Chapter 2: Be Better To Beat The Best

In the early 1940s rugby in fascist Japan was derided for being a foreign game. It was largely thanks to the patronage of the Japanese Royal family, in particular Prince Chichibu, that “fighting ball” survived and flourished after the war. On Saturday the Lions had the honour of playing against the Sunwolves, Japan’s first Super Rugby team, at the Prince Chichibu stadium in Tokyo.

Chichibunomiya_YasuhitoAs Currie Cup champions and exponents of South Africa’s most appealing brand of rugby it was fitting that the Lions would be our emissaries on this auspicious occasion. While Prince Chichibu – a military man and disciplinarian – might have hoped for a better showing from his team, the truth is we expected more from the Lions too.

Usually these kinds of articles come off as an insult to the losers; the winners should have scored a lot more points because the opposition were poor.

But it was the Lions who left points on the field and, notwithstanding the Sunwolves’ gutsy performance, the winning score should have been a lot higher.

Here’s why.


Rugby Analytics shows us that the Lions targeted a specific weakness in the Sunwolves’ defence. From set pieces and in phase play the Lions often used a 9+1 move, meaning that the scrumhalf (9) plays a single pass to a carrier on his outside (+1). Faf de Klerk would pop the ball up to a runner whose sole job was to seek contact in the 10/12 channel.

There’s nothing revolutionary about running at a flyhalf, but this tactic paid dividends on the day because a) these one-off carries were allowed to be dominant and b) the Sunwolves’ ruck philosophy is to not commit to the breakdown.

When teams don’t throw men at the ruck it means they want more bodies across the park to defend. The All Blacks are masters of this and will only attack the breakdown if it’s on. But it can be risky… If you don’t fight on the floor then you must be dominant in the tackle, or at least slow the ball down before it recycles.

As the Sunwolves found to their cost, the Lions took advantage of lightning-quick possession and shifted the ball before their defence could reset. The crucial second you gain by slowing down the game gives your defence – often loose forwards – time to wrap around the ruck and beef up the line, freeing your backs to shift out and defend the wider space.

The Sunwolves were dominated in channel one, and they did not contest many defensive rucks. Consequently their defence couldn’t always wrap, shift and realign in time. They were regularly short of numbers out wide and the stage was set for a rout.

But it was a rout that did not materialise.

Lions Overlap3

Rugby Analytics reports 12 occasions in the first half alone when the Lions failed to make use of overlaps. 71% of these overlaps were created by 9+1 “one out” plays. Not all of these gilt-edged opportunities would have lead to tries, but it’s fair to say that the Sunwolves should have been dead and buried by half time. Incredibly, the Lions managed to exploit just one overlap in the first half.

It’s a startling statistic. But why did it happen?

Usually we’d point fingers at poor option-taking or a conservative mindset, but on Saturday it came down (mostly) to Elton Jantjies standing too flat and coming up too fast. The old coach’s handbook has it that when you want to go wide you stand in depth. Players have time to transfer the ball and each man has a brief moment to keep the defender opposite him honest. The backline takes its alignment from the flyhalf – so when he’s flat you’re flat, when he’s deep you’re deep.

In these situations Jantjies was so shallow that he sometimes didn’t have time to scan and see the space developing outside him, or he had to rush his pass, or the men on his outside were under too much pressure. There are few 10s in the world that play on the advantage line as well as Elton Jantjies does. He’s able to commit defenders and run midfield plays that leave a set opposition defence no time to think. But if the Lions want to get men around the edge, Jantjies and his backline will have to work hard to create more depth and width in their shape.

The Lion’s blueprint will undergo an acute pressure test against the Chiefs on Saturday. It will be interesting to see if they adopt similar tactics and, if so, whether they’ve identified the root cause behind their mountain of missed opportunities. Rugby Analytics notes that eight of the Lions’ first half overlaps against the Sunwolves came from 1st and 2nd phase. The Chiefs are not going to afford them that luxury. The Lions will have to take every chance they get.

As a member of the Japanese aristocracy Prince Chichiru would have been an adherent of the principle of “Kaizen” – the pursuit of perfection in all one does.

The Lions defended well on Saturday. They’re a slick outfit with a powerful scrum and a penchant for pacy rugby. But if they want to take the next step they’ll have to seek perfection. They will have to be better if they want to beat the best.

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