Gatland has difficult choices ahead of him in terms of filling the backrow positions for the first test ... but he'll probably have even more sleepless nights over the same issue before the second test

Gatland has difficult choices ahead of him in terms of filling the backrow positions for the first test … but he’ll probably have even more sleepless nights over the same issue before the second test.

Judging by how Warren Gatland has been selecting his Lions teams thus far, there’s a strong chance that the lad who played the least rugby of anybody in the squad during the 2012-13 regular season [a mere 584 minutes, and all of them in the Pro12 for a perennial basement outfit] could be the first name on the teamsheet for the most important game of the tour. 

The Mole is hesitant to say that there’s one thing that unites all genuine rugby fans, because for a short word, ‘all’ is a pretty big ‘un. In this case though, you’re not going to get too many dissidents stamping their feet or heretics unwilling to bend: everybody likes a great tackler. Even the Anabaptists agree on that one.

Atom Heart Mother, by Pink Floyd. Nothing worse than not crediting your quotes.

Atom Heart Mother, by Pink Floyd. Few things worse in internet rugby-hackery than not crediting your quotes.

It’s like the atomic heart of rugby: the one-on-one physical contest in the service of the team, the shared skill in a game which demands positional specialisation.

A tighthead isn’t expected to kick goals, an outhalf isn’t often asked to win lineouts and a fullback doesn’t hook the ball back in a scrum, but all three are expected to tackle, to do their duty by their team-mates and drop the lad running at them. Aside from yawn-inducing stories from old farts – bear in mind I just used the phrase “do their duty”, so if I’m not already well established, I’m at least edging into the old farts canon myself – about fly-halves [never out-halves, funnily enough, always fly-halves] who weren’t obligated to tackle and the follow-ons about forwards who went whole seasons without seeing the ball, tackling has been one of the fundamentals of rugby since the year dot. It’s a foundation stone of the game.

Every back-pat won by tackling is hard-won. You can be the recipient of a pass a couple of metres from the line, flop over for the winning try and be praised out of all proportion just for being in the right place at the right time [Billy’s Boots style], but you can’t fake tackling. If you earn your spurs without the ball, you’ve definitely earned them the hard way.

When you’ve been around rugby for a long time, you’ve probably heard reasonable people say some pretty derogatory things about players who fall off too many tackles – even very talented players. In contrast, the worst thing that you’re likely to hear from the same people about lads who’ve made their name through their tackling ability above all else is that they’re “a bit limited”. That’s the respect it earns. In a rugby context, tackling is distilled bravery.

One bunch of lads trying to run, another bunch of lads trying to stop the run. As Darrell K. Royal once said, "Three things can happen when you pass the ball and two of them are bad".  That's quite the tangent.

One bunch of lads trying to run, another bunch of lads trying to stop the run. As Darrell K. Royal once said, “Three things can happen when you pass the ball and two of them are bad”. No team should don a tactical strait-jacket in big games because of what might go wrong, but you’ve got to be able to rely on your fundamentals to win ’em. That’s why they’re fundamentals.

Three Yards And A Cloud Of Dust

There’s an old phrase about the playoff season in American football: you’ve got to be able to run the football, and you’ve got to be able to stop the run. In test match rugby, you’ve got to be able to take your points, and you’ve got to be able to stop the run … well, no-one says it like that, but you’ve got to have a watertight defense.

It’s a truism that test matches are won and loss on small margins; when two strong teams face off, more often than not they’re tight games.

Some tackles are more important than others: some save tries, others change the momentum of a game. The first of these type of tackles are often dictated by circumstance; in many cases they’re a reaction to a great bit of opposition play. That doesn’t make them any less important or praise-worthy, and indeed they’re often more quantifiable: “so-and-so’s tackle on such-and-such saved a definite try”. Think of a great covering tackle, like Denis Hickie’s on Mark Dal Maso back in 2000:

To the law’s beloved reasonable man, that try saved seven points beyond the bounds of all probability. However, without an opposition break, there’s no great tackle to be made. The ability to create a positive situation for your team through a tackle – be it through an induced knock-on, a turnover opportunity, a penalty, or even just making ball slow by tackling a ball-carrier behind the gainline and forcing his support runners to back up in order to go through the gate – creates a different set of circumstances entirely. You may not be able to put a points value on it in the same way that you can on the Hickie tackle, but it can be more influential in the shape of the game.

