One of the areas that has best highlighted the difference between the Lions and the Wallabies’ game plans so far has been counter attacking. The home side have been particularly threatening on the counter, with Israel Folau’s first try in the first Test being the best example. While the Lions have scored a memorably brilliant try on counter attack through George North, overall they have been far less ambitious after turning over possession.
Counter attacking in rugby is all about identifying where the space is and ruthlessly targeting it. When the attacking team loses possession, they become immediately vulnerable defensively. Having been focused on attacking, their defence is obviously not an ideal shape. For the team who wins the turnover, it is of critical importance to strike quickly.
Let’s go back to that Folau try for an example. The Lions had gone through 23 attacking phases before the Wallabies won the penalty to turn the ball over. The Lions were fatigued after such a long passage of play and they had no defensive shape whatsoever. Will Genia recognised that immediately and burst away after taking a quick tap. The Lions were scrambling to get into defensive position and we know the rest.
Jim Greenwood is an advocate of the idea that “not all space is equally valuable” on a rugby pitch. But identifying space on the counter attack is certainly high up on the list of precious spaces in rugby. When the defending team makes a turnover, very often the space for a counter attack will be wide on the opposite side of the field. If the team who has made the turnover can get the ball there quickly, they’re in an excellent position to score or at least make lots of ground.
Many coaches use the ‘two pass rule’ for counter attack, whereby they encourage their team to make two quick passes after winning a turnover. That normally gets the ball into space, and very often allows the elusive back three players to demonstrate exactly the skills they’ve been picked for.
Counter attacking clearly holds risks and possible negative factors. Long passes across the pitch are open to being picked off by intercepts; an isolated player on counter attack can be turned over; and your team will need high fitness levels to attack immediately after defending. But the risks are worth the rewards. If a team does it with intelligence, ruthlessness and support, counter attacking can be match-winning.
At the end of the video above, there are two examples of the Lions winning back their own contestable kicks. This presents situations which are similar to winning a turnover in contact. It means that the Wallabies defence is in a bad position, working hard to get back onside before tackling. Again, the focus should be on moving the ball away from the area where the Lions have retrieved the kick.
Warren Gatland’s side need to go out and try to win Saturday’s game, rather than taking last weekend’s approach of trying not to lose. There are risks involved in counter attacking ambitiously, but the rewards certainly outweigh them.