The Lions had a last minute kick to win the second test that, had it gone over, would have stolen the match from an Australian team that played all the rugby.
It’s All About Next Week … Again
Going to a third game is great for the series. It gives a third huge match to look forward to, rather than just another dead rubber, which we’ve had in three of the last four tours [1997, 2005 and 2009].
The Lions side was selected to play a tight game and then went out and played a really ugly game tactically. At the final whistle it didn’t pay off for them. Of course individual players made errors, but the result sits on Gatland’s shoulders. That’s just the nature of a performance and a gameplan like that. If you win, you’ve done the right thing – it’s a heroic backs-to-the-wall effort. If you’ve lost, you’ve done the wrong thing – you’ve gone into your shell and failed to grab the chance of glory.
Who Dares Wins
Gatland’s pragmatic approach infected the players to the point where they were afraid to take any risks, and they thus handed over the initiative to the Wallabies.
Strategically, their preoccupation was playing in Australian territory. Nothing wrong with that in theory, even if it means that the game lacks on-pitch flair. The tension of a swing second test meant that there was enough excitement in the air to keep the punters in the stands from doing a Mexican wave.
Strategy and tactics are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same words, and they don’t mean the same thing. Strategy is your overall intention; tactics are what you implement to carry out your strategy. While the Lions’ strategic goal was arguably sound, their tactics failed.
They failed where tactics typically fail: a lack of variation, which meant they became predictable and more easy to counter, and a lack of effective execution.
The Lions’ tactics seemed to exhaust themselves after three approaches:
- kicking long out of defense, in order to reduce the risk of mistakes and/or turnovers in their own territory that would lead to either good attacking positions for the Australians, or the concession of kickable penalties;
- kicking contestable ball when in the Australian half, in order to pressure the relatively inexperienced Wallaby back three with a hard-paced kick chase from the tall and athletic Lions wingers Tommy Bowe and George North; this would in turn either lead to reclaiming the kicks [best case scenario]; forcing a knock-on or turnover in Australian territory [next base case scenario] or pinning the Australians back in their own territory with fifteen Lions defenders between them and the try-line [ostensibly the worst case scenario, while not fully taking into account the ability of the Wallabies to shed or evade chasers and/or tacklers and counter-attack from deep against a less than fully organised Lions defensive line]; and
- competing for the ball at the breakdown through jackalling rather than counter-rucking when in the Australian half in order to either win kickable penalties for Leigh Halfpenny [best case scenario]; win turnovers [next best case scenario for the Lions] or sufficiently slow the Australian possession to allow the Lions defensive line to reform and set [worst case scenario].
Pattern Recognition … Failure
The Lions main attacking ploy was kicking contestable ball, i.e. up-and-unders, bombs, garryowens … call them what you will. Every time the Lions kicked a contestable ball, it:
- a] essentially made it a 50/50 ball, given that the Wallabies back three were pretty good in the air; and
- b] prevented them from doing something else with it.
While a number of the contestable kicks were actually very good [from both Sexton and Murray when he came on, not so much from Ben Youngs] with Tommy Bowe and George North chasing and competing well, the Aussie back three and sweeper [typically Will Genia] held up relatively well for the entire 80 mins.
The Lions never really experienced a big success with their contestable kicks. George North managed to get on the end of one on the left touchline just outside the Wallaby 22 in the first half [beating James Horwill to the ball]; Kurtley Beale knocked one on just outside his 22 under pressure from Tommy Bowe in the second half, giving the Lions a scrum in a good position; and Tommy Bowe reclaimed one brilliantly midway through the second half but was immediately tackled near the right touchline.
However, they were never able to either score points directly from them or establish position in the Wallaby half. In that way, the tactic gave them just enough success to encourage them to keep at it, while never providing enough success to actually control the game.
Why were they not able to establish position? The same reason most teams have problems establishing position – a lack of stability in the set piece. Furthermore, the ball retention of the Lions was absolutely terrible. Part of that is due to the tactical approach [i.e. they kicked a lot on first or second phase], but there was also what could rightly be termed a failure of execution of technical skills.