Jonny Wilkinson’s tackle on Émile Ntamack back in the 2000 Six Nations is a case in point. Did it stop a certain try? No. Did it earn a penalty? No. It stopped something happening though, and it did so in a way which sent a very clear message to Ntamack – and anybody else who was paying attention – that the outhalf channel was a cul de sac.  Did it have a big effect on the game? It’s difficult to prove that it did, but The Mole would contend that it certainly did, and that the effect grew over the next three years as Wilkinson became renowned as probably the biggest hitting outhalf [with due respect to Henry ‘Lem’ Honiball] in the history of the game. As we said above, you can’t fake tackling. Every plaudit that Wilkinson gathered for his defense was earned.

By The Numbers

Since Toby Faletau made his test debut as a 20 year old in the summer preceding RWC11 [and he didn’t turn 21 until after the tournament was over], he has been a constant in the Welsh backrow; with the exception of the second and third tests against Australia last summer when he was ruled out through injury, he’s started every test the Welsh have played since then.

Toby Faletau: he hasn't been quite at his best in Australia, but he has done more than enough over the last two seasons to earn Warren Gatland's faith. He has been such an accomplished performer since debuting for Wales two years ago that it's easy to forget how young he is; at 22 years old, he's younger than Simon Zebo.

Toby Faletau: he hasn’t been quite at his best in Australia, but he has done more than enough over the last two seasons to earn Warren Gatland’s faith. He has been such an accomplished performer since making his test debut that it’s easy to forget how young he is; at 22 years old, he’s younger than Simon Zebo.

When you take into account that he has played in a World Cup semi-final, won a Grand Slam and won another championship before he’s 23, you’d have to say that it’s a meteoric start by anybody’s standards. Faletau is well on his way to being one of the real greats of Welsh rugby, is key to the success of the current team, and yet sometimes seems undervalued compared to Lydiate or [especially] Warburton.

Why do I say that? Neither of the two lads can carry the ball worth a lick. Faletau does it all: run, pass, offload, break tackles, make tackles, ruck, win turnovers … he’s the renaissance man of the Welsh backrow. In comparison, Lydiate and Warburton are essentially Victorian monomaniacs: Warburton wins turnovers, and Lydiate tackles the sh*t out of people.

The Mole had a pretty fully formed opinion that Lydiate wasn’t too much of a threat with the pill, so took the time to have a look at his test career [by the numbers available to the public] to back up or disprove the notion.

Dan Lydiate's test career in numbers [click to embiggen]:  if you're looking for a No6 who's going to repeatedly carry the ball, break tackles and get the team on the front foot, you're looking at the wrong guy. If you're looking for somebody who'll tackle everything around him and then go looking for more, you may have found your test starter.

Dan Lydiate’s test career in numbers* [click to embiggen]: if you’re looking for a No6 who’s going to repeatedly carry the ball, break tackles and get the team on the front foot, you’re looking at the wrong guy. If you’re looking for somebody who’ll tackle everything around him and then go looking for more, you may have found your test starter.                                                              *Matches highlighted in yellow are considered outliers for the purpose of calculating averages.

We’ve excluded three games from his test career as outliers. The first is his debut, when he appeared off the bench with just eight minutes left to play, and the last is the RWC11 pool game against Samoa, when he left the field injured after nine minutes. Playing for under 10 minutes of a game distorts averages badly and, in any case, is not a particularly good way to judge a player.

The second game we omitted is a game the Welsh played against the Barbarians back in June 2011, which laughably was granted test status by the WRU. Where are the Barbarians from then, lads? Barbaria? Do they speak English in Barbaria?

