What comes first? Can an insubstantial defence give rise to a good attack? Can a potent attack cause poor defence? The answer is yes, both things can happen. And a weak attack can struggle against a weak defence just as much as an excellent defence can thwart an excellent attack. No match is the same and it’s hard sometimes to unscramble the causal, chicken-and-egg relationship between how one team uses the ball while the other tries to take it away from them. They’re each one side of a coin.
When the Lions beat the Sharks at King’s Park in April we wrote about the Sharks’ struggles to get past the Lions D and how, in that case, it seemed to stem from the Sharks’ approach to their own attacking rucks. They made it easier for the Lions. Saturday’s return leg at Ellis Park saw a bigger winning margin for the Lions but it also threw out a completely different example of the symbiotic nature of attack versus defence and how the one can affect the other.
After the Springbok’s second test against Ireland we looked at how the Boks managed to turn the game around and why the Lions players coming off the bench seemed to make such a difference. In a nutshell it was about tempo, and part of that was down to the more opportunistic running lines the Boks started to take. Rugby Analytics’ new toy after that game was a graph that showed an increase in the number of times players ran at space or at the (desirable) soft inside shoulders of the opposition.
Because that graph is such a nice toy we thought we’d start this analysis with a similar view. How did the Lions’ players go into contact? Bearing in mind that the Boks attacked Space 5% of the time and Inside Shoulders 25% of the time in that second test against the Irish, how did the Lions stack up on Saturday against the Sharks?
There’s a big difference. The Lions hit Space 16% of the time against the Sharks and managed to attack Inside Shoulders 31% of the time. So, broadly speaking, on 47% of their carries they dominated the defensive situation… That’s heady stuff in this day and age of smothering defence. A dominant or good carry can mean a quicker ruck, which can mean (in tandem with other factors, like quick realignment, the speed of the clean, etc.) another good carry. It’s a snowball effect. Did it pay off? The Lions’ gain line data tells a terrific story.
Phase by phase, the blue bars show when the Lions managed to get over the advantage line while the grey bars show when they didn’t. Even though this data takes even the smallest gain into account it’s startling to see to how often Lions had it their own way.
So we get back to the chicken and the egg. Did the Lions exert their will on the Sharks, or did the Sharks open the door for the Lions?
The answer, generally, to those kinds of questions is that it’s a little bit of both. The Lions thrive on quick ball and as they built up a head of steam it became harder for the Sharks to get organised enough to stop them. But in the same breath the Sharks’ defensive data from this match shows just how culpable they were in their own demise. A look at their defensive line speed data is telling.
For our purposes we have four broad ways of describing how quickly a team comes up in defence. Aggressive line speed is just that – a quick rush up to close the space, while Rocket line speed is even faster and perhaps more desperate. No Press is the most inert a team can be on defence. Passive line speed is a slow move up towards the opposition.
It’s quite clear that the Sharks were very cautious on defence. They hardly pressured the Lions at all. 77% of the time they were either Passive or didn’t Press, with virtually an even split between the two. A look at their line speed by phases breaks it down even further, showing that if anything the Sharks were Aggressive on 1st phase but then settled into a far more Passive routine thereafter
Before we go on, it’s worth noting that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with employing slower line speed. It can be a choice, and some situations demand it. You could make a case that because the Lions play so flat, and because their players run such good lines, the Sharks didn’t want to press aggressively and get caught on the wrong foot. Call it the “wait-and-see” approach where you let the opposition make their plays before you hit them.
The truth is also that you can’t necessarily employ aggressive line speed whenever you want to. Generally you need numbers to be aggressive, and for instance that can depend on how many men you’ve committed to the rucks. You also need to be organised to do it – if the opposition get quick ball, or they’re getting over the advantage line, then it’s hard to track back and get into a good structure.
But we are seeing a trend where teams will be aggressive as a default, and it has to be said that the benefits seem to outweigh the risks. When it works you can disrupt the timing of the opposition’s attacking plays and make tackles behind the advantage line. That in turn can allow you to contest the ruck more effectively to slow the ball down and create turnovers. Getting tackled behind the advantage line will also generally force a team to kick.
If we need any more convincing that aggressive defence is effective look no further then the Lions’ own dismantling by the Hurricanes in April. Robbed of their attacking flair, unable to adapt to the Canes’ aggressive line speed and with no kicking game to fall back on, the Lions were dead in the water.
Taking all the above into account it seems that the Sharks’ approach in this game was to be aggressive on 1st phase but more watchful afterwards. If we’re going to be judgemental we’d say what was concerning was how often they showed “No Press” on defence, in other words when they were almost completely passive. Really all you are then is a tackle bag in a jersey. You present no threat to the offence. They have it all their own way. 37% of the time Sharks did not Press on defence.
So, chicken or egg? Did the Lions not allow the Sharks to get organised enough to be aggressive, or did the Sharks choose not to be aggressive? We think it started with a choice the Sharks made when they went into this game, and they paid the price. To that end, our final illuminating graph looks at Sharks defensive decisions before the ball came out for the Lions at the next ruck. In other words what did the Sharks do in defence in one moment, and how did that affect the speed of the Lions’ ball out of the next ruck.
It seems pretty clear. When the Sharks were Passive they gifted the Lions quick ball on 6 occasions and rapid quick ball on 4 occasions. Worse, when they showed No Press they gifted the Lions quick ball on 3 occasions and deadly rapid quick ball on 9 occasions. They simply allowed the Lions to change gears and hit top speed. And from there it was always going to have a snowball effect.
[Update: We have it on good authority that the Sharks’ problems stemmed from changes to their backline before the match. It’s hard to be cohesively aggressive as a unit if you don’t know/trust the guys around you yet. The data supports this – the Sharks were aggressive on 1st phase just as they would have been in training but fell off as the pace picked up. A group of players unfamiliar to each other sacrificed defensive line speed in an attempt to stay connected. It’s understandable. And the job got harder and harder as they gave the Lions more room and time.]