Novelists are told to write what they know. Sports writers must write what they see. It’s tempting to default to cheerleading after a win, or to be a bully after a loss, but in rugby there can be good defeats and bad victories and we must find the truth behind a result before putting pen to paper. Beyond opinions, arguments and emotion there exists an objective reality. We cannot dictate the story; we must let the story dictate itself.
The story of the Lions’ victory against the Chiefs in Hamilton is different to the one told in ebullient headlines this week.
The last five minutes of the game speaks volumes about both teams:
Time is running out and the Chiefs must score to win. Bizarrely, they kick for territory. The Lions win the lineout but, equally bizarrely, opt to give the ball air. Their run stifled, they try to kick but butcher it. The Chiefs gather but immediately give the ball away with a questionable grubber. The Lions try to run again from their 22 but Jaco Kriel knocks on. With this possession deep in Lions territory the Chiefs would go on to kick for the corner twice and bungle two successive lineout mauls in 2 minutes.
It’s a passage of play that deserved a Laurel and Hardy soundtrack.
The first thing we must recognise is that this isn’t the Chiefs team of 2012 or 2013. On evidence of Saturday’s match it would be fair to say that the Chiefs are exciting but brittle and unless they can add defensive steel to their deadly counter-attacking game look destined to be mid-table finishers in 2016. At the risk of offending everybody in Bloemfontein, the Chiefs looked like they were the Cheetahs of New Zealand. In their match against the Lions moments of brilliance were dragged down by the sheer weight of handling errors, poor decisions, penalties and missed tackles. Worse still, that led to scrums, where the Chiefs experienced a long afternoon.
And the Lions?
Interestingly they tweaked their approach for this game. Rugby Analytics tells us that from set pieces they went wide 50% of the time compared to 33% last week, showing a willingness to test the Chiefs near the whitewash. New Zealand wingers are generally most comfortable with ball in hand; defensive giants and turnover machines they are not, so the Lions enjoyed 77% gain line success when attacking wide. It also says a lot about Elton Jantjies’ improved depth and softness in the line that they were able to shift the ball to the edge.
But while all the talk is about the Lions’ adventurous wide play, this isn’t where they got their tries: 3 of their 4 scores came from shorter balls in closer channels. The Lions stretch you outside so that they can hit you close, so we should really be praising them for how well they varied their play. Their 2nd phase stats after wide plays are an indicator of just how perfectly unpredictable their attack was – after initially going wide they would go wide again 50% of the time and strike close the rest of the time. As a result the Chiefs were never sure where to deploy their loose forwards – closer in to stop short raids or wider out to help their wingers. To the eye, the Lions’ variation seemed to be both due to classic preplanned 3-phase calls as well as good game management by their halfbacks.
Speaking of which, we must make special mention of the extraordinary Faf de Klerk who gets the line going with with incredible speed. He is the irreplaceable sparkplug at the heart of the Lions’ racing machine.
So what’s the problem?
Even the casual viewer could see how easily the Lions defence was breached, but it’s an area that deserves a closer look.
Rugby Analytics reveals that 75% of the Lions missed tackles occurred during 1st phase. This is a truly incredible number because it’s the easiest phase to defend – you’re not scrambling, you should be set. Of these tackles missed on 1st phase, 67% were missed from set pieces, which points a serious finger at the Lions brittle backline because, with their forwards tied up in lineouts and scrums, they can be the only culprits.
Another telling yardstick is the state of your defence when the opposition runs your kicks back at you, because this is a situation you have initiated yourself. Rugby Analytics reports that 100% of the Lions missed tackles during opposition kick returns occurred during the 1st phase – so in other words the very first tackle after a kick was missed. The Lions even gifted the Chiefs a kick-return try.
Did the problem lie with individual technique or with the system? 63% of the Lions total missed tackles in the match occurred when the defensive line was “connected”, in other words when the defensive alignment and spacing was good. Missed tackles during good, “connected” defence tells us that it is poor individual technique that is letting them down. And we know by now from looking at all the other numbers that it is specifically the backs who are opening the door for the opposition.
Other weaknesses? The Lions aren’t a tactical kicking team – they simply don’t have the personnel to do it. For all his exceptional qualities Faf de Klerk is not a kicking 9. If you transplanted Faf into the All Blacks you would be robbing them of crucial ammunition given how important kicks from 9 are to their game plan.
What will the Lions do if you slow down their ball? If you keep them out? How will they deal with being forced to play laterally? We know they don’t really kick, but neither do they have the forwards (specifically loose forwards) to grind it out at close quarters to loosen up play elsewhere. The Highlanders showed enough pragmatism in last year’s finals victory against the Hurricanes to suggest that the Lions might struggle on Saturday.
This is not negativity. It’s an important conversation because we need to be honest about the Lions’ weaknesses as well as their strengths. They are they are being held up as a model for South African rugby, and while this might be true for how they attack, it avoids uncomfortable realities about limitations in the rest of their game. Like any team the Lions have had to find their own place on the great sliding scale of rugby. Johan Ackerman’s men have traded power and pragmatism for speed and manoeuvrability and this is admirable and brave and good for South African rugby. But they’ll have to become a more complete and calculating team if they want to take the field on August the 6th.