Only two Lions teammates made more metres than Courtney Lawes in the first Test against South Africa
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Courtney Lawes was responsible for nine of the 100 tackles that the British and Irish Lions completed on Saturday during their absorbing first Test victory over South Africa.
He gathered six of the 13 lineout throws that his team secured successfully. In the carrying stakes, the blindside flanker accumulated 33 metres from a personal tally of eight runs.
None of those numbers are spectacular, even when you consider that only Robbie Henshaw and Jack Conan eked out more ground for the Lions with ball in hand over a predictably tight contest.
Lawes is felled by Siya Kolisi after a second-half run
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Less easy to quantify is how prominent Lawes was for the Lions in four major aspects of the tactical battle. His was a truly mature and influential contribution at the heart of a team performance that won a tough contest.
Courtney Lawes’ performance in the first Test against South Africa
On his first Test start for the Lions, the 32-year-old delivered an authoritative statement of the rounded player he has grown into since bursting onto the scene as a hard-hitting defender some 12 years ago.
To borrow a phrase immortalised by Sir Ian McGeechan, Lawes proved himself as an ultimate Test match animal.
As he suggested in his column for Telegraph Sport, Lawes and the Lions defended well during the first half. South Africa did not look like causing problems in phase-play and relied on unforced ill-discipline to gain a foothold in the game.
Tom Curry’s late tackle on Faf de Klerk and Elliot Daly’s attempt to slow a breakdown conceded six cheap points.
The Lions’ defensive structure stood firm, though. Here, in the fourth minute, Lawes begins outside Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones as De Klerk feeds Eben Etzebeth:
The two Lions locks combine to stop the carrier:
And Itoje makes a nuisance of himself by counter-rucking at the next breakdown. Tadhg Furlong shunts in as well, forcing Kwagga Smith to pick up messy ball. Lawes sees his chance, and darts in to make a dominant tackle with Robbie Henshaw helping out:
Around eight minutes later, Curry has been caught at the bottom of a breakdown following a kick-return from the Springboks. As Lawes backs into midfield…
…referee Nic Berry awards penalty advantage to the hosts. South Africa are set up nicely to attack the far touchline. Willie le Roux has slipped into the second-receiver slot behind Damian de Allende, offering an outlet to the wide channels where Siya Kolisi is nestled between Lukhanyo Am and Cheslin Kolbe:
The ball does not get that far. De Allende seems to pump a dummy towards two flatter forwards, Franco Mostert and Smith before Lawes reaches him and forces a fumble with a trademark tackle. It is a collision that appears to surprise De Allende and might have won a turnover without the penalty advantage:
Lawes had been replaced by the wily Tadhg Beirne before the epic defensive stand that secured the Lions’ triumph, but was typically excellent without the ball while on the field. He also helped the Lions make the most of the possession they did have.
Lineout work, over the ground and in the air
After a couple of shaky moments before the break, the Lions shored up their lineout impressively.
This set piece followed the penalty forced by Curry on the back of Ali Price’s box-kick to begin the second half. Jones, Itoje and Lawes are in the middle of a six-man lineout. Etzebeth, at the front, and Mostert at the tail are South Africa’s main threats:
Often, movement over the ground in a lineout is more important than what happens in the air. Here, Jones looks like the jumper before bouncing out:
As hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie releases his throw, Rory Sutherland and Lawes are in position to lift Itoje and space has opened up in front of Etzebeth:
Jones takes the ball from Itoje and then spins clockwise. Curry and Cowan-Dickie support their skipper…
…and the Lions can attack De Klerk after Steven Kitshoff is sucked into a counter-drive:
The Lions won a penalty soon afterwards, for Mostert’s high tackle on Henshaw, and Jones opted for another lineout. This time, Sutherland shapes to lift Itoje before Curry joins the lineout from the scrum-half slot to hoist Lawes further towards the tail.
Sutherland then secures the ball and the resulting drive carries over Cowan-Dickie:
Lawes is at the middle of the muscular shove, having shown dexterity to pull in the throw ahead of Mostert:
Jones, Itoje and Lawes continued to defy South Africa’s defensive operation. Here, just beyond the hour-mark, the trio begin together again:
Jones slips around Itoje, with Mako Vunipola helping him with the lift. Again, the Lions locate space…
…and win the penalty that Dan Biggar kicked for a 19-17 lead:
This maul set-up might have earned a penalty too. Lawes is fed at the front after Itoje has dummy-jumped and come forward to lift his England colleague. The counter-drive from Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Lood de Jager looks like it comes from the side:
The kicking battle is the next area to look at.
Kicking contests in Test rugby union are never just about the initial catch. Ricochets and deflections can be critical as well.
Lawes begins as part of this maul as Ali Price hoists a box-kick for Duhan van der Merwe to chase:
After the Scotland wing climbs above Kwagga Smith, though, Lawes has arrived. He plucks the loose ball with his right hand, bypasses Le Roux and makes 20 metres:
Just before Beirne replaced him, Liam Williams and Lawes chase this strike from Conor Murray:
Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler are highlighted here to underline their work-rate. Kolbe comes forward…
…and spills under pressure from Williams, with Lawes gathering. Note that Vunipola and Sinckler are on the scene:
Confronted by Kitshoff, Lawes steps…
…which gives him room to free his arms and flick an offload to Hamish Watson:
As well jackalling at the breakdown, carrying has been a significant area of improvement for Lawes over the past five years or so.
This is a brief but interesting example of Lawes’ attacking prowess. It starts from a scrum and Conan feeding Price at the base. Henshaw is launched. Note the starting position of Lawes…
…and how he arcs around the ruck between Jones and Itoje to carry from first-receiver. Another dainty side-step brings him past Mostert and into De Klerk, who often occupies the guard role closest to the ruck:
Lawes may only carry around two or three metres over the gain-line in this instance, but his touch certainly generates impetus. Sometimes, statistics cannot measure the influence of a single action.
A similarly influential performance from Lawes at the weekend can go a long way towards sealing the Test series for the Lions.