Nature, like rugby, is a bloody business. When a lion cub reaches a certain age its mother will seek out a herd, select a foal, isolate it and wound it, and let her progeny finish the kill. The young animal takes its first steps toward becoming a dominant predator by hunting easy prey.
The Sharks last Saturday at Kings Park were easy prey, and the Lions took the opportunity to explore a more tactical and nuanced approach to their game. As we’ll show in this article the Sharks have deep flaws in their attack and that gave the Lions the luxury of exercising their underdeveloped kicking game with little fear of retribution.
A recurring theme as we’ve followed the Lions this season has been that their sense of adventure often gets them into trouble and that they must realise kicking at the right times is not a betrayal of their identity. If they want to become a more complete team they will have to play smarter odds and develop a shrewder game off the laces. They finally did that last weekend.
The Lions rarely kick off 9. Punts from the base are generally steeper and it may be that the Lions feel the trade-off in distance isn’t comparable to what they can get through 3 or 4 penetrative phases, while keeping possession. Every coach has his own formulas. So on the rare occasion that they do kick tactically, it is usually from 10.
A criticism of Elton has been that he doesn’t kick enough and, worse, that he doesn’t kick in situations where he absolutely should kick – the Lions have surrendered a few tries this year trying to run from their own 22. It was a different story on Saturday. While he’s no Dan Carter, and it must be said that he doesn’t appear to have the longest boot, he did bring out a more rounded game. An example below as Elton kicks on 4th phase to put pressure on the Sharks deep-lying back two. This kind of slow poison has mostly been absent from the Lions’ offence this season.
Elton kicked 9 times during open play (excluding exit kicks), which is a lot for him. While his kicking wasn’t especially clinical, it was an important step because he will have to learn to dictate like this if he wants to have an impact in test rugby. There will be moments when his team is pinned back under enormous territorial pressure and it will be up to him to get them out. In a test his backline won’t always have free reign and he’ll have to use his boots as lock picks to try and jimmy the opposition defence. Elton’s kicking game – along with his tackling and inconsistency at goal – is a test-match deficiency that currently outweighs his spectator-friendly ability to play flat on the line, so it was good to see the shift in his approach on Saturday.
But kicking is a 15-man activity. It takes a team to kick. Every single player on the park has a role to play, whether it’s chasing, aligning, pushing or spreading. The Lions were generally good as they made Elton’s kicks count and, importantly, they didn’t concede any of the dreaded kick-return scores they’ve been prone to this year. In the picture below we can see the pressure on Le Roux after he gathered a deep Elton kick. Consequently Willie didn’t execute well and the Lions came away with a handsome net gain. All-in-all the Lions’ kicking report card after this match would read: Tried harder, better decisions, very encouraging. B-
So why did, and do, the Sharks struggle so much on attack? It certainly helped the Lions nascent attempts with the boot that the Sharks didn’t present a significant threat running the ball back. Part of the answer lies in two illuminating tables from Rugby Analytics:
Firstly the Sharks had very little quick ball. A particularly revealing stat above is that on 2nd phase they had quick ball only 38% of the time. That is not good – it’s a bright red warning sign. In the early phases when your alignment and structure is good, you should be able to assert yourself before the defence begins to bog you down. If you’re getting stuck so early there’s a problem. So what was the problem? Besides the Lions effective rush defence, on many occasions the Sharks just seemed to go into their rucks on autopilot.
2nd, 3rd and even 4th arrivals at the breakdown simply would not consider pick-and-goes, or even just a pass from the base themselves. They arrive, linger and wait for Cobus Reinach to clear. Conversely, Reinach’s role seemed to be to purposefully arrive after multiple ruck attendees had settled, which perhaps indicates that this is Sharks doctrine. It harkens back to the old saying that the forwards “must play under a blanket”, but these days we expect everyone, forwards and backs, to clean, to steal and to do something with the ball if it is available at the base. The clip above illustrates the problem perfectly.
You may have noticed another issue in the footage and that is that the Sharks simply sent too many men into their own attacking rucks. In the table below, Rugby Analytics shows us that the Sharks had 3 or more players in attendance at 70% of all their rucks. It’s a staggering statistic, all the more because the Lions as a rule fan out and don’t contest (again, see the footage above). 80% of the Sharks’ rucks in this game went uncontested by the Lions yet the Sharks flooded the tackle point regardless.
So on almost every phase there was a disparity of attackers and defenders. Sharks cleaners, sealers, scanners and what have you were rushing to the breakdown en masse to fight a non-existent threat and so left their attack outnumbered and outgunned. It allowed the Lions defence to gang tackle or rush or shoot or spread or whatever they wanted because they had the luxury of more numbers. This Sharks attack was never going anywhere.
Two more examples to illustrate:
Another by-product of this ruck philosophy was that the Sharks at times slowed their own ball down. On some occasions the ball was available but the Sharks ruck attendees rushed in, sealed off the ball and took all the speed off their advance.
Going into this game the Sharks were heralded as a tough defensive team – and that they are – so we must acknowledge the Lions for the way they managed to break the line and make metres. We’ve written about this a lot, but what makes the Lions different is that they don’t necessarily need space to attack. This is almost contrary to received rugby wisdom that says you need to “earn the right to go wide”. The Lions, by varying their attack, running straight and hard, and playing flat on the line, create the conditions and the opportunities they want. Here’s a good example of two decoy runners straightening beautifully inside as the Lions seek space outside. This kind of hard, direct running cannot be ignored and glues defenders in place.
Another secret to the Lions’ success is how quickly they realign on attack. The torturous supply chain that creates quick ball – from the carry to the scrumhalf – ultimately leads to nothing if you aren’t in a position to make it count. Elton is first receiver going left, and then immediately first receiver going right, with men aligned in depth and as decoys on both occasions.
Rugby Analytics’ graph below also shows how they varied their attack in the 1st and 2nd phases. Although the trend we picked up last week showed its head again – the Lions tend keep it closer to the ruck on 2nd phase (9-10 channel and 10-12 channel).
After 3rd phase the Lions did not go wide on attack. We think of them as a wide-playing team, but it’s not always true. They have showed a lot of variation this year in how often they play out near the chalk, and it probably has as much to do with planning for specific opposition as with their on-field decisions about where to strike.
Interestingly, in this game the Lions took their attacks to only 7 phases. Perhaps they felt that if there was no sign of momentum and if the defence was starting to set that they ran the risk of conceding turnovers. So they gave the ball back secure in the knowledge that the Sharks didn’t have the teeth to hurt them.
Rugby, like nature, is a bloody business. Out on the killing fields players and coaches are perennially locked in a struggle to win, to make their careers, to save their jobs. And we vultures in the media are ready to float down to tear at the carcass after the whistle has blown. This article is the first time we’ve turned Rugby Analytics’ lens on the opposition. Our intention isn’t to point a finger at the Sharks or to affront them, and we have no way of knowing what their tactical imperatives were. We just wanted to throw light on why the Lions were perhaps more comfortable kicking in Durban.
Whatever the reason, it was a welcome shift, and we hope to see more of it going forward.