Just like a Swiss watch, the Lions’ offence is a beautiful, perfectly synchronised, harmonious machine. On Saturday the Hurricanes showed how to disrupt that machine, and that it is a more delicate construction than we knew.
Every team in Super Rugby has a unique identity on attack. Like serial killers they all have their own modus operandi and calling card – the Chiefs are masters of the counter, the Waratahs are a momentum team, the Crusaders like to stretch you between the tramlines. The Lions are distinctive in that they play flat, they play fast and they vary the point of their attack. They can kill you both because you have no time to think and you have too much to think about.
The Hurricanes arrived at Ellis Park with a specific, targeted strategy to try and counter that and it’s a testament to the danger the Lions present that they felt it was necessary. Of course all teams have match tactics, but what the Hurricanes did on Saturday was explicit, bold and, unfortunately for South African fans, spectacularly effective.
It’s fitting that the Hurricanes wear yellow and black because they were all over the Lions’ rucks like bees on honey. The principle? Kill the speed at the source. Go for the steal but if you can slow the ball down that will do just as nicely thank you very much. The Hurricanes showed excellent judgement here. Not just when to slow or when to chance a pilfer, but also when to not engage at all.
On TV it may have seemed like they were an ever-present menace, but as you can see above this was no blind headlong rush to Ruck Town. The Canes stood off quite a few breakdowns and showed excellent situational awareness at the tackle point about when to go for it and when not. And Saturday’s aggressive ruck philosophy was a team directive – a lock, a centre and a flank each got 2 steals. Rugby Analytics have a beautiful table that outlines exactly when and where the Canes attacked Lions’ rucks.
This is what it tells us. The red parts are when no Hurricanes contested rucks, grey is 1 guy, blue is 2 guys and yellow is 3 Canes swarming on Lions’ ball. Off the bat we can see that on 1st and 2nd phase the Hurricanes contested 33% of the time, with at least one player going in to make a nuisance of himself (which is a lot when you consider that the Lions stood off 90% of all Hurricanes rucks in this game).
Then from 3rd phase onwards we see a dramatic spike as they attacked over 60% of Lions rucks. On 4th phase 50% and on 5th phase 63%.
So although the Hurricanes were relatively busy in the early phases, they really cranked it up on phase 3, which is when their forwards would start to trickle back into the defensive alignment after the set piece. The added numbers gave them the luxury of contesting, and they weren’t shy.
If the Hurricanes were like bees on honey then the Lions were sometimes reduced to playing like they were stuck in honey. Rugby Analytics tells us that over 50% of the time they were forced to launch attacks off slow or medium ball. A rugby player can easily take 5 steps in two seconds, which is more than enough time to realign, reposition, fill a hole, shift out and even wrap to the other side of a ruck. The margin between good ball and bad ball is measured in milliseconds.
The Lions don’t play the Brumbies in the regular season but we’ve said before that they would’ve hypothetically presented a tough test because they’re so aggressive at ruck time. The Hurricanes emphatically proved that supposition. Not only did they take away a fundamental pillar of the Lions’ game – speed – but they also set themselves up for their spectacular main act.
The Hurricanes brought their sprinting shoes to Ellis Park and were lined up in their blocks whenever the Lions wanted to shift the ball. Rugby Analytics’ table below shows us that the Hurricanes employed aggressive linespeed over 40% of the time on the first 6 phases.
Time and again they caught the Lions deep, killing them early and disrupting their finely tuned flow.
In one instance the Lions lost more than 10 metres in five phases as they got driven backwards and tried to run their way out of trouble. On the 5th phase they lost the ball.
The Canes also used good old-fashioned brawn to stop the Lions attempts to get on the front foot. Their forwards worked hard in unison to kill Lions runners on the spot, improving their chances of contesting for the ball.
On some occasions the Hurricanes also seemed to employ a new type of defensive weapon, and we’ve dubbed it Shoot & Cover.
It worked like this: as the Lions started to move the ball, Hurricanes defenders would sprint up as fast as they could, kamikaze-style, and try to nail a runner or get in the Lions’ faces deeeeep in their own territory. They weren’t worried about the usual boring things like numbers, alignment or spacing – it was just about getting into the Lions’ lanes as fast as they could.
But because they were up so quickly, and so far across the advantage line, even if they did miss the cover defence behind them still had time to move into position to defend a breach.
So how does that differ from normal rush defence, or from players who “shoot”? As far as rush defence goes, even when you’re rushing you’re still trying to preserve line integrity, and as you approach your opponent you drop your speed to adjust for what he’s doing. So you concede some aggression for line connectedness.
With shooters, generally only one man will be a designated missile. The risk of two or three headless chickens screaming upfield is just too much. Both rushing and shooting are moderated by sound defensive doctrine: if you miss, you’re dead.
But the beauty of Shoot & Cover is that missing your man isn’t necessarily a huge deal. Because you rush up so fast, and you’re so far over the advantage line, if you do make a mistake your back-up defence still has time to get into position. They’re like a scramble defence who don’t really have to scramble. And it’s an easier decision for them about where to defend because the shooters would have forced the attack’s hand. So you’re trading line integrity for sheer speed and aggression. Interestingly the Hurricanes had a tackle completion rate of only 79%, but many of those missed tackles happened deep behind the Lions’ advantage line so the Canes secondary D still had time to adjust and cover.
Maybe we’re seeing the early signs of a new defensive trend in rugby. Certainly in some situations ferocious aggression could be more fruitful than just grinding out tackle after tackle as, for example, the Sharks do. Perhaps the time to pull the trigger is when the opposition are lying especially deep. Then you have the luxury of making a mistake that doesn’t necessarily cost you.
All of these things combined to create a nightmare scenario for the Lions. Rugby Analytics has a graph that shows us the impressive gain line success they enjoyed over their previous three games – red is good, grey is bad.
Compare that to the same graph for the Hurricanes game. Whereas the Lions’ previous three outings gleaned them a stellar 70% success rate in terms of getting over the advantage line, last weekend saw that dip to just below 50%.
And so the Lions’ entire attack came to a grinding halt, caved-in by a laser-like focus on its most vulnerable weaknesses. Denied quick ball, rushed into malfunctioning, and showing an inability to get out of a hole, they had one of their longest afternoons in recent memory at Ellis Park.
Their defence, too, was a problem and that deserves its own story, but we chose to focus on their attack and how the Hurricanes managed to bring them down to earth. Because it wasn’t just interesting as a textbook tactical victory, it was also a startling revelation that the thing we admire most about the Lions – their attack – is patently susceptible to pressure. These are the hallmarks of test match rugby.
The book has now been written on how to derail the men from Gauteng. It will be up to Johan Ackerman to make the necessary adjustments and hope that his players can knuckle down and change course mid-game should it happen again.