Finally, cracks emerged in the selection that were caused by the failure of the appointed tactics. When the tactics didn’t work out perfectly [the phrase ‘fine margins’, repeatedly came up when Will Greenwood was on the mic], the Lions didn’t quite have the personnel either on the field or on the bench to change things sufficiently.
He Picked The Ball Up And Ran … It Never Says He Passed
The Lions only made 70 passes in an indoor game. To put that in context, Ireland made 88 passes in a wintry February downpour against England in their 6-12 loss at Lansdowne in a quite hapless performance that was full of effort but showed little enterprise.Much of the ineffectiveness of that joyless Irish performance could be put down to weather conditions that were severely adverse to good handling, but the Lions don’t have that excuse. The lack of passing in their performance was due to a stilted gameplan, conservative tactics and nerves.
The Aussies offloaded out of the tackle nine times; the Lions just three times – and two of those came from subs Conor Murray and Sean O’Brien in the last twenty minutes. Put another way, the Lions, composed both in theory and practice of many of the best players in the Northern Hemisphere, only made one successful offload in the first hour.
Low risk? Paralysis. Again, The Mole comes back to Greenwood’s [correct] belief that it’s all about ‘the fine margins’ in a game like that. He was talking about on-pitch execution – the kick that misses touch, the knock-on in contact etc. However, it’s also a fine margin in approach between being pragmatic and being overly cautious.
You Can’t Touch This: ‘You’ Being A Forward And ‘This’ Being The Ball
In attack, it was well flagged that Warburton and Lydiate offered very little going forward: their duty was to make tackles and [for Warburton] to effect turnovers at the breakdown. In theory this put a massive onus on No8 Jamie Heaslip to carry the ball … but in theory, communism works [thank you, The Simpsons]. No-one was going to carry the ball that much, because the Lions wanted to kick it in the air a lot rather than attack the Aussies with ball in hand, force them to make tackles and go through a number of phases to pull their defensive line out of shape and create mismatches.
There’s an argument that the role might have suited Toby Faletau a little better, as he’s probably the better carrier of the two close-in – he’s had 71 carries compared to Heaslip’s 63, and has beaten 19 men to the Irish captain’s 11 – but on the other hand, the Welsh backrow have been singularly unsuccessful against the Wallabies, losing every one of the last six games they’ve played [December 2012 in the Millenium Stadium, the three tests in Australia in June 2012, the rubbish friendly in the Millenium in December 2011 and the third place game at RWC11 in Auckland].
It would have been a tough call on Heaslip, who was the pick of the backrow in the first test and has had a strong tour [as has Faletau], and anyway, maybe that approach – i.e. two non-ball carriers in the backrow – just doesn’t work that well against the Wallabies. When Ireland beat them in RWC11, they had a backrow of Ferris, O’Brien and Heaslip, all of them noted carriers. Outside of dominating the scrum, the key aspect of the win was that they were able to use hard-running backrows off both the scrum-half [Reddan/Murray] and outhalf [Sexton/O’Gara] to batter the Australian fringe defense, break the gainline and generate momentum. That’s a tactic that we haven’t really seen at all from the Lions in the test series. In any case, the Lions’ second test gameplan really had no attacking bent whatsoever when it came to using their forwards.
Lydiate had the ball four times in open play, Warburton had it four times, and Heaslip had it six times, with only the No8 breaking 10m with the ball in hand. Those are low numbers for tight five forwards, never mind back rowers. In the first test, Croft got on the ball ten times, Warburton three times and Heaslip twenty – it reflected a far more rounded [and effective] gameplan.
Deprived by injuries of two forwards who had particularly good first tests [Corbisiero and O’Connell], Gatland chose a pack who, harsh as it is to say in the aftermath of a one-point loss, essentially failed in their roles.
The scrum struggled badly at times; the lineout wasn’t a consistent source of good ball; the retention of ball through multiple phases was almost wholly absent, and a pack lacking explosive ball-carriers couldn’t provide any go-forward ball.
He wheeled out his D-line, and while every player put in a big effort in defense when they were on the pitch, it’s always going to be extremely difficult to defend for 80 minutes. Due to the selection and tactics, The Lions were only ever likely to build their score in threes; they were always going to have to defend a narrow lead, which leaves little margin for error.
