Someone once said there are no easy games in Super Rugby, but if we’re going to be honest then it’s fair to say that some games are easier than others. In the Jaguares’ case there’s another wrinkle in that games involving the South Americans have been easier than expected. After gutting the Irish in last year’s Rugby World Cup Quarter Final they came into their debut Super season with a swagger, yet after thirteen games have only two victories to show for their trouble. Not that it seems to be much trouble to them anyway – their lacklustre defence at Ellis Park saw the Lions run in 8 tries thanks in large part to Los Jaguares’ sluggish line speed and disinterest come ruck time.
It can be hard to extract anything meaningful from a game like this because apparent strengths might be exaggerated by opposition weaknesses – for example how valuable is a linebreak stat really in the face of poor defence? And so it was as we sat down to code this match.
So as we pondered over the data at hand our minds turned to all the numbers we’d already collected on the Lions; mountains of stats relating to virtually every action every player has made since their first game against the Sunwolves. A chance comment about some of the Lions players’ poor defence inspired us to go back and look at this area of their game in more detail.
Armed with 13 games worth of coded information thanks to Rugby Analytics, let us take you on a deep dive into the numbers behind the Lions’ defence so far this year.
We’ll start with the Lions’ Tackle Dashboard for the season (click to enlarge).
Starting with the rev counter at top left we can see that the Lions have a tackle completion rate of 87% across all games, missing on average 12.9 tackles per match. This is pretty good and confirms what we already know – on paper they’re a solid defensive side (although obviously there’s a lot more to it than that…)
Things start to get interesting in the table just below that, which lists the highest ranked culprits – in different facets of the game – where missed tackles occur. So for instance looking at the first column, when the Lions miss tackles after a set piece, 26% of the time it will be after a lineout.
But what we’re really interested in is anything that is orange or red, because that indicates a problem area. Here our eyes immediately go to the red column named Line Setup. What this refers to is whether the Lions players are connected to each other in defence (good) or disconnected from each other (bad). Quite remarkably, the Lions miss a lot of tackles when they are connected, in other words when their defensive shape is good and not jagged. In other words tackles are being missed at times when the system is working. What this tells us is that it must be individual players who are making the mistakes.
A quick look at the Line Spacing column gives further credence to this hypotheses: the Lions miss 43% of their tackles when the spacing between the players is good. So again, this points to individual errors rather than system errors.
Another area to keep tabs on is that the Lions concede 32% of their tries in the 4th quarter of a game, which is a lot. They’ll need to look at why this is happening and find a way to tighten up over the last 20 minutes.
There’s a lot to glean from this table, but something that starts to bubble to the surface is that poor individual tackling seems to be letting the side down. So the logical question then is, where is happening?
To start with, if we look at the Lions’ overall tackle completion rate of 87% that gives us a yardstick by which to measure individual player contributions. To make individual comparisons we can look at Rugby Analytics’ table below, which logs every single Lions tackle and missed tackle by player. What’s immediately apparent is how incredibly effective players like Warren Whiteley (98% tackle completion), Jaco Kriel (93%), Warwick Tecklenburg (98%) and Ruan Ackerman (96%) are.
But if players like this are hitting tackle completion rates of well over 90%, yet the Lions overall tackle completion only sits at 87%, who’s dragging the class down? Please come to the front Messrs Jantjies (75%), Janse van Rensburg (71%), Mnisi (76%) and Combrinck (75%). While the Lions’ forwards (mostly) work their tails off in defence, the backs (mostly) seem to have instituted a revolving door policy.
Perhaps that’s a little bit harsh because backline defence is a far trickier proposition than what happens in the closer channels, but Lionel Mapoe – who has the hardest job of all at 13 – has missed just 6 tackles in total this year for a TCR of 89%.
Let’s just say it: defence wins test matches. People don’t want to hear that because they feel South African rugby has been “boring” for far too long, but when we look at potential Springboks we MUST be critical of their defensive abilities. Defence and pressure are the bedrock of test rugby. They allow us to make the opposition play the way we want them to play.
Let’s go back to the Lions’ Tackle Dashboard – the first table we looked at – because it also tells us on which phase the Lions miss most of their tackles. We can see that they miss a whopping 46% of all their tackles on 1st phase. To be fair, most teams will miss more tackles on 1st phase because their forwards are still tied up in scrums and lineouts, but the Lions are missing close to half their total tackles after the set piece.
So to throw some light on the issue, Rugby Analytics have burrowed down even further to look at only the tackle data on the Lions’ 1st phase defence (click to enlarge).
What immediately jumps out is that 33% of all the Lions’ missed tackles on 1st phase happen in the 10/12 channel. This is consistent with the poor individual player stats we listed above – Jantjies, Janse van Rensburg and Mnisi are virtually gifting the opposition line breaks and quick ball.
In a sense this isn’t a surprising statistic; coaches love to attack the 10/12 channel on 1st phase because it’s a quick strike while the space is on offer. The forwards are otherwise engaged so it’s up to the backs to protect this vulnerable area. Also, the tackle point in the 10/12 channel will be close to the forwards who are extricating themselves from the set piece, so they will be able to attend the ruck and set up the next shape. But what is concerning is just how lucrative the Lions’ 10/12 channel has been for opposition teams.
Why is this a problem?
If you can make meters and push the advantage line back on your 1st phase strike, then your 2nd and 3rd phases become gilt-edged attacking opportunities. It’s a snowball effect. If you keep getting quick ball the defence must continually run backwards or laterally until they can get themselves organised. An effective carry in the 10/12 channel is often the first falling domino that leads to a later try.
Something else that jumps out from this table is specifically Elton’s performance on 1st phase defence – he leads the team with 15% of all their missed tackles on 1st phase. So to get a clearer picture, Rugby Analytics has gone even deeper and put a microscope just on Elton’s 1st phase tackle stats. This is what we see (click to enlarge).
What’s immediately apparent is that Elton’s overall tackle completion rate (75%) drops to 57% on 1st phase, meaning that he misses almost half the tackles that come his way after a set piece. What’s also interesting is that a third of his missed tackles on 1st phase happen in the 13+ channel, and another third happen out wide near the 15m line! Why is a flyhalf defending out there? The simple answer is that the Lions try to hide Elton away in the line, which is something we’ve seen regularly this season. And what’s apparent is that he even misses his tackles out there. Given that Mnisi and Janse van Rensburg are not stellar defenders either, it’s clear the Lions have a real defensive headache at their inside channel.
For an opposition coach it’s like big, bright, shiny billboard that reads “Free Go-Forward Here!” You’d be a fool not to attack that channel the whole day.
We hope you enjoyed our quick deep dive. To some, this kind of data is meaningless chatter at best or a misleading distraction at worst, but given the absolute importance of protecting that inside channel, and given what the numbers uncover, it’s undeniable where the Lions’ soft underbelly lies.
What will be interesting going forward is to see if the Lions can fix it, and just how opposition coaches will exploit it.