Sliding defense is a defensive strategy used in rugby league to cover the width of the field and prevent the attacking team from creating overlaps or exploiting gaps.
As the attacking team shifts the ball from one side to the other, the defensive line moves laterally (or ‘slides’) across the field in a coordinated manner.
The defense tries to match the movements of the attacking team and cover the width of the field. The goal is to force the attackers into running out of space or making errors.
Importance Of Connection
The term “connection” is often used to describe an effective sliding defense. This means that players stay close enough to support each other in making tackles. As the defense shifts across the field, the positioning between defenders stays about the same.
When defenders lose connection with each other, this creates gaps for the attacking team to exploit. However, if they bunch up too close, they create overlaps for the attackers.
If you’re close enough to the field, you’ll hear the defensive leaders constantly communicating about the defensive alignment.
As the fullback is often behind other players in the defensive line, they have a crucial role to call out gaps and connection problems.
A sliding defense requires patience and good timing. Defenders move laterally at a controlled pace, waiting for the right moment to make a tackle or force the attackers towards the sideline.
The main decision for each defender is when to move up and make a tackle or when to continue sliding with the attacking team.
The biggest mistake of inexperienced players is to move up too early to close down a threat.
When Did The Sliding Defense Come Into Rugby League?
I can’t pinpoint an exact date when the sliding defense was first introduced to rugby league. The strategy evolved over time to look like what it does today.
It started to become more prominent in the 1970s and 1980s, as teams focused on maintaining a structured and coordinated defensive line.
The introduction of limited tackle sets (initially four tackles, then six) in the 1960s was a big influence. Teams had to find ways to cover more ground and counter the increased ball movement.
Advantages Of Sliding Defense
The strategy is very effective at letting teams cover the width of the field effectively. It tends to be harder for the attacking teams to get an overlap out wide.
It’s also less physically demanding than more aggressive strategies like the rush or the “up and in” defense. By conserving energy, players are less likely to be fatigued in the latter stages of the game.
The sliding defense is also a protection for weaker or less experienced defenders. As long as they focus on maintaining their position with the players beside them, they are less likely to become isolated.
And if they miss a tackle, they have support from their teammates close by.
Weaknesses With Sliding Defense
The main weaknesses with the strategy are:
- The need for constant focus by all players
- Over-committing by defenders
- Vulnerability to passes
- Relatively passive strategy
Let’s look at these in turn.
Defenders must maintain focus to keep their connection with their teammates as the entire line shifts from side to side.
Fatigue and pressure cause communication to break down, which leads to gaps appearing in the line.
The strategy is also vulnerable to sudden changes in pace or direction by the attacking team. When a ball carrier with good footwork steps back inside or changes direction quickly, defenders may over-commit to the slide.
By “over-commit”, I mean that the defender adjusts their position too much. They move a little to far in the opposite direction and a gap appears on their other side.
The sliding defense is very effective against direct attacking play. But the attacking playmakers can catch defenders off-guard with a delayed or cut-out pass that creates an overlap out wide.
A passive strategy
Another downside that can get fans riled is that the slide is a more passive defensive strategy than some others.
With the defense moving laterally, the attacking ball carrier often gets an extra yard before being tackled.
Who Makes The Most Tackles In A Sliding Defense?
Certain positions tend to be more involved in making tackles due to their role in the defensive structure. Many studies show that forwards make about twice the number of tackles than backs.
More specifically, props and second rowers are often involved in making the most tackles in a sliding defense.
This is because props (numbered 8 and 10) and second rowers (numbered 11 and 12) are usually aligned centrally in the defensive line. They must make numerous tackles on the opposition’s forward runners.
This requires considerable physicality and endurance. These players are typically strong, robust, and resilient.
However, the props and second rows aren’t the only players making tackles (although they may like to tell you so in the clubhouse after the game!).
Other positions, such as the hooker, halfback, and centers, will also be making tackles as the attack unfolds.