



Yes, Deegan got the ball away to Koroibete but it wasn’t a clean pass and it could easily have gone to ground.

It’s easy to focus on the fact the Rebels making so much ground and running with ball in hand and we’ll see plenty of mistakes from the Reds that allow that in this game but the point is simply that he made the right defensive read and acted on it. Despite what happened after Paisami here is an example of someone trusting his team mates to back his decision.

What I find really interesting though is that we are starting to see the shoot’s of really intelligent defending, with guys reading the play, staying alive until you can have an impact. These are good, and important building blocks even if, as here, it doesn’t always deliver.

So let’s really fast forward landing around 55 minutes on the clock, where we stumble upon another Rebels Scrum attack.

With a split field and the 50-22 the Reds have set up as below:

07 Reds Set Up protecting the 50-22

Campbell has to stay deep on the left (out of shot), Flook is on the right and Petaia has dropped back to cover the kick on the far touch line (also out of shot). Daugunu has come in tight to create a solid midfield that the Rebels have to get around.

Obviously this leaves the Reds with a lot of space to cover on this near side of the pitch but it’s about as good a set up as you’re going to get in this scenario.

Meakes pass to Kellaway look’s to exploit that but the fact Kellaway has to come into collect the ball and Daugunu backed off to fill the space means Kellaway continues infield. The space was there to attack but the reds set meant it took a hail mary pass, just on the edge of Meakes skill set to try and exploit it.


Again, the Reds set up a little off the hindmost feet to allow them to move pre-pass by the halfback (There is maybe a question mark over the far side being on side but they continue their path back. So for me there is no material impact on the attack).

Another out to in tackle from Straker and Salakaia-Loto stays high to soak momentum and stop the offload.


It’s a bit soft and both fall off  and from a really good position Reds have allowed their line to be broken and give valuable momentum to the Rebels but they show good work to set well off the hindmost feet at the next breakdown:

08 Reds Set up off the Ruck

Allowing them to get nice and high on that far edge forcing the Rebels back inside.



It’s good work rate to get set and go again despite losing ground.

I think perhaps there is a missed chance on both these carries to get a genuinely dominant hit in and because the Reds don’t the Rebels have managed to get through the initial contact.

Next ruck sees a decent set up but the transition defender is where the Rebels are looking to attack and we see Fa’amausili gallop through.

10 Off the Line - Target TRansition


It’s important to flag we’re seeing small errors here from the Reds but they are (for me) all individual errors as opposed to system errors or collective issues and the location is quite far out. If you’re going to be soft this is  where, intensity is not quite at its max and there is space to recover.

From here on though things go up a notch, it’s a slow ruck (around 8 seconds) and we can see the Reds are set and ready to go.

In the next phase Wilson gets in early and low, sapping momentum.


Then similarly to Paisami, JOC doesn’t bite early and tracks the ball stays active and swims through to apply some pressure on Deegan.

11 JOC Read

It might not seem a lot but look what it does to Deegans pass to Hardwick who now has to check and go again from a standing start.


It’s really quite exceptional work from Hardwick to stay in play.  Salakaia-Loto gets his timing wrong and shoots a little early giving the penalty.

But defence doesn’t stop because of advantage and the Reds read the snap back pattern and are set for Lomani’s dart back down the near side.

12 Defending the Snap Back


Like I said, this is far from perfect. Individual errors are allowing things to go a little wrong here and there but not ones born from pressure generated by the Rebels attack or obvious system failures. They are just moments that happen and whilst far from ideal they ultimately don’t have any material impact.

In this final clip, straight after Naisarani was held up is possibly my favourite sequence of defence.

The Goal Line drop out, which just about makes it past the 22, is not ideal from JOC. You really want that ball long and into space to allow you to get way out of your 22 but regardless the next minute of defence from the reds is phenomenal.

First up it’s a big ask to stop the charging Koroibite, but they do so and it’s a great start to this defensive sequence.



Reds set up off the line, again using that space to move early from deep. Generating line speed and stopping Naisarani with room to spare, driving him back with another out to in dominant hit with that inside assist.


In the next phase the Rebels nearly slip through with a slider around the back but Stewart hasn’t committed and is able to recover and close it down. Yes it’s nearly a break but it’s good work to turn it form something into nothing.


