When super rugby defensive maestro Pom Simona joins the New England Free Jacks he will be bringing the ‘Simona Spark’ to Massachusetts and help the side their Major League Rugby title.
Arriving at Veterans Memorial Stadium fresh from turning Super Rugby’s Melbourne Rebels into one of the most inventive and opportunistic defences in the world’s top professional rugby competition.
Simona invented a renowned defensive methodology ‘the Spark Defence’ that he utilized in Super Rugby’s 2022/23 season and succeeded in creating the most tackle turnovers in the competition.
In all the Rebels won 51 tackle turnovers, first in the competition, and 193 turnovers, second in the competition.
With the likes of Reece Hodge, Andrew Kellaway and Monty Ioane among their ranks, the Rebels possess plenty of firepower and getting those stars ball-in-hand was one of Simona’s key responsibilities.
“Everyone wants to attack in rugby, but I created a method to turn defence into offence so we could attack.” Simona said.
“That was the big thing I looked to drive the Rebels, creating spark opportunities with our defence that turned into attacking moments that scored points.”
A talented player in his own right with Auckland and Ponsonby, Simona became fascinated with combat sports like mixed martial arts and wrestling while playing in Ireland.
“I had a good friend in Melbourne who owned a Jujitsu gym,” Simona explained.
“We took the Rebels there twice a week during the off-season over the past two years to develop the players’ collision skills to become more effective at winning spark opportunities.”
This is where the Simona imagined his Spark defence. At the top of his agenda was finding a way to get his team the ball.
Sheer tenacity is one aspect, ingenuity another, and getting Melbourne the chance to get players over the ball to try and win possession in order to unleash their attacking threats.
Welcome to New England, Pom Simona!— New England Free Jacks (@NEFreeJacks) October 13, 2023
Joining us from the Melbourne Rebels, Simona will assume the role of Free Jacks Assistant Coach alongside Will Webster and Head Coach Scott Mathie.
Read more about this exciting new hire at https://t.co/rhSiZdU6LN #LetsRide #MLR2024 pic.twitter.com/xZ1Zhuzp1m
In year one Simona learned from his year of experimentation it was that players do not and can not all tackle the same way, which meant adding multiple collision tools to players toolbelts.
“We encouraged our big guys to tackle tall and gave them skills to do that effectively, as for some of them getting low just wasn’t effective,” Simona said.
“We employed a few skills from MMA that we added to our ‘Spark Defence’ toolkit to win tackle turnovers. MMA athletes are very comfortable getting close to people, so one technique we learnt was to how to choke tackle, get super tight to the ball carrier and work to the back of the player to block the cleaners and trap the non-ball carrying arm.
“That meant the second tackler could strip the ball. That worked particularly well in the wider channels where players often carry more upright.”
A very different skill was the sprawl tackle, utilizing leverage to sprawl on the ball carrier to take them to ground and then recoil to contest the breakdown.
“We adopted this technique to halt big ball carriers, using their own momentum for our benefit and winning the race to the breakdown contest,” Simona said.
Simona was also able to make his team more comfortable with the chop tackle. Consistently getting players working on the ground and honing their technique to reduce the opportunity for injury, it was time well spent for all involved.
“MMA athletes shoot in under control with the head up, which was vital for our chop tackling safety and effectiveness in making late changes to make a quality collision,” Simona said.
“We worked on this skill in the gym regularly and our players became very proficient at getting players on the ground.”
Part of the Simona’s spark defence was a strategy which played to the team’s strengths and moving away from tactics considered commonplace across the sport at this moment in time.
“Most teams are really high up on the edge and stopping the pass going over the wings,” he said. “We flipped it because our wingers weren’t comfortable defending high, and we gave up a lot of space on the edges.
“Teams thought they were making a lot of ground on the edge, but we would get our wingers to counter ruck, to slow the ball down and set them up in our trap.
“Off the edge most teams would play a pod off the nine and that’s the opportunity to win the ball, because that pod was separated from the other forwards.
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“We would get our sevens in the traditional nine position, where they patrol behind the defensive line. We would get our front line to shoot and chop tackle and that would give an opportunity for our sevens to get on (the ball).
“The majority of our turnovers came from that scenario, and it worked for the Rebels this year because of how our wingers liked to defend.
“In sum the spark defence uses a staggered pattern, where the first defence penetrates to make a tackle and the second poaches the ball to create the turnover.”
Simona’s techniques would even become adopted elsewhere. Through the Rebels’ partnership with the Hanazono Kintetsu Liners in Japan, Simona was taken to Osaka to help the team turn their fortunes around after a taxing start to the season where relegation threatened.
In a short space of time, Simona helped Kintetsu turn a losing deficit from 50 points down to just seven – a major success for the team.
Before the start of the new MLR season Simona will be travelling to Japan again to work with the Toyota Verblitz, where he will be working under their Director of Rugby, Steve Hansen, as well as ex-Leicester Tiger flanker, Ben Herring.
New England’s chances to defend its Major League title looks strong with the addition of the Simona Spark.