Unfortunately for the Lions [and fortunately for the Wallabies, the game and the series] when it came time to make a goal-line stand, Adam Ashley Cooper got over for a touchdown after a lateral from QB James O’ Connor. Granted it was the backline that messed up – JJVD Davies getting too narrow, keeping his eyes on O’Driscoll’s man [O’Connor], not trusting the defensive system and offering AAC a wide gap and a soft shoulder – but the fact that they were only six points up and had very little of the ball in the second half after the fifty minute mark meant that conceding a try had the potential to be devastating. And thus it proved.
Scrum Struggles …
If Bill McLaren is the patron saint of the Demented Mole, Dean Ryan is the high priest [ and Jim Telfer is the shaman – it’s a makey-uppy religion that’s a little bit confused … like all of them]. When Telfer says you’re too f*cking high, or you’re not f*cking tight enough, that’s it: he’s the judge, and not you:
Likewise, when Dean Ryan says that Mako Vunipola should have been shown the curly finger – and then goes on to spell out exactly what he was doing wrong – I’m going to take his word for it.
Vunipola has had a strong tour thus far, and has [in my opinion] completely vindicated what The Mole initially thought to be a dubious selection. He’s hard-headed, has good footballing ability and a remarkable engine for a guy who weighs in at 130kg [20st6lbs in old money]. He’s also only 22 years old, an absolute kid for a prop, and is only really featuring in the test series because of injuries to the two looseheads practically everybody assumed were bolted on, Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins.
Given his workrate – a very high tackle-count, the highest number of carries in the pack and numerous good hits at ruck-time – it’s a little harsh to single him out. Sorry Deano! After all, he didn’t pick himself.
… And Lineout Woes
The Lions’ lineout was again a source of angst. Firstly, a huge degree of credit should go to Australian blindside and lineout caller Ben Mowen, who read the Lions’ lineout very well and was regularly in the air competing against the Lions’ target. That speaks of an awful lot of time spent analysing what they have done on tour [and what England and Wales have done in the past, given that the Lions were cautious about exposing a lot of their calls in the warm-up games].
Mowen has a lot of mongrel in him, but he’s obviously a canny operator and a student of the game as well. It’s pretty incredible that he has been overlooked this long [he turns 29 in December] when some fairly ordinary players like Dave Dennis [15 test caps] and Ben McCalman [21 test caps] have regularly been chosen in front of him by Deans.
Secondly, while the match stats read that the Lions won twelve of their own throws and lost just one, the figures don’t say whether or not the lineout went to plan or resulted in good ball.
Lineout 1 [G]: Thrown to Heaslip at two and popped back down at the front to Tom Youngs around the Wallaby 10m line, but there’s no gap there and he’s bundled into touch within a couple of metres. Did the throw go to plan? Yes. Was the result any good? No.
Lineout 2 [B]: A very good throw to Warburton at six in a full lineout on the Australian 10m line; excellent throw from Youngs and a very athletic take-and-give from Warburton. Did the throw go to plan? Yes. Was the result any good? Yes.
Lineout 3 [S]: Thrown to a standing Heaslip at two in a full lineout outside the Australian 22 and mauled very well into the Australian 22. The Wallabies collapse and the Lions earn a penalty. Did the throw go to plan? Yes. Was the result any good? Yes.
Lineout 4 [G]: A ten-man lineout 7m from the Australian line [North at one, O’Driscoll at two and Davies at the tail] that is thrown to AWJ and mauled towards the line. Again the Australians pull down the maul and the Lions end up going back for the penalty. Did the throw go to plan? Yes. Was the result any good? Yes.
Lineout 5 [B]: A five-man lineout between the Australian 10m line and halfway with huge movement in the Lions’ line that goes to Parling at four, but it’s an untidy throw and goes to the second row’s outside hand. His tap back is untidy and bounces but is gathered by Sexton. Did the throw go to plan? No. Was the result any good? Hmmm. Not really.
Lineout 6 [F]: A full lineout between the Lions 10m line and halfway that goes to Parling at two off the top. Did the throw go to plan? Yes. Was the result any good? Yes.
