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.
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.