The Lions will be down and out after being eviscerated by the Hurricanes at Ellis Park two weeks ago. Saturday’s showdown with the Blues is a chance to get the New Zealand monkey off their backs and bring some buoyancy back into their camp.
They’ll need to beat the Blues if they want to beat the blues.
Rugby Analytics took a closer look at the Aucklanders’ game against the Chiefs to see what nuggets and trends they could uncover, and although that might not paint a comprehensive picture of their season as a whole it does give clues about where they’re dangerous and where they might be vulnerable.
Again, this is a sample of one game, but based on Rugby Analytics’ Ruck Realignment chart below we can see a few interesting things. Firstly, the Blues didn’t play flat against the Chiefs. (Click to enlarge.)
The grey bits above indicate flat alignment, whereas the blue bits show deep alignment. So on 1st phase the Blues stood flatter – possibly trying to maximise space after the set piece by attacking the gain line. But thereafter they tended to stand deep, or in the classic “30 degrees” alignment from the coach’s manual (red bits). Why? When you want to go wide you stand deep, and when we look at the Blues’ dangerous outside backs it’s clear that wide play is where they feel the money is.
This is a big red flag for the Lions.
A theme in our weekly analysis has been how weak defensively the Lions are out wide. They not only miss tackles but concede meters out near the chalk, so the Blues’ predilection for going ‘round the outside is perfectly matched to this vulnerability.
Another snazzy Rugby Analytics chart drives the point home. It shows in which channels the Blues tended to set their attacking targets against the Chiefs.
On first phase – the first pie – the Blues liked to attack closer in at the weak elbow between the set piece and the backline (yellow and red). That’s perfectly sensible and we can expect to see a lot more of this on Saturday where they’ll be lining up against Elton Jantjies. Thereafter they started to hit wider, although it’s clear that they vary the point of their attack well throughout.
What we’re interested in though are the grey bits of the pies, which show wide strikes, and they do seem to set more wide targets compared to the norm. When we say “set a target” we mean “where are they intending to hit you” and it’s important to note that trying to go around the outside of a team isn’t for everyone, or at least, teams don’t do it as often as one might think. To go around the outside means you have to contend with the touchline, you need to have done work on the inside first, and, obviously, you need speed to burn. The Blues – with their electric outside backs and variation on attack – are primed to do this.
So how does the Lions defence stack up?
We know that in the Chiefs game the Blues liked to play wide. Something to add to that is that they often used “wide-wide” plays, which is to attack wide on one play, and then change direction and go wide again on the other side of the field. In other words you don’t look for contact anywhere in the middle of the field – your alignment and spacing is geared to shifting the ball from one touchline to the other as quickly as possible. To do this you need manpower – the ball needs to move speedily from hand to hand. Big long passes are also the order of the day.
If they are to combat this, as well as the Blues’ penchant for varying their strike points, the Lions will have to mirror the Blues’ sometimes stretched-out formation to some extent. To do that they’ll need manpower of their own, so it’s important that they don’t commit numbers to the rucks but instead keep their defenders out on the grass to be able to spread. Fortunately the Lions defence has played exactly that way the whole season. Their defensive philosophy this year has been to eschew the breakdown in favour of putting men in the line.
There’s an interesting point of discussion around the benefit or cost of changing direction when you strike. We’ve written about it here, but in a nutshell a case can be made for both. In some plays, especially after set pieces, you would go one way but then play back the other way with your backs so that they can run at forwards still emerging from the scrum or lineout. The downside of changing direction (in phase play) is that you can end up running back into a defence which might have been struggling to keep up with you had you kept on playing away from them with quick ball.
By playing touchline to touchline the Blues do change direction and this might sometimes negate their quick ball if they play back in towards lagging Lions defenders. And considering that the Lions will have numbers in the line they’ll be able to use those men to come up quickly on defence.
But we need to talk about that.
In their last game the Lions were ambushed by one of the most aggressive and supersonic defensive performances in recent memory. In their prep the Hurricanes would have seen how deep the Lions sometimes stand and resolved to race up and catch them behind the advantage line whenever they could. It worked.