Lineout 7 [B]: A full lineout just outside the Australian 22 that is aimed at Heaslip at the back, but it’s too high, on the Australian side and goes over the top for a turnover. Did the throw go to plan? No. Was the result any good? No.
Lineout 8 [F]: On the Lions 22, a throw to Alun-Wyn Jones at the front that is disrupted by Horwill [who’s practically in the Lions’ line by the time it is thrown and could have been penalized] but is retained by Tom Youngs at the front. Did the throw go to plan? No. Was the result any good? Hmmm. Not really.
Lineout 9 [B][second half]: On the Australian 10m line, a full lineout that goes to Warburton at five – another good throw and take resulting in very good ball off the top. Did the throw go to plan? Yes. Was the result any good? Yes.
Lineout 10 [M]: On Wallabies 10m line, a botched lift by Vunipola on Alun-Wyn Jones means that he’s not in the air by the time the ball is going over his head. Luckily, it goes straight to Adam Jones at the back. Did the throw go to plan? No. Was the result any good? Yes.
Lineout 11 [S]: On halfway, a lineout thrown to a standing Heaslip at two and mauled. Did the throw go to plan? Yes. Was the result any good? Yes.
Lineout 12 [M] [Hibbard on]: On halfway, a full lineout thrown to Parling at four, but Horwill gets good pressure in the air and then manages to come through the middle of the maul to stop the ball coming back. It collapses, and there’s a turnover to the Wallabies. Did the throw go to plan? Yes. Was the result any good? No.
Lineout 13 [M]: In Wallaby 22, thrown to Parling at four but Mowen gets up and disrupts well. Parling’s tap is untidy and goes to the back rather than scrum half, where Liam Gill wins the breaking ball ahead of Dan Cole. Did the throw go to plan? No. Was the result any good? No.
The Lions lineout calls showed reasonably good variation, with the four main targets [Parling, Heaslip, Warburton and Alun-Wyn Jones] being used and a lot of movement up and down the line:
- two gimmick [G] plays: the pop back to Tom Youngs at the front [L1] and the 10-man lineout near the Aussie line [L4]
- two balls thrown to a standing [S] Heaslip at two [L3 & L11], which enables the maul to form very quickly and takes advantage of the Aussie front man having his back to the thrower;
- two balls thrown to the front [F] for quick ball off the top [L6 & L8]
- three balls thrown to the middle in full lineouts [L10, L12 & L13]
- four balls thrown to the back [L2, L5, L7 & L9], one with a five man line-up [L5]
Neither of the Lions hookers were penalised for crooked throws, which is quite obviously a good thing. With regards to what went wrong with the bogey throws [L5, L7, L8, L10 & L13], L5 was a bad but not disastrous throw, L7 looked like a poor throw rather than the fault of the target or the lifters, L8 was a decent throw disrupted, L10 was a botched lift and L13 was a decent throw disrupted.
Lineouts are a complicated business with a lot of moving parts, especially when the other side want to compete for the ball in the air and have the personnel to do it. There are similarities to boxing, as to how you combine going to the head and the body.
If you take the back of the lineout as the head, then the front is the body. Just like young Marky Mark says, you have to mix it up. Taking shots to the body takes away the legs, or can even lead to a knock-out [as those who saw Golovkin vs Macklin t’other night will know]. The Lions have mauled well off front ball, and a good maul sucks in a lot of defenders and takes a lot of energy to defend. Granted the defensive line doesn’t have to stand 10m from a maul, but you can clear up the field by forcing out-lying loose forwards to join a retreating maul before it gathers too much steam and make room for one-on-ones in the backline.
A lot has been made about the Lions needing to go to the back to get the quick ball that Gatland wants for his big backs to run at the Wallabies, but there are a couple of problems with that school of thought. Firstly, without an exceptional tackle breaker like Roberts, Tuilagi or North to launch, the whole strategy doesn’t make much sense. North has been in the team for the last two games, but the Lions rarely – if ever – looked to use him in the middle of the field off either set play or phase play; they prefer to kick the ball up in the air and have him chase it.