Again good work rate to get onside and ready to go again leaving Deegan no options other than sending Meakes into contact.

14 Numbers Up from Reds

As the Rebels rewind we can see the Reds have actually set their defence and are better organised than the attacking side. Coming from behind the line early, generating  linspeed .

The result is pressure and a mistake from the Rebels trying to pay out the back.


Hodge gets hammered cleaning up and the Reds have moved from just trying to kill an attack into that Battle Rhythm you see in a team defending collectively. Coming forward and just looking for the hit again the Rebels are pressured into poor passing from the hinge and Meakes gets lit up.


The Reds are winning the momentum and are now into the Rebels space and loving every single hit.

Over the space of 11 phases the Rebels attacking shape has completely deserted them, they use a bounce back pattern (coming back the way you’ve just come from) to try to combat the line speed of the reds and ultimately are reduced to just one out runner’s which the reds just pick off each time.

By the time we hit the 14th phase all semblance of attacking shape has gone and a frustrated Koroibete tries to generate something and coughs the ball up for the reds to clear.

For me that’s the game. The Reds are in that defensive zone now, and the Battle Rhythm they have adopted just allows them to work collectively to shut out the Rebels.

Suddenly Defence is easy, a perfect example is the shutdown of Kellahway in the right corner 3 minutes later look at the numbers at the tackle:


The Jackal from McReight on 68 Minutes to kill another attack:


Yeah, sure they cough up a yellow and there are a couple of held up moments but the intensity the Reds bring in this last 20 minutes is simply phenomenal.

Of course there is a long way for them to go but as a coach, and a fan you love to see a team grow into a game and the Reds slowly transform over the course of this game from a slightly timid team that show plenty of respect to the Rebels into a team that is loving their defensive dominance to the point where guys are having two bites at the hit in succession.

And this for me has been the real highlight of Super Rugby AU. That returns to the ethics of hard work and core principles. The attack will come, but the quality of defence is getting better week on week – you’ll get the odd no show as per the Waratahs Reds but in general I think it’s hard to deny that things are moving in the right direction.

  • Reds Revival

    Great analysis and dissection of a huge defensive effort Graeme. Like you, I am loving some of the big D on show in SRAU. A couple of times in that second half I let out an audible “Ohhh, that’s gotta hurt!”. As a fan, it really gets you up for the contest.
    Defence shouldn’t just be about keeping them out, but looking for an opportun ity to frustrate the opposition into mistakes, which is precisely what teams are starting to do now.

    • 100%

      I mentioned to RedAnt a big thing in Defence Coaching is Controlling the ball, and I felt we were starting to see that, the MEakes pass to Kellaway was because Reds showed them that space safe in the knowledge no one is making that a good pass.

      Those little moments cause huge frustration and change the attacks focus and you end up with chances to pick them off.

      Long way to go, but deffo a very enjoyable defensive performance.

  • RedAnt

    Great analysis, thanks, Graeme.

    While I agree the defensive effort from the Reds was phenomenal, do you think the Rebels made it a bit too easy for them? The confidence of the Reds built as they knew what was coming pretty much every single wave of attack. Surely a couple of kicks in behind or just a bit more variation would not have allowed the Reds to get so comfortable in defence? (Easy to say in hindsight of course!)

    • Well, yes for sure. But I guess it’s one of those Chicken and Egg problems isn’t it? Did the Reds Control the game or did the Rebels fail to etc…

      One of the big things in Defence Coaching is control. Making the opposition do what you want them to – England and South Africa are both amazing at this, in the Semi Final vs the AB’s England showed them what they wanted and the AB’s did it time and time again.

      Reds did that here, look at that Meakes pass to Kellaway, he was never making a clean pass to him and it killed the attack, Reds showed the space Rebels went to it and the Reds got the rewards.

      So I think there is a bit of both but for me here the Reds stood up and I wanted to applaud that.

      They’ve got a lot to do still, as I tried to stress this wasn’t really about “wow they are amazing” but hopefully more “hold on something might be about to change here”.

      • RedAnt

        There’s no doubt about the attitude and commitment the Reds showed. Control is an interesting thing I hadn’t really considered… I guess it’s kinda the same as ‘turning defence into attack’ – forcing the opposition to do want you want them to, or at least to do what they don’t want to. Still, a smarter Rebels team may have been able to counter all that a bit better, but hopefully they’ll learn from it and it’s great to see some genuine development in all of the Aussie sides.

