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.

Lions: Refine or Redesign?

Warren Gatland has some big decisions to make ahead of the second Test. (c) NAFW.

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.

Jamie Roberts arrives. Wales Grand Slam Celebration, Senedd 19 March 2012 / Jamie Roberts yn cyrraedd. Dathliadau Camp Lawn Cymru, Senedd 19 Mawrth 2012

If Roberts is fit, his return would add a lot to the Lions’ play. (c) NAFW

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.

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Photos: National Assembly for Wales.

Video Post: James O’Connor Wallabies Outhalf?

Wales vs Australia

O’Connor looks set to start at outhalf against the Lions. (c) Salman Javed.

Judging on the available evidence, I think James O’Connor will start at outhalf against the Lions in the first Test. My personal preference would be for Quade Cooper to start at 10, and use O’Connor at 14. If the Reds playmaker impresses on Saturday against the Lions, who knows? However, for now Cooper remains outside the Australian squad and everything Deans has said up up to this point suggests it will be O’Connor running out at 10. So what does the Rebels man bring to the outhalf position?

O’Connor defends bravely, can beat players with his footwork, place-kicks competently, is explosively quick, has a high work-rate and passes excellently. All in all he’s a very complete rugby player, as highlighted in the video below. His passing game from outhalf would allow the Wallabies to attack in wide channels from first-phase, as well as in open play. O’Connor is very accurate in this regard, and he’s good at spotting space out wide in defences.

However, that vision doesn’t extend to the space in behind defences and that’s one of the areas where O’Connor lags behind Jonny Sexton. He rarely puts grubbers, chips or cross-field kicks in behind defences. The first thought for him is nearly always either to pass or run. This should allow the Lions defensive line to push up quickly without worrying too much about the space left in behind.

That inability to vary his game leads to the biggest problem with O’Connor playing outhalf: he doesn’t ‘boss’ his team around the pitch. He’s relatively inexperienced at outhalf and, as anyone who has ever tried to step into the number 10 shirt from another position will tell you, controlling a team from 10 is very demanding. O’Connor seems to struggle with making decisions about where he should direct play, when to kick and when to attack.

The Wallabies likely ploy to counteract that deficiency is to use several playmakers throughout the team. As you’ll see in the video, they’ve done this in the past by using a distributing second-five-eighth outside O’Connor, namely Berrick Barnes. Also, Will Genia at 9 will take on a lot of the responsibility for marshaling the forwards around the pitch and deciding when to kick. Also, I think Kurtley Beale will have a big role to play in this regard, stepping up from fullback.

That should allow O’Connor to focus on his strengths. If Australia use other playmakers intermittently, that will allow O’Connor to pop up in wider channels, where he is lethal. If Deans does decide to go with a system similar to this, it will ask demanding questions of the Lions’ defence. With O’Connor, Beale and Barnes/Lealiifano (if they play a creative 12 rather than a bosher like Horne) swapping around the pitch, there will be danger from all angles.

I’m still unconvinced that outhalf is O’Connor’s best position, but he’s still a good option there. While I feel that Cooper would be a better choice for the Wallabies, having O’Connor at 10 is not going to weaken them greatly. The 22-year-old (with 37 caps!) is among the best players in the world. He comes across as very mentally strong and I think this Lions tour will see him stepping up a level on what we’ve seen before.

Check out the video below for some examples of what O’Connor can offer from outhalf, and some of the areas where the Lions could have an advantage.

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Photos: Salman Javed.