Category Archives: Lions

Lions: The Tries

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Over the course of the 2013 Test series between the Lions and the Wallabies, there were 10 tries scored. That is a slight drop on the 12 tries scored in 2009, and lower than 2005 (15), 2001 (14) and 1997 (12). We have to go back as far as 1993 for a series that featured fewer tries, when just seven were scored.

What is rare is valuable. In this Test series tries were like goals in football; the infrequency made them that little bit more important. The Lions outscored the Wallabies six tries to four, and they won the series. Leigh Halfpenny’s place kicking has correctly been highlighted as a major aspect of the series win, but tries will always be of higher point-scoring and confidence-boosting value.

It’s worth investigating how each side built their tries, and how they came about. Of the 10 scored in this series, all but two of the tries were scored in five phases or less. The only try that took more than ten phases to construct was Adam Ashley-Cooper’s match-winner in the second Test (15 phases), although the Lions did have a nine-phase effort in the third Test, when Jonny Sexton touched down.

Based on the stats above, it’s clear that the greatest attacking threat from the Lions and the Wallabies came in the very early stages of their possessions. Both teams scored two tries each on first phase, and those are probably the most memorable ones of the series. The very first five-pointer in the first Test was scored by Israel Folau on first phase possession. The Wallabies soaked up 23 phases of Lions’ attack, won a penalty and burst away through Will Genia’s quick tap.

The Lions response came through George North, on first phase too, when he fielded a dreadful kick by Berrick Barnes and made that iconic run. In the third Test, the Wallabies’ only try came from James O’Connor on first phase, directly from a scrum. In the second half, Halfpenny set up a first phase score for North when he took advantage of a poor Genia kick to counter attack.

What made ambitious attacking in the early phases of possession so effective in this series? The simple answer was having good attacking players running at defenders with the time and space to beat them. Whether that was on turnover ball, like North’s fantastic run and Folau’s finish after some Genia genius, or in the early stages of attacking from a set piece, like Cuthbert’s try in the first Test (phase three) and Jamie Roberts score in the third (phase two), there was space for the attacker to beat defenders.

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Once play went beyond five phases, both defences were very solid and aggressive in general. When the ball had been in play for extended periods of time, it favoured the defence very often with two tacklers bringing down the attacker more often than not. Before the fifth phase of possession, both sides still had the opportunity to create one-on-ones, two-on-twos and three-on-threes. With a little bit of space, those mini games suited guys like Genia, Folau, North and Cuthbert.

The two tries from which Warren Gatland likely took the most satisfaction were the Alex Corbisiero and Sexton tries in the third Test. Corbisiero’s try was not only pleasing for how early it was scored, a mental blow for the Wallabies, but also in its construction.

From a free kick, Phillips took off with a quick tap to send Tommy Bowe making yards down the right-hand side touchline. From there, the Lions forwards battered their way infield for four hard-carrying phases that featured excellent leg drive, aggressive leeching and efficient clear outs. For the scoring action, Phillips’ physical threat from close range drew Stephen Moore into the tackle that opened the gap for Corbisiero. Simple, effective and to Gatland’s pattern.

Even more exemplary of that pattern was the try Sexton scored. From a lineout on the left-hand side around 25 metres out, the Lions worked seven phases all the way out to the right-hand edge, before coming back to the left and taking advantage of the space out wide. Sexton dotted down on the ninth phase. The forward runners around the corner, the decoy line by Roberts and the patience to wait for exactly the right moment were all justifications of Gatland’s attacking system.

Interestingly, all six of the Lions’ tries in this series were created on the left-hand half of the pitch as they attacked. Whether this is due to a weakness in the Wallabies defence or a strength in the Lions attack is unclear. It’s something to keep an eye on from an Australian perspective in the Rugby Championship.

Place kicking was vital in this Test series, with some of the misses just as important as the chances taken. Still, tries are a precious commodity and the Lions came out on top of this area.

Lions: Counter Attacking

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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.

Davies and O’Driscoll: Centre Combination

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My piece over on the Elverys Sports Blog today takes a detailed look at what Jonathan Davies and Brian O’Driscoll contributed for the Lions in the second test. Have a read of that piece by clicking here. The video above highlights the lack of understanding between the pair, which I talk about in the article. I feel that Jamie Roberts has to start at 12 for the third Test, with Brian O’Driscoll outside him. Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment over on the Elverys Sports Blog.

Let the Boys Play Warren

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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.

Lions Look to Change for Second Test

Lions

(c) HSBC.

Tommy Bowe is set to come straight into the Lions starting team for the second Test against Australia after recovering from his hand injury. Despite a clinical finish for his try in the first Test, Alex Cuthbert appears to have lost out to the Ulster wing’s more polished skills and experience at this level. The Welshman should be retained in the match day squad.

At scrumhalf, Mike Phillips is struggling with a long-standing knee injury, which may explain his uncharacteristically untidy performance in the first Test. Ben Youngs looks set to take over in the number nine shirt, with Conor Murray unexpectedly catapulted into the match day 23. It would be entirely deserved for the Munster man, who has enjoyed an excellent tour.

Dan Lydiate appears to have won the battle at blindside, taking over from Tom Croft after the Englishman failed to reach Warren Gatland’s exacting standards in the first Test. It is likely that Croft will be retained on the bench, from where he also covers the second row. Lydiate’s brief would certainly revolve around stifling Will Genia’s influence.

Sean O’Brien, tasked with making a big impact in the second half, should join Croft as a replacement. The Leinster flanker will be keen to show exactly what the Lions were missing last weekend. His name is not one Robbie Deans and the Wallabies will be pleased to see on the team sheet.

Alex Corbisiero’s calf strain hasn’t healed as quickly as Lions staff had hoped, meaning Mako Vunipola looks the probable starter at loosehead. His scrummaging remains a worry, but his work rate in the loose is a boost. Ryan Grant’s final audition against the Rebels yesterday wasn’t enough to win him a Test team spot.

Possible Lions Squad for Second Test

Starting XV: Halfpenny, Bowe, O’Driscoll, Davies, North; Sexton, B. Youngs; Heaslip, Warburton (c), Lydiate; Parling, A.W. Jones; A. Jones, T. Youngs, Vunipola.

Replacements: Hibbard, Grant, Cole, Croft, O’Brien, Murray, Farrell, Cuthbert.