With those provisos established, here’s a précis of Lydiate’s average performance per game [over 24 tests as a starter, and using the headings established by ESPN]:

  • Kick/Pass/Run: 0/1.8/6
  • Metres Run: 8m [average metre/carry: 1.3m]
  • Clean Breaks: 0 [he hasn’t actually ever been credited with a clean break in 27 test appearances]
  • Defenders Beaten: 0.2 [i.e. one defender every five games]
  • Offloads: 0.3 [i.e. one offload every three games]
  • Turnovers Lost: 0.75 [less that one a game]
  • Lineouts won on own throw: 0.6 [i.e. one lineout every other game]
  • Lineouts won on opposition throw: 0 [he has never been credited with a lineout steal in his test career]
  • Penalties conceded: 0.5 per game [one penalty for every two games, an outstanding record for a blindside]
  • Tackles: 11.5/game
  • Tackles missed: 0.5/game
  • Yellow/Red cards: 0/0

Now, with all that information bundled together from his test career, you get a fairly accurate picture of the player that Dan Lydiate is: a lad who makes a load of tackles, has exceptionally good discipline [on average, he only gives away one penalty every other game – which is borderline miraculous for a blindside – and has never been carded] but who is a very hum-drum force in attack [no clean breaks, very few tackle breaks/defenders beaten or offloads].

The lad gives you nothing worth talking about with the ball in hand; compared to either Tom Croft or Sean O’Brien, his two main competitors for the No6 jersey, he’s practically a golem.

Neither is he as good in the lineout as you might think – or is posited by his supporters – given his height and the position he plays. You’d expect a 193cm/6’4” No6 to be a running tap when it comes to lineout possession [think Tom Croft or Juan Smith and their abilities up and down the line, both on their own ball and on the opposition throw] but with Wales Lydiate has averaged just one win on his own ball every two games at test level, and has never stolen a throw in test rugby.

However, what the numbers don’t show you is just how dominant a defender and how good a technical tackler he is in big games. He racked up 24 tackles with no misses against Ireland in the RWC11 quarter final, and his display in the 2012 Six Nations Grand Slam game for Wales against France was a defensive masterclass:

There goes that Dan Lydiate, knocking down talisman after talisman with textbook tackles. This time it's Italian superhero Parisse ...

There goes that Dan Lydiate, knocking down talisman after talisman with textbook tackles. This time it’s Italian superhero Parisse …

Top Trump: Tackles

Without much equivocation or wrangling about the differing priorities attached to different positions, The Mole would have Lydiate as the best tackler in world rugby on the back of his last full season for Wales.

The declining powers of Thierry Dusautoir have left the top of the podium empty following a four year reign that was bookended by extraordinary performances against the All Blacks in successive World Cups. If that reads a little regretful, that’s because it is.

... now it's Stephen Ferris, during the RWC11 quarter final ...

… now it’s roadtrain Stephen Ferris, during the RWC11 quarter final …

After his epic Man of the Match performance in the RWC11 final, Dusautoir had nothing left to prove … or much left to give, it would seem. His last two seasons have been increasingly disrupted by injury and he’s not the destructive, all-pitch presence that he was between 2007 and 2011. The Mole has the strong feeling that like Richie McCaw, he could do with a sabbatical to let his body recover and his mind refocus; unfortunately, while that’s an option for the centrally contracted McCaw, the FFR and the LNR aren’t reading off the same page. They don’t even have the same script: Paul Goze and the lads in the league are reading the Quatre Cent Coups and the boys at HQ are engrossed in the Three Colours series. Wow. That’s a pretty strained attempt at high brow humour. Back to the fart gags.

... and finally knocking down English captain Chris Robshaw.

… and finally knocking down English captain Chris Robshaw in textbook style. TIMBER!

In any case, Lydiate is a worthy successor to the title. This clip has what most would agree is an appalling soundtrack, but there’s some great slow-motion footage of him tackling, and it’s well worth watching: hip height, head position, posture, hitting power, tenacity, technique … it’s a masterclass.

