Warren Gatland has been grilled over his coaching style many times before. But rarely has it been so unilaterally criticised, and rarely has he been so rattled by that criticism.
His prickly response to a recent question on so-called “Warrenball” painted a picture of a man feeling the pressure. His Wales team (who toured New Zealand a year ago) have been consistently pilloried for their unimaginative gameplan but, now that the stakes are so much higher, that pressure has become all the more intense.
It’s a thankless task that Gatland has. Modern rugby is a game of intricate combinations and well-oiled systems; to throw together a competitive test side in a matter of weeks, regardless of the players’ individual calibre, is a hugely daunting mission.
Nevertheless, I’ve looked over the Lions’ first two matches, against the Provincial Barbarians XV last Saturday and the Auckland Blues a couple of days ago, and identified two main areas in which improvement is desperately required. These are:
- Attacking decision-making/creativity;
- Breakdown intelligence/technique.
In this piece, we’re going to look at four pieces of attacking play that exemplify how both of the above are found wanting. These two issues are, of course, interlinked: Gatland’s side will not be able to develop a more expansive brand of rugby if they do not have the quick, clean ball necessary to play it.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however: as we will see, there are some green shoots of improvement. But the reality is that these will need to be dramatically built upon if the Lions are to worry the All Blacks on 24th June.
1. Break Against the Provincial Barbarians: 29th Minute
The Lions turn the ball over after a really effective rip by Toby Faletau, who makes some good yards before taking contact. If we look at the Lions’ shape as the ball is recycled, we can see that they are actually organised really well:
They had been crying out for this type of structure all match. They have two forwards willing to carry closer to the ruck (numbered in white), a pod of three set up in midfield (numbered in red), with a well-aligned second wave of four backs (numbered in yellow) out behind them.
Jonathan Sexton (playing at out-half) has a huge number of players to work with, and the Irish conductor would normally be licking his lips at such a formation. With no less than ten Barbarians players clustered very close to the breakdown area, there is a real opportunity to play wide as Greig Laidlaw passes from the base of the ruck:
But in order to preserve that space in wider channels, the Lions have to hold that Barbarians defence as narrow as possible. As indicated above, this is a prime opportunity for them to execute a pull-back play, with Kyle Sinckler hitting a really hard line to allow for a Ross Moriarty pass behind him, either to Warburton sliding around the back (as indicated by the white arrow) or to Sexton (red).
This sort of direction should be coming from Sexton; when on form, he is one of the most proficient out-halves in World Rugby at quickly organizing his troops and putting them where he wants them. But, as we roll the footage on, it becomes clear that none of this happens:
Sexton is simply jogging laterally across the field, apparently reluctant to involve himself in the game. Without better direction from his 10, Moriarty chucks a pass to Sinckler and, as we can see, this allows the Barbarians defence to trot across the pitch and eat up all the Lions’ space. We will see how Sexton’s attitude compares to Owen Farrell’s attitude later on, but we’re not quite done with this passage of play.
As we can see above, Sinckler’s pass is actually pretty decent, and the Lions do make ground due to some lovely offloading from Stuart Hogg and Ben Te’o. (This just goes to show how individual skill can sometimes rescue you when attacking systems fail, and it would’ve been good to see the Lions trust their flair a little more in this match).
So now, firmly on the front foot as the barnstorming Sinckler is felled, the Lions have prime attacking ball:
The Barbarians players have struggled to cover across from the earlier breakdown, and there is a clear opportunity to exploit the blindside on the next phase: above, we can see Laidlaw clearly notice this.
With his scrum-half ready for a supply of quick ball, it now falls to Rory Best to clean out Sam Anderson-Heather quickly and efficiently. However, if we roll the play on just a few frames, it becomes clear that the Ulsterman’s technique is wobbly:
Best fails to land a clean hit on the Barbarians man, making contact as much with his arm as with his shoulder, and this allows Anderson-Heather to linger over the ball to peskily slow down the Lions’ forward momentum. After just a second of delay, we can already see four men start to form a line to their right of the ruck. They are still very disorganised, however, and the chance is still very much on.
But if we roll the footage on further, we can see Best continue to struggle. By the time Laidlaw gets the ball away, the Barbarians defence is fully set on the blindside, and Te’o fails to make it over the gainline:
This only a four-second ruck (international coaches classify quick ball as two seconds and under), but the door slams shut on the Lions very quickly. Of course, the blame cannot fall squarely with Best; as we shall see later, the Lions’ support of cleaners was poor all match. But this example goes some way to showing how the Lions would have benefited from better breakdown work as well as better decision-making from ten.
2. Anthony Watson Try Against the Provincial Barbarians: 52nd Minute
I’ve picked this second example not only to illustrate some of the differences between Sexton and Farrell’s performances in the first game of the tour, but also to show how persistent these breakdown issues were.