      • As I’ve commented above, my take is that it’s not really chicken and egg, it’s more like Vegemite sandwich.

        Yes, the Reds defended well, and certainly forced mistakes. But the Rebels attacked poorly and made mistakes when they weren’t under pressure as well. The Reds should be lauded for their improvement from the previous week, but the Rebels’ slide off from their previous performance should be questioned too.

        • Why not just celebrate that a team did something good instead of constantly looking to undermine it with any other negative from the game?

          Was the Rebels attack less than excellent? Yes, but that wasn’t the point of the article, the Reds defence was.

        • Please note in both my pieces I praised the Reds and their improvement. Unstintingly.

          While that is the focus of the article, it is not the whole story of the match. Sorry if that offends you but saying both parts of the story as an overall part of it, doesn’t take away the analysis IMO.

      • numpty

        Great piece mate. Love the reload and enthusiasm in the reds D. One of their biggest issues in D at the start of the yr (imo) was their reload time and ability to get set when in transition (after a turnover, break etc). Your analysis showed they were much better at this. Another area of weakness has been their fringe defense also. I think that this has massively improved partly with increasing certainty in roles as you point out, and also selection of a more mobile backrow and out and out wingers. Campbell and hegarty both seem to make poor decisions in this area (as wings, fine as F/backs). Although I will note campbell made a good read in one of your examples on the fringe. Don’t forget, reds D didn’t let a try in during general play against the brumbies either.

        • Yeah, agreed and this is why i liked what i saw on the weekend, guys hard chasing to shut down mistakes out wide – think they got a bit soft in the middle at times (flagged up) but they certainly came out with a lot of pride and regardless of held up etc… they kept a clean sheet (try wise), that’s something special.

      • idiot savant

        Thanks for the great article. I have now read a few times Rennie talking about ‘shaping defences’ so I guess the inverse applies – ‘shaping the attack’ of the opposition by the way you set up and play. Interesting that the new D coach is an analyst whose job it is (like you) to look for patterns. This is in contrast to the Reds former D coach who is best known for being a hard man and tackler when he played the game.

        It would have been interesting to see if the Reds would have got the same result if they didn’t have McReight on the field. He made 22 tackles in 70 minutes and was on the bench the previous week when the Reds defence was blown apart. It would also have been interesting if the Rebels had gone from edge to edge to edge instead of going up the middle. Going from edge too edge tires the big Reds forwards and reveals Thorn’s peculiar positioning of his loose forwards. Like last week when they looked absolutely clueless shipping 38 points in 30 minutes.

        • I certainly think they could have taken Reds to the edge more, a guess a few reasons they felt they couldn’t – skills in the wet, Reds line speed.

          McReight made a big impact, and yeah agree he could have made an impact against the ‘Tahs but I also think it’s good they recognised this and made the right changes, that’s what you want from your coaching team.

    • Who?

      I have to agree. The Rebels’ attack is too predictable, too blatantly obvious. It’s a real weakness. If you’re starting the game with Koroibete running with no one off his hip, how much decision making do you have to make? The praise of JOC getting through Deegan to rush his pass to Hardwick – why on earth was Hardwick so flat?! He’s in front of Deegan when Deegan receives the ball. That’s an Under 8’s mistake. The same with Kellaway – he had to come in because he was too flat on the ball, as well as it being short. If he’s not so flat, his angle to the short ball doesn’t cut him infield so hard. But it was a poorly implemented play at best. They don’t have Quade anymore – who else that’s worn a Rebels jersey in the past 5 years is throwing a 20+m pass on the run on their non-dominant side flat with power and accuracy?

      The Reds put in the hard work, but the Rebels didn’t ask enough challenging mental questions. So the Reds mainly had to answer physical questions, and whilst they can make mistakes (especially when their back row is out of balance – lacking McReight), few can question their dedication to physical conditioning. Mistakes are more likely to be made when you’re being asked to work both mentally and physically, rather than one or the other.

      • I hear what you’re saying but lets take that Meakes pass for example.

        Why did he throw it? Because he saw something the Reds hadn’t or because he saw something the Reds wanted the Rebels to see?