Each Tool For Its Purpose

However, as talented a defender as Lydiate is, and as crucial as that can be in a high quality test match, that doesn’t change the fact that he’s an utterly pedestrian ball carrier for a blindside. Like Jorge Valdano said about a Liverpool/Chelsea Champions league semi-final five or six years ago:

“Put a shit hanging from a stick in the middle of this passionate, crazy stadium [Anfield] and there are people who will tell you it’s a work of art. It’s not: it’s a shit hanging from a stick.”

It’s Lydiate’s attacking capabilities that are [in this case] ‘shit hanging from a stick’. He’s an All World tackler, but he’s a very ordinary ball carrier, even when he plays at Pro12 level. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher, but it’s not a crime: Louis Picamoles does sweet f*ck all at the breakdown, but he’s the best tackle-breaker in world rugby. Some big-name players are really great at one thing and pretty poor at another.

However, while we drew the parallel between test rugby and the NFL above [and it can be an interesting exercise to compare the two games due to their shared origin but divergent lifespans as professional sports], they’re not the same thing. Test rugby isn’t the NFL. You can’t just wheel on and wheel off your defensive MVP whenever there’s a turnover.

Playing Favourites Or Playing Mindgames?

The respective mono-dimensional styles that Lydiate and Warburton bring to the table pose something of a problem for Gatland, especially given the lack of success that Wales have had against Australia and the almost complete absence of high intensity rugby that Lydiate [in particular] has played this season.

The Lions must know that they’re going to be running on fumes by the third test – pretty much every professional Lions tour has turned out like that, with a cataclysmic middle test – so Gatland probably recognises that he needs to bag it up by the final whistle of the second test. If it goes to a third, The Mole can only see one winner.

You want Lydiate on the pitch for eighty minutes in that second test. Regardless of the historical pattern that has been established on previous Lions tours of the team who wins the first test winning the series, it’s the second test which is the main event: it decides whether or not the series goes into a third match. It seems eminently likely to The Mole that the second test will be a real tightrope, and Lydiate’s ferocious tackling ability and his Mr Clean disciplinary record are ideal for a high stakes game. Put in tandem with the Dead Eye Dick goal-kicking ability of Leigh Halfpenny, the key players for a backs-to-the-wall effort against a furious Australian assault are in place.

It might seem a risky strategy, but The Mole feels like Gatland would be well served to go balls-out for the win in the first test, and then utterly change his tactics – and some of his personnel – for the second. If it goes wrong at the second stage, he’d get absolutely flayed by the press [and the public], especially if he abandons a successful out-and-out attacking strategy for a game based on containment, set-pieces, a stifling defence and stealing points from long range penalty kicks. However, it’s very difficult to shake the memories of the second tests from both the 1997 and 2001 tours.

In the second test of the South African series, the Lions were second best  in practically every aspect of the game bar goal-kicking and discipline, but their strengths in those elements of the game won them the series and a place in history. In contrast, in the middle test of the the 2001 series, they were neither able to match their first-test flair nor play pragmatic, brutal, grinding rugby; they ended up conceding 29 second half points after leading at half time and finished the test match on their knees. After the savaging they endured in the first forty minutes of the first test, Rod Macqueen had his Wallabies better prepared, and that second half of the second test swung the momentum of the series in their favour.

If the Lions win the first test against an undercooked Wallabies side – as The Mole feels they will – and it comes down to an absolutely blood-and-guts showdown in the second test of the series, Gatland has ample first-hand evidence that Lydiate will stand up to be counted. On the back of no form whatsoever in the 2012-13 season, he was selected in the touring party for one reason only: to be a major factor in the test series. Dan Lydiate was never going to run in tries from fifty metres against the plasterers and students of Combined Country, but that’s not what this tour is going to be remembered for in any case.

