Dan Biggar started at fly-half for the Lions on Saturday
Credit: Getty Images Europe
We are constantly told that teams need more time to implement cohesion and quality in attack than they do to make defensive improvements. The recent history of the British and Irish Lions seems to bear that out.
Since a sniping Conor Murray scored against New Zealand’s 14 men in Wellington four years ago, helping his side to a series-levelling victory, the Lions have landed one further try in three hours and 12 minutes of Test match rugby.
That came courtesy of the driving maul that buckled South Africa in the first Test, with hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie stretching over to spark a comeback win. As with all tours – no unique excuses here – it has proven tough to bring together new combinations that could have enhanced the Lions’ attack in 2021.
Injuries suffered by Robbie Henshaw and Finn Russell stunted opportunities to establish chemistry before the Tests. Russell, the squad’s most intuitive attacker, has only seen 88 minutes of Lions action this summer. And none of them have come alongside Henshaw, who was justifiably earmarked as a sure-fire Test centre from the start.
Robbie Henshaw has been the cornerstone of the Lions backline
This has accentuated one curious aspect of the Lions’ strategy so far. Having picked a mobile back-row unit, headlined by Taulupe Faletau, Jack Conan and Sam Simmonds as options at number eight, the back division always needed a second distributor beyond fly-half to find width.
Owen Farrell has been used as an inside centre and Elliot Daly has had a go at outside centre. Stuart Hogg’s selection at full-back will have been a ploy to feed the 15-metre channels as well. At times, it has worked. But over the first two Tests, there has been precious little for the Lions to celebrate in an attacking sense.
Cold, hard, horrible numbers
The Lions’ total of 105 running metres on Saturday was the lowest that Opta have recorded from a ‘tier one’ Test side since they started collecting this data 2010.
This is obviously a boon for the Springboks’ formidable defence, masterminded by Jacques Nienaber. An average gain of 1.24 metres per carry for the Lions was also the lowest figure that Opta have recorded in 11 years.
Wales’ average distance per carry in the semi-final of Rugby World Cup 2019 (1.6m) and England’s return in the final of the same tournament (1.63m) – a figure dented by a futile stretch of pick-and-gos at South Africa’s try-line – also make Opta’s ‘top’ seven:
1.24 – The Lions averaged just 1.24 metres per carry against the @Springboks in the 2nd Test, the lowest by a tier one team since Opta have recorded this data; 3 of the 7 lowest single-match tallies have been recorded against South Africa since the start of RWC 2019. Nullified. pic.twitter.com/uledBOWmpa
— OptaJonny (@OptaJonny) August 1, 2021
As outlined by statistician Russ Petty, Nienaber’s team has conceded just three tries in their last nine Tests since going down to New Zealand in their opening pool game in Japan two years ago.
South Africa are aggressive, committed, cohesive and highly intelligent without the ball. The players have utter conviction in their system. This moment, from the opening minutes of the second Test, sums up how the Springboks appear to have so many bases covered.
Dan Biggar’s dink is a common tactic against rush defences early in games. The aim of such a kick, even if it is not recovered, is to incite doubt and slow line-speed for later in the contest. In this case, though, Faf de Klerk’s sweeping saves the day.
He begins on the far side of a centre-field ruck and bolts across behind his front line to make a diving catch like a boundary-riding fielder in cricket. Just as important as De Klerk’s anticipation is the support play of Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi. The former probably enters the ensuing ruck from the side, but they combine to secure possession:
Dan Biggar dink Lions second Test
Biggar’s return of three passes over the 58 minutes that the fly-half was on the field is remarkably low, and emblematic of a Lions display that was constrained by different factors. For a start, this insightful tweet from Brett Igoe shows he was used as a specialist kick-chaser at times:
Looking at how Biggar only passed the ball 3 times and found this – missed it during the game. Happened twice during the yellow card. Interesting tactical switch. #LionsTour2021 #CastleLionsSeries #SAvBIL #LionsRugby pic.twitter.com/vD17x2IZgX
— Brett Igoe (@brettruganalyst) August 2, 2021
As a whole, the Lions’ starting backline accumulated a total of 57 passes. Murray was responsible for 44 of those, leaving 13 between Biggar, Henshaw, Chris Harris and a beleaguered back three of Duhan van der Merwe, Anthony Watson and Hogg.
