In the wake of the Crusaders’ superb victory against the seemingly irrepressible Hurricanes a little over a week ago, much was made about how the British & Irish Lions could learn from the defensive prowess on display in Christchurch.
The immovable object of the Canterbury side’s defence brilliantly triumphed over what had looked like an unstoppable force, and former Leinster and Ireland centre Gordon D’Arcy was among those to laud their aggression and intensity. Writing in The Irish Times, D’Arcy noted how, time and time again, the Hurricanes’ star out-half Beauden Barrett was foiled by “the pace of the defensive line speed”, arguing that the World Player of the Year fluffed his lines under the pressure.
Undoubtedly, there is some truth in this: the Crusaders were often ferociously aggressive off the line. But a closer look at that fixture paints a bigger picture. To say that the Crusaders’ gameplan was based on adrenal aggression alone, I want to suggest, is to do a disservice to the variety of their defensive play. They shut down Barrett & Co. by selecting perfectly when to blitz and when to stand off, exhibiting a composure and decision-making ability that the Lions will need to replicate just as much as their intensity.
In this piece, I’m going to take a look at how those defensive reads and pressured decisions were made. Then, via some examples of how Saracens’ defence worked against Clermont in the Champions Cup Final, we’ll see how capable the Lions might be at implementing a similar system effectively.
(NOTE: apologies in advance for some of the grainier GIFs and stills in this piece: truly armchair analysis at its finest!)
It makes sense to start with an example of the defensive aggression mentioned by D’Arcy. Take this passage of play, at a crucial period in the match:
It’s easy to see why D’Arcy is so taken in by examples like this. Leaving aside what looks like a deliberate knock-on towards the end of the clip (which the officials missed), it really is maniacal, deranged, rabid aggression. That the Crusaders have already been slaving away for nearly seventy minutes to keep the Canes tryless (who were averaging seven tries per game up to this point) only makes it all the more impressive.
But if we rewind to the game’s second minute and look at the Canes’ first period of sustained attack, we start to see the method in this madness.
As TJ Perenara passes from the base of the ruck, Beauden Barrett (labelled BB to avoid confusion with his brothers) sets himself behind a central pod of forwards:
Sure enough, we can already see how eager Matt Todd is to get off his line and shut down the Canes out-half. He’s stretching that offside line to its limit (in this case, just about legally), and over the course of the match it becomes clear that he has specifically been tasked with shutting down Beauden’s space. Meanwhile, Scott Barrett (SB) tracks laterally across the field, positioning himself opposite the next man out from his brother.
This man is Mark Abbott, and, as we roll the play on just a few frames, it becomes clear that he is actualy going to run a screening line in front of Beauden, with the out-half sliding around the back in the hope of finding space:
Now, if Todd simply sticks to his assigned man-marking role, flying up and across the pitch in an attempt to track Beauden’s run (as indicated by the red arrow above), then this will leave a huge gap for Abbott to stride through on a short ball (the yellow line).
Reading this, Todd correctly cancels his blitz and stands his ground, ready to make a tackle on Abbott should the short pass be given. But this presents the Crusaders with a very real threat should the ball go deeper (which it does): the World Player of the Year now with time and space on the ball.
And this is where Scott Barrett comes in. Originally numbered up against Abbott, he recognises immediately that Todd has taken his man, freeing him up to pressurise his brother. If roll the footage on, we can see the roles of both defenders switch in an instant, as Scott sidesteps the hard-running Abbott to force Beauden into an early error:
This obviously illustrates the defensive intelligence of both Todd and Scott. But, besides that, it also points to a suppleness within of the Crusaders’ system: the first instinct is for Todd to shut down Beauden but, as soon as this “plan A” becomes nullified, both players adjust rapidly to secure the same end result.
Exactly this type of situation will have been a major theme in the Crusaders’ video analysis before the game. All season, Beauden has played from the space behind his forwards with devastating effect, as the Stormers discovered in the previous round:
In our original example, we can see Beauden shape to kick in a similar way, but his brother’s defensive read is too sharp for him to set himself soon enough. Todd remarked before the match that the Crusaders had “to take away [Beauden’s] time […] we have to put him under pressure”, but , in carrying that out, their aggression was counterbalanced with defensive intelligence and effective decision-making.
This became even clearer as the match progressed, as the Crusaders begun to vary their defensive approach in more radical ways.
Just after the half-time break, as Beauden picks up the ball in midfield, hardly any pressure is applied to him at all. Instead, we see a sudden change of tactic from the Crusaders defence, who channel all their energy into shutting down the men outside the Canes out-half:
After the ferocious pressure that was applied on him in the first period, Beauden is expecting another aggressive blitz from the Canterbury side, and Quinten Strange cleverly encourages this: he initially turns his body in towards the Canes out-half and shapes to fly out of the line (the red arrow).
But, as soon as Perenara’s pass has been released, both he George Bridge accelerate sharply towards Cory Jane and Ngani Laumape (the white arrows). This means that, by the time Beauden receives the pass, he is under virtually no pressure himself, with a gap of around 8 metres betweem him and the Crusaders tackle line…
…but, so worried is he about pressure being exerted upon him, that he shovels a needlessly hurried pass to Jane. Notice how static Beauden is when he throws this pass; he is very clearly not expecting to be afforded much time.