The nickname ‘Chopper’ has its own connotations in Australia, and I’d guess that the original of the species is more an NRL fan than a union man, but if the series goes the way Gatland envisions it – as evidenced by his selection of Lydiate in the initial squad – a big tough sheep farmer might be taking the handle home to the Welsh valleys.

17 thoughts on “Chopper

  1. Great to see you back Moly- excellent essay in genuine rugby analysis as ever. I see the point you’re making so I would be intrigued to know what you think the backrow for the first two tests should be……

  2. One thing that I have noticed about Lydiate is that defensively he isn’t an especially big hitter. He scrags his man, but I’ve noted a number of attackers still getting over the gainline with Lydiate hanging around their ankles. He’s not the sort of ferocious psychological threat that somebody like Kaino was, for example, and if you include somebody who is such a poor ball carrier then you have to balance that out elsewhere in the pack – and with Gatland’s other favourite son AW Jones looking odds on to fill the 4 jersey, a Welsh backrow creates a gulf of ball carrying options. There’s no real point of difference there – the sort of qualities that Croft and O’Brien have.

  3. Got to disagree on the following:

    “On the back of no form whatsoever in the 2012-13 season, he was selected in the touring party for one reason only: to be a major factor in the test series”

    I think he was brought because it was a gamble worth taking for Gatland. If he finds his best form you’ve got an outstanding blindside at your disposal, and if not, what have you got to lose? I think he took a similar approach with Kearney who also had an injury disrupted season after a great 2012, it was clearly a pick based on reputation (and it would appear Gatland rates him massively after he was kept around despite the hamstring injury on tour, just as he does Lydiate).

    Lydiate looked decent in some of the warm-up games but I wouldn’t at all say he looked ready for a test start, particularly when you consider one of Croft/Tipuric/SOB will almost certainly not be starting in the first test, and maybe not even involved at all. Those are fresh flankers in flying form who will easily slot in for the second/third test

  4. That’s an interesting idea about Lydiate being ideal for a second test.

    However, bar the most recent Welsh defeat to Australia in December when he was injured, Lydiate has played all of Wales’ recent losing streak against the Wallabies. The Australians don’t/haven’t worried about his destructive abilities. And for such a one dimensionsal player, as you’ve illustrated nicely, when his primary (almost sole) attribute isn’t contributing to wins then maybe a different option or direction is needed.

  5. I think you make an excellent argument for Lydiate to play although in my view you lose too much by not having a 6 who can carry. SOB is pretty handy at the tackling too e.g.. 2nd half v Wales (ESPN credited him with 12 carries for 25m and 18 tackles in the match, although some made it more).

    My difficulty with your thesis is that your 2nd test strategy relies on a dominant scrum which is unlikely if Vunipola’s struggles against Paddy Ryan of the Tahs are anything to go by. I think that the Tip/SOB/JH combination is by far the best – loses little if anything in defence, maybe not quite so clever at the breakdown but is a quantum leap better with ball in hand.

  6. Bah, typed and the lost to the ether:

    My big reservation about Lydiate, which links both to benjamin’s point and to the nickname, has to do with his technique. It’s absolutely textbook tackling according to what I was told at school, between 30 and 15 years ago, and it’s tremendously effective at taking the man down.

    But I’ve never once seen him come close to stopping his man getting his hands free to offload the ball. You can say that he hits hard and low enough that they usually come down too quickly to react; but a Sonny Bill Williams, or the Toulouse side of 6/7 years ago, would have played against him all week with glee.

    I can’t imagine Dingo Deans hasn’t noticed it.

  7. He can tackle and eh…..thats about it, in essence he’s the anti Tom Croft. It just so happens hitting people is more conducive to six play then occasionally winning ball at the back of a lineout and hanging out chatting to Drico during a Lions test, hoping for a break. He’s a hitter as opposed to a ballerina, neither is a great option though.
    Luckily Sean O’Brien is the happy medium between these flawed polarising 6’s, Ball carrying? check. Tackling? check. Lineout? check. Work on the deck? check.

