With eight games played and seven to go it’s time to bring the Lions into the pits, crank them up on a hoist and take a look under the hood. We want to get some insight into when, where and how they’ve been scoring and conceding their tries this season, and thanks to Rugby Analytics we can do just that.
What you’re looking at below is Rugby Analytics’ Attack Dashboard, which logs every single one of the Lions’ tries and cross-references them against a range of specific parameters (click to enlarge).
We’ll start with the “Try Scored Ratio” rev counter at top left. This is a snapshot of the number of tries the Lions have scored compared to how many phases it takes them to do it. The Lions need an average of 3.5 phases to score, which is a relatively healthy number when you consider that the longer you hold onto the ball the harder it is to get a try.
Set pieces tie up the forwards and that creates space – after that the defence starts to spread and organise and you get bogged down. The risk of conceding a turnover or making an error also begins to creep up. You need to strike while the ball is hot. So the next time you hear a commentator praise a team for going through multiple phases know that the chances of a try are actually decreasing…
It’s not gospel, but a lot of coaches think you should be striking within the first 5 or 6 phases, so the Lions are doing fine here.
Let’s go a bit deeper now and look at the main table to see specifically when, where and how the Lions are getting their tries. The blue bar at the top of the table represents eight areas of the game that are of interest when we look at what leads up to a try. And then within each area we’ve listed the main contributor to tries scored.
So for instance the first column shows tries scored from set pieces. We can see that lineouts led to the most tries, with 10 of the Lions’ 28 tries (36%) originating here. This is par for the course as lineouts are the game’s premier attacking platform.
The next column is interesting because it refers to tries scored during open play, which would be turnovers, kick returns and anything in the flow of a game that falls outside of phase play. It’s clear that the Lions are not a counter-attacking team as Rugby Analytics reports they have not scored a single breakaway try. But this is no biggie – it’s consistent with the fact that they choose not to contest opposition breakdowns. They prefer to spread their troops on defence rather than use them in the hunt for turnovers.
In which channel do the Lions find the most joy? In the Play Target column we can see that they grab 29% of their tries down the 9-10 highway. This isn’t especially lopsided, and the Lions generally have a good spread of where they strike, but it does show that they’re not necessarily as “wide” a team as people like to think.
The most interesting thing to come out of this exercise is what the last column reveals, and that is the number of passes before a try was scored. 12 of the Lions 28 tries have come from just one pass. In other words there was a tackle situation, the ball went to ground, and then it was cleared from the ruck (one pass) to a man who then immediately scored. This tells us that the Lions seem to prefer a quick, close coup de grâce when they’re in the red zone. Maybe it’s a result of their stretching the defence first with wider incursions before striking inside. Or it could simply be a team directive to minimise risk and tuck the ball in nice and safe when time comes to score.
One look at the tries-to-phases rev counter on the Defence Dashboard tells us that the Lions concede most of their tries early on. It takes the opposition on average just 2.3 phases to score, with 48% of all tries conceded in the 1st phase and 70% of all tries conceded in first 2 phases combined. There is perhaps a direct correlation here with how many tackles the Lions miss on first phase, with their backs sometimes a bit flaky without the forwards to help out.
The tries conceded in Open Play column confirms a bad habit we’ve seen a lot of this season – the Lions were suicidal sometimes when they tried to run from deep. Incredibly, 33% of all the scores against them have come from turnovers in their own half. Thankfully they seem to have put a damper on these kamikaze outings in the last few games.
TROUBLE OUT WIDE
The Play Target column tells us that the Lions concede a whopping 48% of their tries out near the tramlines. It fits with a snapshot hypothesis we have that because the Lions don’t commit to rucks they sometimes allow quick ball, and that in turn hampers their ability to reorganise properly on defence. We think this chain reaction finds its final expression out wide as the Lions sometimes show hasty and uneven defensive alignment in those areas.
But all in all the Lions are a solid defensive outfit and it’s worth noting that if you don’t score against them in the first three phases then you’re going to struggle to get through at all – they’ve allowed only 4 tries in total this season from 4th phase onwards. As their hard-working forwards come into play they’re able to apply their frustrating, smothering spread defence.
We’ll take a quick look at Rugby Analytics’ tackle dashboard too, because it throws up some interesting titbits about how the Lions’ are faring in the nitty-gritty of defence.
The Lions only make 89 tackles per match, which shows that they don’t kick much and prefer to keep the ball in hand. It’s also a healthy way to play because it puts less strain on their players over the long term. The Sharks, by contrast, are a tackling team, and the accumulating attritional damage to their personnel will surely come home to roost in the later part of the competition.
The Lions’ tackle completion rate sits at 87%, which is good. We think of them as an attacking team but they’re quietly staking a claim as a formidable defensive unit too.
Two areas that are concerning are the columns Line Set Up and Line Spacing. In a nutshell – do the Lions miss tackles when their players are connected or disconnected (Line Set Up) and are they missing tackles when their players are spaced correctly from each other or not (Line Spacing).
If they were missing a lot of tackles when the spacing was bad or the players were disconnected then that would be one thing, but they’re missing an incredible 58% of their tackles when they ARE connected, and 43% when their spacing is GOOD. That points to one simple thing: individual player failure. In other words the Lions’ defensive system is putting bodies in the right places at the right times, but some of those bodies are failing to execute properly.
So let’s put the hood back down on the Lions’ racing machine and get it back on the track for tomorrow’s crunch match against the Hurricanes. We’ve just touched the surface of what can be gleaned from these tables; there’s a lot more gold to be mined and we’d love to hear what trends or nuggets you can see.