Alamosa Bill: “I don’t suppose there’s any other way we could work this out? Nah. Well, let’s get to it. Ten steps?”
Billy the Kid: “Suits me. You count ’em.”
Billy the Kid: “You ain’t thought of another way, have you?”
Alamosa Bill: “No, I can’t come up with nothing.”
Billy the Kid: “Get to it.”
The Lions and the Crusaders – two of Super Rugby’s quick-draw artists – get to it tonight in their long-awaited showdown at Ellis Park. Both teams have reputations for speed, guile and deadliness, which makes this shootout in the old reef town rugby’s equivalent of high noon.
In the film “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”, Billy tricks Alamosa Bill during their duel and shoots him in the back (there were no TMOs in the old West). The Lions will also need to find some kind of edge if they want to put the men from Christchurch in the ground.
Here’s how things could play out.
The Crusaders were relatively circumspect last week at Kings Park; both thanks to the effect of humidity on the ball and the Sharks’ penchant for defence. They rarely ran inside their own half, and when they did it was usually to set up a tactical kicking platform. Generally, though, the Crusaders have shown a desire to go through multiple phases on attack and it should be no different in the ideal conditions expected at Ellis Park.
Bearing this in mind, and the fact that the Lions’ defensive philosophy is to spread and rarely contest rucks, the Crusaders could run into trouble. Rugby Analytics tells us that the Lions are touching an 87% tackle completion rate, so they should be able to absorb most of what the Crusaders can throw at them. A closer look at the Analytics dashboard also shows us that the Lions get better as phases go on (like most teams), which is also to be expected as they load the line and not the tackle point.
This is significant because it can often lead to turnovers; a team loses energy and focus as it continually battles to break through. As unrewarded phases go by you start to make mistakes, carry poorly or don’t protect the ball as well as you should. The Crusaders have suffered turnovers a few times this season as their phase play loses steam and this could be fertile ground for Lions counterattacks.
So Johan Ackerman would have written the word TURNOVERS large on the Lions change room wall this week. Exploiting them will come down to defensive patience, being ready for mistakes, knowing when to contest, speedy transitions into counter attack and shifting the ball quickly away from the source of the turnover to find weak points in a still-transitioning Crusaders line.
Should the Lions get these opportunities they must not be tempted to kick back into space – they’ll be trading diamonds for dregs. They must shift the ball wide, stretch the Crusaders’ defence and maximise every turnover that comes their way.
THE RIGHT CHANNEL
A second observation has to do with the way the Crusaders defend (more on that in a moment). They tend to load the inside space, and that means the Lions will have more joy in the 12-13 channel (and, of course, out wide). Fortunately the Lions are adept in this zone of attack. They have the players and the plays to cause midfield consternation and have repeatedly shown how deadly they can be when they go to work in the middle of the park. Elton’s ability to hold up defenders while letting runners around him shape different lines will be invaluable here.
THE WRONG CHANNEL
While a wider game could bring the Lions joy, they’ll run into serious problems if they stick around inside. As mentioned, the Crusaders tend to stack the 9-10 channel, but they also rush here, so you can find yourself stuck and bereft of momentum if your one-off runners are too narrow or you don’t get the ball away quickly. In fact it’s fair to say that the Crusaders don’t just defend well against inside one-offs, they actively target these carries, killing your momentum early and with relish. And they particularly like doing it on slow ball, pouncing when they sense you’re losing ground and catching you behind the advantage line. If the Lions take too narrow a shape they will be playing straight into the Crusaders’ hands.
The Crusaders are what is known as a “wide-wide” team meaning they use the full width of the field, often playing from sideline to sideline, sometimes in the space of only one or two phases. Rugby Analytics tells us that an incredible 56% of all their plays are focussed on midfield and wide zones, but what makes them especially dangerous here is their ability to hold onto the ball and the fluid interaction between their forwards and backs.
Worryingly, Rugby Analytics’ defence dashboard tells that the Lions are most vulnerable out near the chalk. In the “Play Target” column we can see they are most soft on wide plays, missing 30% of their total match tackles outside. Messrs Skosan, Mapoe, Combrinck et al will have to seriously improve in this area because the Cantabrians are coming for them.
Another incredible stat we’ve highlighted before but which is worth looking at again: 72% of all the Lions’ missed tackles occur when their defensive line is good and connected. In other words it is poor one-on-one tackling, mostly from the backs, that is letting this team down.
In the film “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” Pat Garrett, ex-criminal now lawman, is sent to kill his old comrade the outlaw Billy the Kid. What makes this confrontation compelling is that the two men are so similar; even though they live on opposite sides of the law they are a mirror image of one another, both possessing the rat-cunning and prowess to take the other down.
The Lions and the Crusaders find themselves looking in a mirror too. They are similar machines. Both like to play with pace, both like to use the ball and both are capable of striking out wide. It’s an auspicious sign that a South African team would even be mentioned in the same breath as New Zealand’s premier franchise, let alone that they’re patently able to go toe-to-toe with them.
Be that as it may, Friday night sees the meeting of two of Super Rugby’s most dangerous triggermen, and only one of them will be getting out of Ellis Park alive.