South Africa saw past Maro Itoje's dummy calls at the lineout
Setting up a lineout against a forward pack featuring three of the best second-rows in the world will be some challenge for the British and Irish Lions on Saturday. Franco Mostert will make a first-ever Test start at blindside flanker, having impressed with his work-rate after shifting to the back row following Lood de Jager’s introduction on 56 minutes last weekend.
In terms of the threat Eben Etzebeth, De Jager and Mostert will pose poaching lineout ball, we only really saw a brief glimpse of that in the second half once all three were on the field given the Lions only had two lineouts on their own ball from the 56th minute until the final whistle. That sums up the control South Africa had on possession, territory and the penalty count.
Unfortunately for the Lions, and hooker Ken Owens, both of those Lions’ lineouts were lost, the first picked off by De Jager at the tail fresh from coming on the field, the second when a short throw to the Rory Sutherland at the front went horribly wrong.
Starting with De Jager’s steal, he doesn’t fall for the signal from Maro Itoje suggesting the ball is coming the England lock’s way, as Itoje moves up towards the middle of the lineout. You can spot De Jager beckoning to Mostert to get him up at the tail…
…in order to pip Alun Wyn Jones to the ball in the air.
Out of that trio of Etzebeth, De Jager and Mostert, De Jager has been the most effective at stealing lineout ball for South Africa dating back to the start of 2019. You can see below how he compares on average to Itoje and Jones, despite having played significantly fewer minutes.
The Lions and South Africa locks compared since the start of 2019
As for the lineout throw to the front by Owens, while Herschel Jantjies is keeping watch on Sutherland, the move still would have worked if Owens and the Lions loosehead could have linked up. Instead it’s lost possession in a decent field position.
Given Owens went 0/2, and Luke Cowan-Dickie hit eight out of nine lineouts when he was on the field, the expectation was that the Exeter hooker would start again. Cowan-Dickie’s one miss in the second Test was also to the tail but in the most costly of areas, five metres out from South Africa’s try line with the game tied at 6-6.
Points could have been taken going for the posts after Makazole Mapimpi was pinged for not releasing, but the Lions wanted the try. Rather than set up the maul with an obvious throw to the front or middle, Cowan-Dickie went long and it backfired, even if the Lions did get a five-metre scrum from Etzebeth being dragged over the by Itoje. Looking back, that’s a monumental error in a great position to strike.
Once again, the South Africans don’t fall for Itoje’s signal. Note Frans Malherbe ready to lift on the back pod, watching Itoje closely.
Going off lineout success percentage alone, Owens has the worst record of the three hookers on this tour, missing five of his 36 throws to date. Jamie George has the best success rate, narrowly ahead of Cowan-Dickie on 94 per cent, and that’s despite having made a similar number of throws to Owens.
Given George started all three Tests in 2017, the fact he’ll fly home without making a single Test appearance in South Africa is a strange one.
British and Irish Lions hookers at the lineout in South Africa
Defending the Springbok maul
Of greater interest regarding the lineout was how South Africa used the set-piece to shut the Lions out of the game the second half. Or rather, how the Lions’ pre-planned tactic to not contest any mauls would have actually worked had they not conceded soft penalties.
The one time when the Lions did throw up a jumper to try and contest South Africa’s maul (Itoje), the ball was claimed by De Jager, Malcolm Marx did well keeping the drive going, and it culminated with Faf de Klerk’s kick through behind the Lions’ defence for Lukhanyo Am’s try. From a lineout on the Lions’ 22-metre line, that Springbok maul powered all the way to five metres out.
The next two clips highlight back-to-back soft penalties the Lions didn’t need to give away which led to the following sequence of events for South Africa: lineout on SA’s 22, lineout on SA’s 10-metre line, lineout in the Lions half, knock-on under the high ball by Watson, scrum penalty, three points from Handré Pollard to make it 21-9 and effectively win the Test with 10 minutes left. Jones afterwards notably referenced those "piggy-back penalties" the Lions gave away which helped South Africa march up the field as a cause of the tourists’ undoing.
The South African maul isn’t going anywhere when Sutherland infringes coming in at the side.
While it doesn’t have a chance to get going after Itoje takes out Etzebeth in the air. You can see on Itoje’s face that he knows he’s messed up.
Cut out the careless penalties, and the one time where the Lions deviated from their pre-planned tactics by throwing up a jumper, and what are you left with? As it turns out, a system that worked rather well.
On four occasions the Springboks set up mauls at the lineout in that second half, throwing to Etzebeth at the front, and didn’t really get anywhere. The Lions didn’t contest in the air, instead waiting on the ground. As time started to run out the tactic might have seemed questionable given the Lions needed to get the ball back, but as a means of stopping South Africa’s maul, it worked well.
This was Marx’s first throw after coming on along with De Jager, and the Lions defend it well. De Klerk resorts to a box kick from almost in line with the same mark where Marx threw in.
This maul, after the Sutherland and Itoje penalties, shows the Lions getting it right again defensively.
The Springboks made four metres or so before the maul according to Ben O’Keeffe is "collapsed by green". He then warns both Itoje and Taulupe Faletau off attempting to poach a turnover. After the previous two penalties, both players this time thankfully listen.
Next, good driving work leaves Marx a little exposed at the back of the maul.
South Africa recover well, De Jager and Marco van Staden getting the momentum back as Marx clings on at the tail.
The Springboks made decent ground, having started on the Lions’ 10-metre line. But it’s a stop, with no penalties conceded.
Finally, there’s this effort with less than three minutes left in the game. Kyle Sinckler is looking straight at O’Keeffe and follows instructions to avoid being penalised.
In terms of a net gain, South Africa make maybe a metre at best. It’s another effective stop.
South Africa want lineouts to set up those mauls and either win penalties or provide a box-kicking platform, and in the second Test they upped the number on their own ball from four to a dozen. If the Lions are to reduce that figure, they need to be better under the high ball and keep their kicks infield.
But in terms of a defensive tactic as shown, waiting for the Springboks to drop and then engaging a counter-drive can clearly work. If you cut out the mindless penalties, anyway. And as for Owens, for the record he hit four lineouts off the bench in the first Test, while Cowan-Dickie missed two of his 12 throws.
The Lions will have to throw to the tail at some point in the third Test to remain unpredictable. But they have to execute better than last Saturday.