The only thing that counts at the end of a game is the scoreboard. But the only thing a scoreboard can tell you is the score. If you want to learn more about the state of a team, as a coach does – where your players need to improve, whether your game plan is failing or succeeding, where your weaknesses and strengths lie, and why you won or lost a match – then you must look deeper. You need to go to the whiteboard.
The Lions fell to the Highlanders last week but Johan Ackerman won’t be losing sleep about the implications of the result. He knows his team dropped points but he also knows they played good rugby. Another way to look at it is like this: which coach would have been happier doing his post-game analysis on Monday? A strong case can be made that it was Jamie Joseph, and not Ackerman, who was left with more to think about this week.
It’s important to look at the Highlanders victory in the right light. One of their four tries came from a quick throw-in on their own 22 after the Lions got around their outside. Another came from a turnover deep in their own half and a third from an interception on a Lions overlap (see below). Not exactly a victory of tactics or process. The Highlanders are a good rugby team but they didn’t win on Saturday because they were the better machine.
DEFENDING DEEP RUNS
If we’re going to raise this point about the Highlanders’ tries then we must look at why the Lions conceded them. They have shown a tendency this year to disengage during broken play or when the opposition take the ball deep and run it back at them. Their chase lines and defensive connectedness in these situations can be poor, as we saw last week when the Chiefs scored from a kick-return. The Lions can become unmoored and misaligned when they’re trying to cover a wider area on defence.
That said, their overall defence was better compared to last week. Rugby Analytics tells us they missed only 6 tackles* on Saturday. The Highlanders run some of the most slick and complex plays in the competition but they were kept out thanks to the Lions’ cohesion and communication. Fullback Jaco van der Walt was especially good at coming up into the line late, as were the Lions’ inside defenders who trusted that he would.
*Rugby Analytics codes missed tackles subjectively. A missed tackle is only logged if it was perceived to be a failure of technique; for instance a prop being side-stepped by a wing wouldn’t count.
Mention must be made of Elton Jantjies. It’s not always fair to isolate individual players within a system but he has become a worrying liability on defence. Jantijies has the 2nd most missed tackles in the competition this year. What’s especially concerning is that offensive plays increasingly seem to be aimed at him. Worse, the Lions have started to hide him away in the line. This is not the stuff Springbok jerseys are made of.
Did the Lions kick enough? Did they kick well? Why does one kick at all? You kick to relieve pressure, you kick to stress the opposition, you kick for field position. The longer you hold onto the ball the greater the chance you’ll make a mistake. And the more you run and fight to keep possession the more energy you use – the running team often works harder than the tackling team. Kicking is more than just a tactical nicety; it’s a statistical imperative.
The Lions did not kick enough.
– They could and should have probed more with the boot. Grubbers and chips were not always on as the Highlanders usually had a sweeper in place, and the Lions did have success with 3 out of their 4 tactical efforts, but they must look for opportunities to “pick at the fabric” by kicking more, especially for territory.
– The Lions sometimes put enormous pressure on themselves by trying to run from deep. At times it seemed like exit plays gone wrong, at other times it was madness.
– They must learn to not keep smashing their heads against a wall. A stretch of play in the 26th minute shows the Lions pounding away for 13 phases for a gain of just 6 meters (see map below). They must accept that giving the ball to the other team is not a betrayal of their doctrine.
But the number of Lions attacking rucks in opposition territory shows us just how much they troubled the Highlanders. Rugby Analytics tells us they had a total of 148 attacking rucks in the game and that 47 of them occurred inside the Highlanders 22m. That’s a whopping 32% of all their rucks on offence. In comparison, the Highlanders had a total of only 4 attacking rucks in the Lions’ 22. These statistics – taken together with the nature of the Highlanders’ atypical long range tries – tell us all we need to know about the deeper truth of this match.
Why didn’t the Lions score more tries? Rugby Analytics also tells us that the Lions’ attack was narrow – 80% of their targets were one-off runners or pick-n-go plays. These kinds of runs are easier to defend and the Highlanders kept the Lions at bay as they came around the corner. So if we want to be like Goldilocks and complain that the soup is either too hot or too cold we could say that the Lions were perhaps too narrow this week.
But it does show that they have a pragmatic side, and it’s encouraging to see their willingness to get into the trenches. When they did play wider they were a handful and it’s not an overstatement to say that they challenge you on attack like the All Blacks do. They are starting to master variation of width, speed and point of attack, and are drilled to run offload lines in support of their carriers. As we can see in the mismatch below the Lions just need to start reaping what they’re sowing.
This is a very good Lions team and they should have won the game. They didn’t lose because of their kicking, they didn’t lose because they were run off their feet, and they didn’t lose because they were too adventurous. A coach worries when his defence gets picked apart or his attack can’t penetrate – that didn’t happen. Johan Ackerman will ignore the scoreboard and rely on his whiteboard. It’ll tell him that the Lions are on course to stake their claim when the knock-outs start in July.