        I agree we should deffo disect and criticise the Rebels attack but I do think we should applaud the Reds turning around from that awful Waratahs performance to really come in with a proper mindset change.

        Far from complete but I do think the roots of something. With luck they’ll kick on.

        • Who?

          Given McReight’s numbers, a fair bit of the turnaround from the Tahs performance could easily be laid on the selectors, too. Topped the tackle count, involved in over half the turnovers (jackalling, knocking the ball loose in the tackle, etc). In fact, it could be argued that the Tahs loss was significantly the fault of the imbalance in the loose forwards. In the last two Reds matches, the team with the ‘big’ flankers lost out to the team which had more speed to cover the width.

          Meakes’ pass, it’s hard to know. Maybe Billy thought he was Quade. But what was the initial design of the play, how close was the execution, and why was Kellaway so flat with Daugunu standing off (i.e. no kick pass option, no need to stand flat)?

          I agree – the Reds need credit for putting themselves through that, for continuing to front up. Because it was a huge physical effort. But was definitely helped by the better back row selection and the known shortcomings of the Rebels’ attack.

        • isn’t that true of any game though? You can only control what you can control, the Reds can’t take responsibility for the Rebels attack they can only set up and respond to what the Rebels do.

          that’s the starting point and that’s where we start the analysis – what were the reds doing, where have they been previously and what impact did their actions have.

          From that we can track general trends and individual performance, which is why we can look at this game in isolation to the Waratahs debacle.

          I could have focused on all the mistakes the Reds made defensively, and there was plenty but I think, as i mentioned above, we’ve got to not always look at the negative side of the performance. Lets celebrate something good that happened we all know the Rebels aren’t the best attack but you still have to shut them out.

      • UTG

        The Rebels also had 80%+ possession against the Tahs in the second half and failed to score more than once (and their one try was an individual effort by Koroibete). One of the differences in that match was that they kicked points and didn’t let the Tahs put two scores on them.

        If they’re going to play South African style as Rennie has stated in the past they need to take points on offer.

      • I had a migraine over the weekend, so I didn’t watch until late, and didn’t feel like making a cogent comment until today.

        I was impressed by the way the Reds defenced improved, and their defensive coaching team and the players should rightly be praised for that. But I was disappointed by the way the Rebels attack looked lacklustre as well. The balance of the match, for me, was not just “Wow the Reds defence was awesome” but more “The Reds defence was improved but the Rebels couldn’t attack for toffee.”

        That’s kind of harsh – putting the ball on a player’s foot over the try line is so random I bet the defensive coach never taught that – but it felt kind of indicative of the general sloppiness of the Rebels throughout the match. Yes, they made mistakes because of defensive pressure, especially in the second half, but they dropped the ball, threw bad passes, made holes by needless (and clear) obstructions and so on, and ultimately “grounded” the ball on a defender’s foot, things that were their mistakes, not really down to brilliant defence.

        • The article at no point says it’s brilliant defence, the analysis is entirely, and repeatedly stresses the point that there are mistakes and issues but that interestingly improvements are happening.

          Sure we could make this about the Rebels attack but then it wouldn’t be a Reds Defensive Analysis and for something this detailed it needs focus.

          The talking point from this game was unquestionably the Reds Defence so that’s what the analysis is of.

        • The point I’m trying to make is that the kind of attack the Rebels unleashed last week would have unpicked even this improved Reds defence.

          I guess that subtle distinction didn’t come through though. Sorry.

        • numpty

          How did the rebels attack structure differ from last week? Answer – it didn’t. The difference was the rebels won their collisions against the brumbies, against the reds they did not. Look at try one from the brumbies game and tell me it doesn’t look similar to the kellaway snippet above (2nd last gif) with Stewart making the cover tackle… Difference was the reds jockeyed and had cover defense, the brumbies didn’t with Kuenzle making a poor read. Naisarani also busted over for a try against the brumbies, against the reds he was held up/pushed back.

  • skip

    Wanna know why traditional media struggle to get people to stump up to get past a pay wall? They don’t produce analysis like this.


an Englishman living in France, Graeme runs the Rugby Analysis website He coaches in his spare time, is an IRB qualified coach and you can catch him on twitter lazily re-tweeting other peoples comments.

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