This is, of course, is exactly the kind of play that the Crusaders would have hoped to force. As soon as Jane gathers the ball, the intense pressure from Strange and Bridge forces him into a desperately loose pass to Laumape. As we roll the footage on, we can see all of these elements combine to result in 20 lost metres for Beauden and his side:
Here, the Crusaders show the value in a system that remains unpredictable: they remain one step ahead of Beauden, forcing him to play in a certain way before suddenly adjusting to outflank that approach. Once again, then, their defensive play is built upon aggression channeled by ingenuity.
The last example I want to look at is, fittingly, from the last play of the match.
With two seconds left on the clock, Beauden taken the ball from Perenara and probes for space on the left-hand-side. We (as well as the Canes out-half) can see that there is actually a possibility of an overlap here, as the Crusaders are outnumbered four to two:
So, in an attempt to cut off a flat pass directly to Julian Savea and thus lessen this overlap, Strange makes the risky decision to step up out of the line on his own:
With Savea no longer a viable option, Beauden now holds onto the ball. He either wants Strange to over-commit here, opening up a gaping hole through which he can accelerate (red), or draw the Crusaders man himself to release Shields on the outside (white).
But, as with so much of the Crusaders’ play all evening, Strange keeps his discipline. He halts his blitz and simply drifts laterally across the field, knowing that he only has to buy Crotty and Hall enough time to cover across and make the tackle:
Strange’s initial decision to step up neuters Beauden’s first option, but it is the drift that follows which nullifies his second and third. And this is, in many ways, the case in point: Strange is daring without being rash, and aggressive without losing his head.
So, is this all good news for the British & Irish Lions in their own mission to suffocate Beauden and Friends? I think there is cause for sensible optimism. This is largely because the Saracens team around whom the Lions test side is likely to be based (even with the hugely unfortunate withdrawal of Billy Vunipola from the touring squad on Sunday) defend in a very similar way to the approach outlined above.
To go into a little more detail, let’s look at Sarries’ impressive victory against Clermont in the Champions Cup Final, which kicked off a little under seven hours after the final whistle blew in Christchurch. Our first example illustrates how indispensable Owen Farrell’s defensive organisation will be for the Lions, and takes us to the 37th minute at Murrayfield.
Clermont field a Richard Wigglesworth box kick, and look to work the ball infield via Scott Spedding:
This all looks fairly routine but, if we listen in on the sound picked up on Nigel Owens’ microphone, we get a really good sense of how Farrell reads his side’s defensive situation:
Noticing that Sarries have seven players clustered very close to the ruck (numbered above), Farrell commands: “Wider! Wider!” before geeing up his tighthead Vincent Koch (addressed as “Vinny”) to make a dominant tackle on the next Clermont carrier: “Bang him, Vinny! Bang him, Vinny!”
Writing in The Telegraph, Charlie Morgan picked up on Farrell engaging in similar talk against Munster in the semi-final, but what I am interested in here is actually how he changes his instruction. As the camera pans out and the ball is recycled, we can hear the fly-half shout to the Springbok: “Chop! Chop!”:
As Koch steps forward to make the tackle, Farrell notices that many of his forwards (who perhaps haven’t fanned out as he would have hoped) are still clustered around the breakdown, meaning that the Saracens defence is sitting very narrowly (as indicated above).
Therefore, rather than have his prop attempt the higher-risk, dominant tackle, Farrell instructs Koch to simply “chop” the carrier to the ground, killing the ball as soon as possible to give his forwards a chance to either compete for possession or realign for the next phase.
As with the Crusaders, Farrell’s instinct is clearly to defend aggressively, but he is pragmatic enough to adjust according to what each individual situation demands. This should prove indispensable if the Lions are to replicate the Crusaders’ performance and shut down the threat of the All Blacks out-half.
The second point that I want to mention is Sarries’ employment of a defensive “shooter” system, an approach that they have perfected over a long period and which functioned well against Clermont. (For a really clear and concise explanation of how this works, see two brilliant little videos by The Dead Ball Area here and here). In the 34th minute, we get a great example of the system in action:
In short, it functions by sending a single player (known as the “shooter”) to fly up and shut down the first receiver, before his teammates fan out to fill the space he has left in the defensive line. We can see both components happening above, as Maro Itoje blitzes hard and George Kruis diligently slots in behind him.
We get another example in the 63rd minute, this time with Billy Vunipola “shooting” and Farrell filling the gap:
Sarries stop Clermont well behind the gainline here, and that is obviously in part to do with Vunipola’s freakish strength (he will be sorely missed by the Lions). But the success of this system equally depends on absolutely sound communication between the “shooter” and his teammates; if a player has a tendency to “shoot” without the support of his fellow defenders, first-class teams will pick off the resultant gaps for fun.
In short, and as Farrell clearly understands, it’s imperative to simply get the man to ground when a dominant tackle isn’t on the cards. Saracens’ “Wolf Pack” defence (as it is sometimes rather ingratiatingly known) is among the best in the world not only for its burly intensity, therefore, but also for its discretion in when this should be applied.
Soon after these events took place last Saturday, Ulster and Ireland lock Iain Henderson spoke to The Irish Independent about how his Lions side might look to tackle the All Blacks this summer. Henderson said that they would do well to replicate the much-mythologised Irish performance in Chicago back in November, where the men in green “got in their faces, under their skin and disrupted them from their usual game.”
Make no mistake: the Lions will get nowhere without this intensity and aggression in New Zealand. In all likelihood, with Ireland’s defence coach Andy Farrell taking the same role with them, they won’t be lacking any. But, as that first Test kicks off and the blood rushes to their heads, the touring players must resist the urge to play on emotion alone. To get any change out of the All Blacks, they will have to keep their cool, their composure, and, most importantly, their discipline.