As the story of the Lions’ 2016 Super Rugby season moves closer to its denouement, we’re able to look back at a wealth of information gleaned over 17 rounds to paint a fairly accurate picture of what their strengths are and where their weaknesses lie. But as much as we’ve learned about the Lions, we’ve learned about other teams too and we’re able to apply the same lens to the way they play.
With that in mind, and ahead of their looming quarter final, let’s take a quick look at some interesting things we’ve picked up about the Crusaders.
The Crusaders, surprisingly, aren’t particularly aggressive defensively. Like most teams they press hard on 1st phase to close the space enforced after lineouts and scrums, but thereafter they mostly employ what can best be described as a “hard drift”. Most teams will take their first step forward in defence but the Crusaders take their first steps out at angle towards the touchline. As is the intention with any drift, the sideline becomes the 16th defender. The Crusaders’ aim is to cramp you and push you out to where you have no more room.
But we noticed an interesting thing. As this drift happens, and because the Crusaders line is moving sideways more than forwards, they sometimes lose touch and leave a space on the inside near the ruck. It’s called overtracking, and the Crusaders have been guilty of it on numerous occasions this season. We took a look at their last game against the Hurricanes to see if it raised its head (click to enlarge).
The first thing to look at is the graph at top left, which shows phase by phase whether the Crusaders were passive or aggressive on defence. As we said, we noticed that they tend to overtrack when they drift so we wanted to see if the data supported this theory. It’s clear, as we thought, that the Crusaders were aggressive on 1st phase (as most teams are) but then became more passive, especially on 2nd phase immediately afterwards.
But the graph underneath that is where it gets really interesting. We logged instances of overtracking by the Crusaders and the numbers match up almost perfectly. On 2nd phase – when the Crusaders tend to drift most – they overtracked 7 times. In fact, any time the Crusaders employed any kind of drift on defence they seemed to overtrack. Whether passive or aggressive, drifting or pressing-and-drifting, they overtracked. They did it 22 times against the Hurricanes.
What’s so bad about overtracking? Firstly it leaves you vulnerable to an inside ball. If your catch-up defenders are lazy, or your pillar defenders (the defenders on either side of the ruck) don’t work hard to stay connected or fold as the drift moves away from them, gaps open up. And these gaps can be exploited by switching back inside to a man targeting the space.
The other vulnerability when drifting lies with the defenders themselves. Their momentum is taking them across the field so a play back inside behind them is particularly hard to get to as they need to “turn around”. Defence coaches watch the shoulders of defenders to see whether they’re aligned upfield or not, and when you drift you often inherently turn more side-on as you move across the field. The drift inherently encourages poor defensive posture.
THE INSIDE PLAY
So the Lions should look to exploit the Crusaders’ tendency to overtrack, especially on 2nd phase when they seem to do it most. The Lions need to run hard at the outside shoulders of the defenders to encourage the drift and then Elton plays the ball back inside to the blindside wing (for instance) who targets the opening near the ruck. Another way it’s done is a deeper play, where Elton again takes his line out at an angle to encourage the drift, but then hits a switch with his 12 or 13 coming back inside, who in turn hits the man attacking the inside gap at speed.
It’s something the Lions did effectively against the Cheetahs and they’re more than capable of executing these kinds of plays in the face of the (generally) more passive Crusaders’ defence. It also has to be said that if the Crusaders choose to be more passive against the Lions they might pay the price. The men from Gauteng thrive in time and space and it will allow Elton and his strike runners to dictate terms closer to the advantage line.
The Lions will do well to take a leaf from the Hurricanes’ defensive playbook against the Crusaders. They came up incredibly quickly and got into the Crusaders’ faces, neutralising them or spoiling their intentions behind the advantage line. The Hurricanes are comfortably the most aggressive defensive team in world rugby (when it comes to line speed) and it rattled the Crusaders no end, just like it derailed the Lions themselves when the teams met in April.
The graph top right on our main graphic shows just how militant the Hurricanes were. 71% of the time on defence they were aggressive and another 10% of the time they were even more aggressive, showing Rocket line speed by racing up and hitting the Crusaders even earlier in the play. The spidergram bottom right also shows the Hurricanes’ strategy – aggressive on 1st phase and almost equally aggressive on 2nd phase, tapering off to become slightly more passive with the occasional shoot or rush as the phases progressed.
Though not on the same level, the Lions can also be classified as a defensively aggressive team. They like to come up fast and take away your time and space, so their system is geared to apply this kind of pressure. We’ve written before that the Lions defence is underrated, so if they can get up fast, stay connected and make their tackles they should be able to keep the Cantabrians quiet. The key, though, will be the Lions backs, particularly their inside men Jantjies, Mnisi and Janse van Rensburg. These three players have some of the worst defensive stats in the Lions team and they’ll have to make their one-on-one tackles to keep the integrity of the Lions D.