We’ll be honest, when we started this series a few months ago we didn’t imagine that the Lions would be in the final. They swaggered into this year’s Super Rugby competition as Currie Cup champs and with a reputation as South Africa’s most exciting franchise, but given that their schedule had them facing every single one of New Zealand’s resurgent Super franchises we thought their contribution would be limited to a few giant killing acts at best.
Kill some giants they did, while building a giant new reputation along the way.
The benefit of following one team for a whole season is that you get to know them really well. With the help of Rugby Analytics we’ve been able to go even deeper and study the Lions on an unprecedented technical level.
While their attack was a triumph of good alignment, directness, pace and variation, they were shown to be lacking in other areas like tactical kicking and defence. That all came home to roost in blow-out losses to the Crusaders and the Hurricanes, but it was the game against the Sharks that perhaps marked a turnaround in the Lions’ thinking. Until then the Sharks defence had made a name for itself as an unyielding and impenetrable wall – like a test match defence that gives you nothing. The Lions kicked more, kicked better and discovered the last missing piece to their puzzle; even if you are ABLE to run from everywhere, sometimes you can create more pressure by NOT running.
We’ve spoken before about how many of the Lions conceded tries come from turnovers and broken play. Simply by playing their rugby in the right areas of the field and taking fewer risks the Lions transformed their campaign and started on the course that would lead them to Saturday’s final
There’s on last thing we’d like to say before the big game, and it pertains to the idea that the Lions are a “wide” or expansive team. In other words that they play with a devil-may-care joie de vivre and get the ball out to their wings at the earliest convenience. The secret to the Lions’ attack is actually how narrow they are, but then how well they are able to attack these inside and middle channels (with said excellent alignment, depth and direct play). The Lions play fast and direct, they recycle and realign quickly, and their support runners prefer exciting offload lines, but an expansive team they are not.
One big advantage? They’re never far from their support, so it’s safer and it’s easier for them to get quick ball for the next raid. This is how they start to break up defensive alignments and create holes for their runners. The data we pulled from the Highlanders game certainly confirms this, as we see how narrow the Lions were.
The predicted inclement weather in Wellington might play into the Lions’ hands, as they keep the ball close anyway. So it’ll come down to their set piece, their kicking game and their self belief.
After six long months of watching this team grow and seeing what they’re capable of, our money is certainly on the Lions.
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