The Lions are 1-0 up and that is the fact that really counts. But this series is far from won and the Lions will need to greatly improve their performance on Saturday if they are to prevent the Wallabies from leveling matters. Warren Gatland’s game plan didn’t work out as hoped in the first Test and the Lions coaching staff will need to think deeply about how they proceed for the second, and the personnel they choose.
The Lions lineout stats make good reading if taken on a purely numerical basis (100%). However, all but one of those takes were at the front, meaning Mike Phillips wasn’t a running threat and the Lions’ backs weren’t getting ideal possession to play with. Ben Mowen and the Wallabies seemed content to give up the front of the lineout in order to mark up in the middle and at the tail. The Lions appeared to fear Mowen’s defensive prowess and refused to even attempt to beat him at the back.
Jonathan Davies had a good game at 12, but he doesn’t offer the same go-forward as Jamie Roberts. If the Lions are going to continue to accept the easy option at the front of the lineout, then Roberts or Tuilagi have to be considered as the starter at 12. Both of them would be stronger at getting over the gain line and providing Sexton with better quality possession. It would be harsh to drop Davies, but he didn’t look ideal for the role of gain line breaker.
On Saturday, the Lions suffered from an inability to beat a strong Australian defence in phase play. Missing Roberts didn’t help in that regard, but the Lions can’t rely on one player to get them on the front foot. A re-think of the back row looks necessary, with getting an explosive ball carrier into the side important. Sean O’Brien is a player you can count on to tie in defenders and make yards. His hard work with ball in hand close in to rucks creates space for the likes of O’Driscoll and North out wide.
A striking aspect of the Lions’ game plan in the first Test was their utter refusal to kick the ball into touch. The only kicking we saw from Sexton were short chips in behind the defence, a couple of cross-field kicks and a few garryowens. Likewise, Mike Phillips kept all his box kicks well infield. Even when the halfbacks had time to clear directly into touch from their own 22, they kept the ball in play. That ploy simply had to be backed up by a consistently strong kick chase, especially when Phillips was kicking so poorly.
Unfortunately, the Lions were far from their best on kick chase on all but a handful of occasions. Again, the return of Roberts should improve that, and Gatland could do worse than bringing Tommy Bowe into the team to add more aerial ability. Whoever it will be chasing down the kicks, the Lions need to re-focus this ploy of kicking back to the Wallabies.
In the second half, the back three of Ioane, Beale and Folau showed signs of their sharp counter-attacking game, with one scything break from Beale after a badly contested Phillips kick standing out. In refining this game plan, Gatland and his halfbacks need to ensure that their kicks are more contestable (particularly Phillips) and that the Lions chase is far stronger. Folau, Ioane and Beale will be better in the second Test and they just can’t be given the space to counter-attack.
All of these things tie into the idea of refining the current game plan and trying to beat the Wallabies with ‘positive’ attacking play and by scoring tries. That is certainly the approach I would favour. It’s definitely understandable if Gatland doesn’t want to change a winning team, but the Wallabies left 14 kickable points behind in the first Test and Gatland can’t rely on that happening again.
The alternative would be a more ‘negative’ approach and is surely tempting to Gatland now that the Lions are 1-0 up. It’s something that the Demented Mole discussed in his/her excellent article on Dan Lydiate. The Welsh blindside would likely be the key personnel change to such a game plan.
The Lions didn’t kick for territorial gain at all in the first Test, but Gatland may consider completely changing to a system based around territory. Bringing in Lydiate would mean having the best back row defender in the Lions squad on the pitch. Asking Sexton to kick deep into the corners, securing lineout possession and eking out penalties with a low-risk attacking plan to allow Halfpenny to kicks the points may be enticing.
Defensively, Lydiate and the back row would be tasked with stifling Will Genia’s creative play, while the centres would aim to limit the amount of ball that gets wide to Folau and co. As expected, the Wallabies look at their most dangerous in open, broken-up play. This possible change of game plan would be about pining the Wallabies deep in their own half and trying to shut down their attacking flair.
My personal preference for open rugby, and desire to see another Test as exciting as the first, means I hope Gatland focuses on refining the game plan from the first Test. Being loyal to the guys who helped him to come away with a win would be laudable, but I certainly feel that the Lions will have a better chance of wrapping up the series if they make changes to the starting team.
On the checklist for refinement are winning ball at the tail of the lineout, adding more carrying punch to the team, clarifying the kicking tactics, adding aerial ability to the kick chase and limiting the counter-attacking opportunities for the Wallabies. A 10% improvement in each of these areas would probably be enough to earn the Lions a first series win since 1997.
Photos: National Assembly for Wales.