Led by Mako Vunipola and Luke Cowan-Dickie, with Conan also a willing carrier, the Lions did make ground in the narrow exchanges during an assured first half. However, the tourists returned 85 passes from the 77 rucks they spent in possession over the match as a whole.
Luke Cowan-Dickie and Mako Vunipola were two of the Lions most effective attackers
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Now, it must be unnerving and claustrophobic to attack against South Africa. Their breakdown scavenging dissuades opponents from keeping the ball inside their own half.
But, with an average of 1.1 passes per ruck, other aspects of the Lions’ performance needed to be pristine. Seizing control of the aerial exchanges and bringing on Lood de Jager to dominate the lineout, the Springboks left Warren Gatland’s charges with nowhere else to turn. How do the Lions fix things, then?
Bear with this argument, please. New Zealand remain the last team other than the Lions to overturn South Africa, doing so on September 21, 2019 in Yokohama. The All Blacks scored two tries that evening, both of which eventuated from kicking exchanges:
Coincidentally, according to Opta, New Zealand spent 77 rucks in possession – the exact same number registered by the Lions on Saturday. Whereas the Lions only completed 85 passes, though, Steve Hansen’s team completed a whopping 143. Their average number of passes per ruck was 1.86, compared to the Lions’ 1.1 on Saturday. That represents a huge difference in approach.
The Lions did find some success with their kicking game. Watson won back Murray’s first box-kick of the second Test, and Biggar’s high ball earned a five-metre scrum in the first half following a spill from Willie le Roux. However, errors in the aerial exchanges crippled them.
Hogg’s spill just after half-time led to Makazole Mapimpi’s try. Later on, Watson’s early tackle on Mapimpi foreshadowed Am’s finish. South Africa only need a sniff to squeeze rivals and rack up an ugly scoreline. Remember, they were beaten when the Lions came out on the right end of the kicking battle in the first Test.
The highest number of passes that the Lions managed to string together in any one phase on Saturday was five, coming here while Cheslin Kolbe was in the sin bin:
Lions passing move second Test
This is a very similar pattern to the one that led to a try for Louis Rees-Zammit against Sigma Lions:
It achieves its purpose of outflanking Am and De Klerk before luring up Willie le Roux and bypassing the Springboks full-back. Unfortunately for the Lions, Kwagga Smith stripped Alun Wyn Jones on the following phase. Time and again, South Africa recovered momentum.
One of the most important men in the Lions camp this week will be attack coach Gregor Townsend. He must ensure that his players feel empowered to spread the ball when opportunities arise, which they will do.
Capitalise from close range
Wales hung in their World Cup semi-final against South Africa in 2019 thanks to a patient, dogged performance. But they also struck from this five-metre penalty.
Jones opted for the scrum put-in before Tomos Williams and Jonathan Davies released Josh Adams:
The Lions had three set-piece opportunities from five metres out in the first half on Saturday. From the first, Henshaw launched Van der Merwe with an inside pass:
Siya Kolisi made the tackle, allowing South Africa to hold firm and regroup. At the second, Franco Mostert stole a lineout. Finally, Conan picked from the base of this scrum and went blind, passing to Murray after De Klerk had abandoned the openside:
Had any of these chances been converted into tries, or had Henshaw managed to dot down from Murray’s chip, it would have been fascinating to see South Africa chasing from further behind.
The vast amount of ‘dead time’ at the weekend appeared to suit South Africa’s set-piece power, and mitigate the lack of match fitness that hurt them in the first Test.
Opta recorded a total ball-in-play figure of 16 minutes and 28 seconds in the first half and 14 minutes and one second after half-time. However, the first half lasted one hour, two minutes and 30 seconds. The second half took 53 minutes and 26 seconds. That leaves one hour, 25 minutes and 30 seconds of water-breaks and watching officials watch replays.
Rassie Erasmus speaks in a huddle of South Africa players during the second Test
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Even though South Africa should be fitter, the Lions should do their best to ensure that referee Mathieu Raynal keeps the contest flowing.
Selection – stick or twist?
