A Lions tour holds unique and testing demands for the head coach. Foremost among them is combining the talents of the various players into a cohesive and successful team. Warren Gatland has attempted to do that by imposing a rigid game plan on his squad. In theory, that makes utter sense. These players don’t normally play together, so telling them exactly what to do and where to do it simplifies things and prevents confusion on the pitch.
The oft-repeated notion that the cream of four countries should always beat one ignores the fact that the Lions usually have somewhere in the region of six weeks to prepare for the Test series. In rugby, it’s often not about who has the most talent in their team, but rather who is best organised to use that talent. Gatland has certainly arranged his players to play a distinct way and everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet, but at what cost?
By imposing so strict a game plan and demanding his players stick to it, Gatland is denying much of their ability to judge situations for themselves on the pitch. The Lions’ patterns were getting to the point of predictability on Saturday, and the Wallabies defence is starting to look very comfortable with what is being thrown at them.
Gatland’s insistence on smashing the ball up the middle from set piece means the Lions are not even looking for opportunities to attack out wide. When the Lions receive kicks in back field, they’re not even scanning for the possibility of counter-attacking, it’s safety first and launch the garryowen. None of the Lions appear to be even thinking about offloading out of the tackle. This is low risk rugby.
It’s similar to 2009, when the Lions also stuck firmly to their pre-rehearsed game plan of working all the way out to one touch line before coming back the other way. It was certainly anticipated that the Lions would set up in the same manner this time around, but the hope was that Jonny Sexton would be the key difference.
The Irish outhalf is definitely an upgrade on Stephen Jones in terms of attacking spark, but we haven’t seen any evidence of him being backed to display that. His role has been limited to kicking garryowens and popping the ball to his midfield runners.
In attack, the Lions’ game plan is largely based on smashing through the Wallabies defence, but there has been a key man missing. Jamie Roberts is the one guy who consistently gets over the gain line and he has been sorely missed. His return in midfield should improve the Lions’ attacking effort. If Gatland is going to continue to use the same tactics, then his decision to omit Sean O’Brien from the starting team will surely come to an end. Those two guys could make all the difference.
On Saturday, the Lions were six minutes away from winning a Test series for the first time since 1997. They lost by one point and they certainly have a good chance of winning the third Test. Those are the facts and Gatland will not be losing sleep over complaints about the Lions’ playing style. He is there to win a test series, and he feels that this game plan gives them the best chance of doing so.
It’s tempting to call for Gatland to remove the shackles, allow Sexton to fling the ball into wider chanels and ask Halfpenny to counter-attack every time he fields a kick, but it’s not a realistic hope. We should expect more of the same. That said, Gatland needs to allow his decision makers to play what they see. If he is not going to remove the shackles completely, then at least loosening them a little would make the Lions more dangerous in attack.
Sexton has been very rigid in attack, and not created much, he seems very frustrated and when he has had an opportunity he tries to force things. On Saturday, he had a 6 on 3 overlap, and went himself! A lot of the blame for that is on him, that is inexcusable. But he is being told to take it up himself if he doesn’t smash it up the middle, the guy can play, why he is being limited to such a game, well that’s the Gatland way. What I find odd however is that in many ways Gatland isn’t committing fully to it. BOD has been outstanding in defence, but he is in no way suited to how Gatland wants to attack, Jonathan Davies is better as an outside centre as we have seen with Wales. North and Bowe are powerful guys but they weren’t used coming inside at all, that was extremely frustrating!
Tactics probably won’t change a lot in the space of a week, as much as most want them to. I would consider dropping BOD for the final test (or playing him 7 with Warburton out!) as I don’t think you will see the best the backs have to offer under Gatland with him playing there.
I think Gatty’s plan is too reliant on his wingers perceived ability to pull out the miracle plays when needed. They certainly seem to be the only lions players playing with a decent level of #Woshkabomy.
As you’ve said, the game plan is too rigid and is stifling expression. However, as it’s last game of tour and we nearly won the last game we might do enough to get the win despite it
Not just Roberts’ runs have been missing, because Davies has at least tried to fill that role, but it’s Roberts’ angle of running, back on the angle towards the ball he’s taking, the inside shoulders of the defence… Most of the Lions’ attacking charges have so far been head-on and have been easy for Australia simply to get bodies in the way…