On a chilly night in December of 2012 boxing’s pound-for-pound superstar Manny Pacquiao climbed through the ropes of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas to fight the Mexican “El Dinamita” Juan Manuel Márquez. In the 3rd round Márquez brought the crowd to its feet when he knocked Pacquiao down with a looping overhand right. In the 5th it was Pacquiao, now bossing the fight, who sent Márquez to the canvas with a punishing straight left. Then in the 6th round Pacquiao went on the offensive. Manny was going 54-5-2 in a career built on attacking opponents and unpicking their defences and Márquez, nose bleeding and eyes swollen, was quickly driven to the ropes by a flurry of jabs and hooks. Márquez seemed a beaten man, although he really wasn’t.
Pacquiao, having had his way with the Mexican, felt that this was the time to end it. But as he floated out a lazy right feint, Márquez stepped to the side, evaded Pacquiao’s indifferent defence and drove a piledriver straight-right counterpunch through the Filipino’s skull. Pacquiao was gone before he hit the floor. It was Fight Of The Year, Knockout Of The Year and The Punch Heard Around The World.
It was also a timely reminder of the danger of being very good at what you do.
Pacquiao lost that fight because he knew he had the beating of Márquez. By the time the 6th round began he understood that his superior hand speed and power had become too much for the Mexican. It wasn’t arrogance – the evidence was written all over his gloves and across Márquez’s face. But buoyed by the flow of his growing ascendancy and the innate understanding of his superior abilities he chose the wrong time to go for the coup de grâce.
Last Friday night at Ellis Park the Lions learned the same hard lesson: Just because you are immensely capable of doing something doesn’t mean you should necessarily do it.
Like Pacqiao’s beating in Vegas, the Lions’ defeat starts with what they do well. We know that they are an attacking team but what does that really mean? If we look closely at their game it’s fair to say that they are one of those rare teams who can pick you apart in the first 5 phases. They aren’t counter-attacking specialists like the Chiefs or a touchline-to-touchline threat like the Crusaders. No, the Lions are set up in a way that allows them to attack almost whenever they want to attack, and most often they can make it work. They are best described as a team of Speed and of Variation. The secret to their success is that they play too fast for you, and then they play away from you, so they create the conditions and opportunities they desire.
Rugby Analytics have a beautiful chart that shows how they vary their attack, especially in the first three phases. Variation is determined by the situation and the opposition, so the Lions are showing good situational and tactical awareness by where they choose to hit the other guys. If we do see a pattern at all, it might be that the Lions seem to hit closer to the ruck on 2nd phase.
Rugby Analytics can also show us just where the potency of the Lions’ attack comes from by mapping 1) how direct the Lions runners are and 2) how often they receive the ball at pace. This graph tells us all we need to know about how well-drilled and organised this team is as they sit on a 70% average high pace/directness on their attack across all phases. It’s a killer stat, and it explains why they’re so hard to deal with. They run at you, and they run at you fast.
When it all comes together they are unplayable. Do you see shades of Pacquiao? They Lions are so good at this why wouldn’t they do it when they felt like it? And more than that, it’s in their DNA, it’s the way the team has been built. Their support play, running lines, ball retention, cleaning, decision making, points of attack and variation have all been tuned to clinically effective high-speed penetration. With the Lions, attacking is more than just a game plan, it’s an identity.
Let’s toot their horn some more because they deserve it. How many other teams would appreciate that a lineout on your own 22 can be an excellent time to launch a surprise attack? After all, the opposition forwards are tied up in the set piece and their sweepers are waiting deep for an exit kick, so you have more space to run, right?
The sequence was spoiled on the halfway line by a Lions ruck indiscretion but this kind of ballsy and creative thinking is to be lauded. We’d be throwing the baby out with the bathwater if we said that the Lions’ attacking nature was incompatible with winning rugby. It’s simply not true. Rather, we must look at the Lions and say that there are things they must do differently at different times. To abandon a strength as potent and rare as the Lions posses would be silly.
THE KNOCKOUT BLOWS
Just like Pacquiao advancing on Márquez, the Lions know they can gut you if they want to. But there is a time and a place for taking risks, and trying to run from inside your 22 is not always a good idea especially when you’re a team who are particularly poor at defending turnover ball as we’ve highlighted in previous articles.
Here are three graphics we’ve dubbed the “Cycle Of Death”. The Lions try to run from deep, lose the ball, and the Crusaders shift across to score down the other side of the field.
And those are just the tries that did get scored. As you can see below the Lions continually put themselves under unnecessary pressure when they should be kicking and playing smart.
In essence the Lions are a team who are so good at attacking that they back themselves to do it all the time. But they are going to have to learn to be pragmatic and start picking their moments because when they make mistakes in their own red zone, or their opponents decide to target these risky carries, they set themselves up for knockout blows.
As we feared in our preview, the Lions are weak on wide defence and their backs, generally, are not efficient tacklers. It all came home to roost against the wide-playing Crusaders on Friday as 4 out of the 6 tries they conceded were scored outside.
Another try saw the Crusaders run a first phase play at the weak elbow between the lineout and the backs as Ryan Crotty simply burst through the ineffectual stumblings of Mapoe and Mnisi. It was such a specific, targeted move that we must assume it was aimed at the notorious defensive frailties of Elton Jantjies, except Jantjies had already been hidden away elsewhere in the line to try and paper over that crack.
We’ve written regularly about the problems the Lions have on defence but there was another interesting subplot that made it all worse, and that was the Crusaders’ glut of quick ball.
Quick ball is the holy grail of rugby, but what many people don’t realise is that the difference between quick, medium and slow ball is really very small. To illustrate: If I can play the ball from a ruck before you have a chance to reset your defence then logically you’re in trouble. But how long do you really need in order to reset? Two seconds? Three seconds? Certainly not longer. Shape and alignment can be re-established quickly so literally every action and millisecond counts. The difference between “good” ball and “ok” ball for the offence can be a defender taking a single step to beef up the line.
The Lions gifted the Crusaders quick ball on Friday and it compounded their defensive frailties. Rugby Analytics tells us that the Crusaders experienced slow ball on only 4 occasions, with 29 quick and 11 medium. This is a skewed statistic that throws light not only on a root cause of the Lions woes against the Cantabrians but also a defensive problem they might well have to address going forward.
The Lions prefer to spread on defence because they want numbers in the line. That’s fine and a lot of teams do it, but then your first-up tackles must be dominant or at least neutral, because that’s when quick ball starts. If you’re dominated by the carrier, as the Lions often were, then the ball is going to come out a lot quicker. The ball placement is easier, the clean is easier, the pass from the base of the ruck is easier.
Besides being dominated in contact the Lions did hardly anything to slow the Crusaders down, and they paid for it. They rarely contested – even to gain a precious second – so their defence didn’t have time to fold around the rucks and get organised for the next assault. The Crusaders also managed their ruck speed well, sending multiple cleaners in when they had a sniff and wanted the ball out fast.
The Lions will have to look at their tackle intensity (not just efficiency) and at crucial moments they’ll have to consider counter-rucking or at least allocating a nagging spoiler or two to make sure the opposition don’t start to build a head of steam.
We’ve always taken the view that a result must never be seen in isolation – there can be bad victories and good losses. In 80 minutes you can do wonderful things and terrible things and they must both be acknowledged. We like to be even-handed, too, and in the case of the Lions it’s easy because so much about them is good. Perhaps that is what makes it so frustrating; they’re so close to being genuine contenders. They are a unique and exciting attacking force who are coming into the flower of their abilities, but like Pacquiao, they will have to learn to pick their moments and appreciate that prudence and defence are important considerations too.