    • Croft does actually get into some really good positions at the breakdown. It’s an oft ignored aspect of his game by the media. He’s also a superb decision maker, and given the style of play that Gatland is attempting to play I think that a player with Croft’s support play, pace and width is pretty vital. O’Brien has had spells down the wings during games, but he’s made bad decisions and you can’t afford to be profligate against the Wallabies.

  8. Digressing slightly, but would be interested in your thoughts on Honiball Mole, I always thought he was a class act & one of the best out halves in world rugby but he was always going to be in Stranky’s shadow (understandable given RWC 95).

    • Honibal for me was the last great South African 10,haven’t come close to replacing him.(the young 10 who came on scene at tail end of last season is closest i’ve seen for them)

  9. Does Healys injury not reduce the chances of picking such a solely defensive player?i reckon that has affected Gatlands thinking. Fine to play a defensive 6 when you have ball carrying like that in your front row. Corbiserro/hibbard/jones/poc/AWJones lack ball carrying as a front 5.

    • Yeahbut, the test replacement is in all likelihood going to be the one you’ve left out; Vunipola, who isn’t much behind Church in the carrying department, whatever else you’d say about his game.

  10. Mole, excellent as always, however two things stick out for me, both concerning the spreadsheet of stats for Lydiate:

    (i) It’s hard to put those in any context without comparisons (for instance, I would not be shocked to see O’Brien averaging double figures for tackes per game, while he is also likely to have good running numbers).***

    (ii) Without any good numbers for breakdown figures (hit on possession, hit on defence, win %s for both, comparisons of the team numbers game on game, etc.) – just about the most important facet of the sport – it’s very difficult to say such numbers offer a reliable indicator for player performance. Any idea where such stats would be?

    ***The obvious solution is to stop bothering you and go and see for myself, wouldn’t take that long… however, (ii) is the big issue

  11. I really don’t think the way to beat a team like Oz to play a territorial game, allow them to have the ball and rely on the defensive structures. If the warm up matches taught us anything it’s that the Lions will give up line breaks and they also defend quite narrow, leaving space out wide. If we give Aus parity in terms of possession, we will lose. Aus specialise in living off scraps possession wise so playing a game plan designed at allowing them to play with the ball can only end in tears. So I don’t think playing Lydiate is the answer.

    Lydiate specialises in shutting down big runners in that 15m from the ruck. This may work in NH rugby but won’t work against Aus. They’re not going to try and beat the door down like Ireland did in that RWC QF (Lydiate’s masterpiece it would seem). Also, am I alone in thinking Lydiate seems significantly less mobile and dynamic since coming back from his ankle injury?

    As an aside, without North and Roberts and assuming the back row will be Croft/Lydiate-Heaslip-Warburton, I think the Lions look painfully short of ball carrying heft. Vunipola and Youngs should go some way to sorting this but I’m not convinced that Davies at 12 will be able to provide the sort of blunt force that Roberts/Tuilagi could. You only need to look at Wales’ games against Aus last summer to see how toothless Wales looked without Roberts.

  12. Lydiate is so valuable to Wales because they haven’t played with a defensively reliable fly half for about a decade so their 9/10 channel needs protecting. Lydiate does this so well that his abscence in attack and at the set piece can be overlooked. However, with the Lions lining up a 9/10/12 combination of Phillips, Sexton and Roberts, their channel shouldn’t require the same protection and in any case, with the Lions packing so much beef, the Aussie route one isn’t something we should be too concerned with.

    The Aussies do, however, have some outstanding broken-field runners and some serious gas out wide so by stacking our defense on that channel, we are forcing the Aussies to play their more dangerous attacking game – either that or they will boot the ball and the Lions back three, as good as they are in attack, don’t fill me with confidence under big steepling Garryowens.
    I think we would be much better served getting Tom Croft on the park and lining him up in between the 12 and 13 in defense to try and force the Aussies inside.

  13. Pingback: Lions: Refine or Redesign? | The Touchline

  14. Pingback: Ruck Marks: Ireland vs Wales 2014 | Digging Like a Demented Mole

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s