As explained, the Lions are between a rock and a hard place here. Do they trust that the combinations forged on this tour improve? Do they fall back on established combinations, as Gatland did in 2013? Do they throw in someone from the periphery?
Underwhelming warm-up games and COVID-19 protocols have not helped them. Then again, South Africa’s preparations have been hugely compromised as well.
Whatever the Lions selectors settle upon, they should keep in mind that improving just two facets of their second Test performance – aerial security and lineout accuracy – will go a long way towards winning the decider.
More of the same will not do for the Lions – moving Owen Farrell inside could revive them
By Gavin Mairs, Chief Rugby Correspondent in Cape Town
Could Owen Farrell now be the key to unlocking the attacking prowess of this British and Irish Lions squad as Warren Gatland prepares to name his side for the third Test decider against Springboks on Saturday?
Moving Farrell to inside centre was seen as the answer four years ago after the Lions had crashed to a 30-15 defeat by New Zealand in the first Test.
Gatland had favoured power over panache for the Auckland game, opting to pair Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies outside Farrell but in attempting to run over rather than around the All Blacks midfield simply played into the hands of Ryan Crotty and Sonny Bill Williams.
Four years on and the Lions are facing a similar midfield roadblock in the physically imposing Springbok centre pairing of Lukhanyo Am and Damian de Allende.
In the first Test, Elliot Daly at outside centre made six carries just a total of just one metre while Robbie Henshaw, the Lions most effective attacker made seven carries for 47 metres (the majority which came from one break).
Those figures dropped significantly in last Saturday’s defeat, despite the fact that Gatland turned to Chris Harris to provide extra ballast in the midfield after Daly was exposed on several occasions. The lack of possession and front-foot ball saw Harris make just two carries and he failed to make a single metre while Henshaw managed just six carries for nine metres.
Owen Farrell in action in the second Test
Credit: Getty Images
If the Lions are to stand a chance of halting the South African juggernaut, which having benefited from the game time of the first Test, looks ominously unstoppable by the way the world champions finished the second half last Saturday, they cannot afford more of the same.
The temptation to turn to tried and trusted national combinations in the white heat of the series decider could see Bundee Aki handed the role at inside centre, with Henshaw switched to 13, the pairing that was key to Ireland’s victory over England in Dublin in March.
But it is hard not to conclude that he Lions must attempt to inject tempo into the game, and a recall of Ali Price at scrum-half and the introduction of Farrell, who has cut an imposing figure during his two cameos off the bench, to play outside Dan Biggar, would allow the tourists to challenge the Springboks with their plan B, just as Gatland’s side were able to pose to the All Blacks as they went on to salvage a series 1-1.
The addition of another playmaker could give the Lions the ability to find that width to their game which is so desperately hard to secure given the physicality of the Springboks’ defence.
A combination of Farrell and Biggar would enable the Lions to rotate the first receiver, and allow the Wales fly half the ability to take the ball to the line more often with the knowledge that Farrell can step in behind him.
British and Irish Lions' fly-half Dan Biggar
The pair can also help split the Springbok defence, and the range of their passing should allow the Lions to pick out the forward ball-carrier in the widest position as well as another vital kicking option, so important given the impact the aerial contest has had on the series so far.
To counter the weaknesses that the Springboks were able to exploit in the back three last Saturday, Gatland will almost certainly promote Liam Williams and Josh Adams for their first starts and that will also give the Lions the benefit of greater cohesiveness in the back field.
While the selection of the bench will be equally important to their Lions bid to not only move Springboks around the pitch more but also help counter the forward dominance that the Springboks achieved in the second half when they fielded three lock forwards.
If the option of greater creativity in the backline should pose more questions going forward, Gatland must be considering going for a six-two split on the bench and the addition of Iain Henderson as a six forward would give the Lions extra bulk for the forward collisions and scrummaging as well as another line-out option.
I would also give Jamie George a chance from the bench, not just for his all-court game but the accuracy of his line-out throwing, which has at times faltered under the pressure of the Springboks defensive line-out.
Lions supporters can at least take comfort from the fact that Gatland has twice before faced the pressure-cooker moment of selecting the right combinations with the series on the line and has yet to lose one. This is likely to be the toughest call of the lot however. And it would be no surprise if he turns to Farrell once again.