Given, as we’ve mentioned, that the Blues also often stand deep, it would be tempting for the Lions to use a similar tactic and get up as aggressively to kill their runs. But there are risks involved. The Hurricanes were successful because it was so utterly unexpected, so unbelievably aggressive, and the Lions’ delicately tuned attack struggled to adjust.
We’d wager that the Lions won’t adopt the Hurricanes’ kamikaze defence and, interestingly, that might put them in a grey area that could cost them. Before we elaborate, it’s important to talk about the differences between Rushing, Straight Up and Shooting on defence, which all refer to line shape, and not to line speed.
- Rush defence uses fast line speed, but an outside player (often the 13) comes up faster than the others to try and force play back inside. Sometimes called an “outside-in” defence, rush defence is characterised by its distinctive bow shape.
- Straight Up defence also uses fast line speed but players come up in unison. A straight, connected line of players moving fast.
- A Shooter is a single player who rockets up from the line to attack a carrier.
How do the Lions tend to defend? Rugby Analytics has a nifty Line Shape table for us that encompasses every single Lions defensive action from every Super Rugby game they’ve played this year. (Click to enlarge.)
You can peruse the chart at your leisure, but the significant data lies in the bottom line where we see that the Lions have employed Straight Up defence 49% of the time this year and Rush Defence 10% of the time. This is significant because it could be their undoing against a team who stand deep but have the ability and skill to manoeuvre around defenders who are coming directly at them. Remember we’re not necessarily just talking about speed, we’re talking about shape too. If I run straight at you, and I run at speed, it’s easier for you to avoid me because I’m so committed. And once avoided, the Blues have the players to make the Lions pay.
We said that the Lions might end up in a defensive grey area. Here’s why.
The Hurricanes rolled the dice by attacking the Lions’ deep alignments with extreme line speed. It was a brave call and it worked because it was so unexpected and aggressive. The Lions probably won’t take the same ultra-aggressive approach when the Blues are standing deep – which is sensible. What they will do is dash up quickly in their preferred Straight Up formation as per the table above. But this could play into the Blues’ hands. They’re a skilful team who like to stand deep, facing a team who like to come up straight and fast. It will be no problem for the Blues’ backs to step and avoid these straight-on defenders and on top of that they’ll have decoys and backdoor moves to encourage overcommitment. The Lions defence might find itself marooned and clutching at straws after sprinting up in unison.
So what to do?
What might work well against the Blues deep alignment of skill players is best described as an “aggressive drift”. This would see the Lions move up fast to close down and own the space between them and the deep-lying Blues backs. But then they would need to check their speed, not overcommit, and allow the pressured Blues to make a play. As that happens they can drift aggressively and push the Blues’ runners towards the touchline. They should be more like angry shepherds than angry missiles.
The Lions are all about speed and variation, and they often use “same direction” plays to aggravate the defence’s attempts to keep up. This is a good thing as the Blues don’t always fold well from ruck to ruck – their defenders sometimes don’t keep up with rapidly bouncing strike points, especially on wide plays. Added to this, as we can see below the Blues don’t contest on 1st phase ball, which means the Lions will have the luxury of setting up quick 2nd phase plays.
Taking this information all together, it gives the Lions a possible roadmap of sequential strike plays that could unpick the Blues’ defence.
- Off set piece, set a target in the middle (especially by running at flyhalf Ihaia West) and get beautiful quick ball, doubly so because the Blues don’t contest 1st phase.
- Quick ball achieved, play same direction away from the stressed Blues defenders who don’t wrap as well as they should.
- Then set a target out wide to take advantage of a shortened Blues line as the outside defenders have to come in to make up numbers.
- From that wide position, repeat. Set another target in the middle to lock in the defence, play same way away from the defence, and then set a target out wide once more.
Doing predictive analysis is a fool’s errand as teams play differently depending on opposition and circumstance, but by now we have a good sense of the DNA of the Lions and a ton of data to go with it. So we can look at the way they tend to play and hold it up against the way other teams seem to play and draw conclusions about what might happen. Be that as it may, it will be the mental side of this game that will be decisive. Data can’t measure or predict things like attitude, adaptability and composure. No doubt the Lions are spoiling to banish the blues and get their campaign back on track. Saturday is a chance to take that step up.