Secondly, they’ve been swinging and missing for the headshot all tour. They don’t have a hooker who can consistently hit the tail of the lineout – it’s a tough throw at the best of times, and when you’re mixing and matching thrower, jumper and lifters throughout training and matches over a four week period, it becomes even harder.
It doesn’t seem to me like there’s any silver bullet. None of the hookers are dead-eye dicks, and Rory Best in particular has had a horror-show of a tour with his throwing. Maybe I’m wrong there, and Ian Evans is the key – after all, he has won the most ball on tour, with 19 takes and 5 steals. However, they’ve all been against midweek sides. He hasn’t been trusted to play at the weekends [or even sit on the bench] against the stronger sides like the Reds or the Waratahs, and his p*ss-weak performance against the Brumbies wouldn’t go a long way to reassure anybody that he could live with the physicality of the third test.
Scrum Or Lineout?
With Romain Poite in charge of the final test The Mole would rather shore up the scrum than the lineout. Poite has form when it comes to rewarding a dominant scrum, regardless of whether or not they’re scrummaging legally and, when it comes to set pieces, there’s far more possibilities of winning and losing penalties at the scrum than there is at the lineout or at restarts.
Corbisiero will likely come in for Vunipola at loosehead in any case, and there’s a strong argument for including the heavyweight Greg ‘The Hammer’ Valentine/Fat Bodhi [Richard Hibbard] at hooker ahead of Tom ‘Thumb’ Youngs. Hibbard is listed at 114kg/17st13lbs, while Youngs is listed at 102kg/16st; it’s pretty easy maths. There’s also an argument that you stack the second row with the best two scrummaging locks [i.e. two locks who typically scrummage behind the tighthead] in order to really power a massive effort in the scrum – step forward Scottish behemoth Richie Gray.
Gray is a 205cm/6’10” and 120kg/18st12lbs lock who typically scrummages on the right hand side [but who has scrummaged on the left alongside Jim Hamilton for Scotland] and whom Adam Jones has described as “phenomenally strong”.
He’s had a consistently high tackle count on tour:
- 8/0 vs Baa-baas [joint first in the team];
- 11/0 vs Reds [second in the team];
- 3/0 vs Combined Country [weak enough, but they won 64-0 so there weren’t a huge number of tackles that had to be made];
- 7/0 vs Brumbies [joint second in the team]; and
- 11/0 vs Rebels [third in the team].
The lad hasn’t missed a tackle yet on tour, according to ESPN’s numbers. While he hasn’t had the wünder-tour that many had hoped for, neither has he fallen flat on his face. He had a very good showing against the Baa-baas in the first game, but since then it quickly emerged that O’Connell and Alun-Wyn Jones would be Gatland’s preferred second row pairing, with Parling the best replacement for O’Connell as a lineout technician when the iconic Munster man broke his arm.
While it would be a harsh call on Parling to see him dropped to the bench after a whole-hearted performance – and would mean going to a third lineout caller in three games, with Alun-Wyn Jones taking over from the Leicester man – maybe it’d be an idea to drop the holy grail of off-the-top tail ball from the lineout [it ain’t working, in case nobody noticed] and concentrate on using what the Lions could realistically have – a potentially dominating pack with a lot of size, a powerful scrum, a strong mauling game off pragmatic, front-and-middle lineouts and ball carriers in every row.
- Pack [1-8]: Corbisiero; Hibbard; A.R. Jones; A.W. Jones; Gray; Lydiate; O’Brien; Faletau
- Backs [9-15]: Murray; Sexton; North; Roberts; O’Driscoll; Bowe; Halfpenny
- Subs [16-23]: T. Youngs; Vunipola; Cole; Parling; Heaslip; Phillips; Farrell; Tuilagi
End The Article, For F*ck’s Sake
In the aftermath of the second test, it will be important for the Lions to recognise that they’ve missed an opportunity … but that there’ll be a whole selection of new opportunities open to them next weekend. They’ve tried the conservative approach, and it didn’t work out. Quoted by Peter O’Reilly in the Sunday Times, Jonny Sexton puts a fine point on the problem: “At times it felt as if we were wishing the game to finish rather than going out and going after it. That’s how I felt, anyway.”
The tour will be over next week. They won’t be wishing it to finish then, win or lose.