The Lions field a Barbarians kick and, after a bungled offload from Tommy Seymour, Te’o gathers the ball:
Isolated from his teammates, Te’o is held up in the tackle, and, noticing that the ball has been slowed down like this, Farrell cancels his instruction to go to the blindside by pointing his players away from the touchline.
Tadhg Furlong, meanwhile, is waiting for Te’o to be brought to ground, so he can become the primary cleaner for his side. But, as the England centre continues to be held up, Furlong realises that there is a turnover risk, so flies into contact by applying 20st of Wexford beef in getting his man to ground:
Furlong does the trick but, with the Leinster prop rolling away from the completed tackle, the Lions no longer have a player ready to secure the ball. Above, we can see Sam Warburton fail to react, walking away from the breakdown to offer himself for the next phase.
As the camera broadens out, he is a full seven metres away from the breakdown with nobody to secure the Lions’ ball:
The Barbarians winger Sam Vaka sees his opportunity to pilfer the ball and, although referee Angus Gardener asks him to leave it alone, he succeeds in slowing down the Lions ball significantly. The Lions could argue that Vaka should have been penalised here, and I would probably agree; but this shouldn’t mask the fact that they left this ruck criminally under-resourced.
Now we return to Farrell who, having summoned his backs to the blindside, shows exemplary work-rate in building an attack on the other side of the field:
See how he first point Laidlaw right before running hard across the pitch himself, all the while barking out orders; the difference between his body language and that of Sexton could not be clearer.
But the differences do not stop there: they also extend to technical manipulation of attack. Before he was replaced by Farrell, Sexton had a tendency to simply hit the first carrier out from the out-half channel, even when that seemed a really predicable option. Here is a good example from the sixteenth minute, where the Irish out-half has two options: Joe Marler and Warburton.
We can clearly see above that Kaveniga Finau has stepped in, anticipating the pass to Marler, and this has opened up a large gap (as indicated by the red arrow) through which Warburton can glide.
An out-half of Sexton’s quality should spot this, and fire a miss-pass across the body of Marler to send his captain through. But, on what was a notoriously off-colour afternoon for Sexton, he gives the telegraphed pass to the England prop, who is stopped well short of the gainline:
If we return to our passage later in the game, however, we can see how Farrell reads the game far more effectively.
As he tracks round and takes Laidlaw’s pass, he spots that the Barbarians’ James Tucker (wearing 6 below) has stepped in to tackle George Kruis (wearing 19). So, instead of throwing the simple pass as Sexton did, Farrell fires it in front of his Sarries teammate to Moriarty, who breaks the line to set up the Lions’ try-scoring opportunity:
As Moriarty is taken to ground, however, look at the breakdown work of Faletau and Kruis. They remove the Barbarians player with clinical efficiency, and it is this platform from which the Lions go on to score. Here, then, is the blueprint from which the Lions must improve: breakdown efficiency combined with attacking invention.
3. Botched Try Against the Blues: 11th Minute
There were many improvements made for the match against the Blues on Wednesday but, by the same token, many of the issues detailed above went unresolved. The Lions’ attack, while improved in terms of pace, still lacked a clinical cutting edge.
Jared Payne’s botched try in the 11th minute was a great example of this, as the Lions spoiled their overlap by failing to execute the simple skill of drawing men before passing. I’m not going to spend too much time on that aspect of the play, because it’s simpler to direct you to Murray Kinsella’s analysis for The 42 here. That said, I want to take a very brief look at how the Lions created this chance by varying their predictable pattern of one-out runners.
As the ball is recycled near the right-hand touchline, we can see that the Blues are expecting the Lions to carry hard and narrow, with four defenders effectively marking Maro Itoje and CJ Stander:
As Itoje takes the pass, these four defenders prepare to smash the Saracens man, assuming that we will carry along the white arrow above.
However, Itoje notices their narrowness, and effectively removes these defenders from the game by aiming a cute tip-on pass to Justin Tipuric:
As indicated by the red arrow in the first graphic, Tipuric’s running line is intended to suck in as many wide Barbarians forwards as possible (numbered in red). By forcing these men into making tackles or covering laterally across the field, the Lions prevent them from competing for possession: a major bonus in that all-important pursuit of quick ball.
As we roll the play on, we can see just how crucial this speed of ball is in creating the Lions’ opportunity:
Leaving the backs aside, this example goes to show how more intelligent attack from the forwards can also yield opportunities. On the broader level of a gameplan, however, the Lions really need to learn from Itoje’s example and rely far less on simple one-out carries.
4. Toothless Phase Play Against the Blues: 47th Minute
If the above example was a glimpse of how the Lions might create space out wide, then this sadly pales in comparison to the stodginess of their phase play in general, as many lessons from the Barbarians game went unlearned.
The passage of play we’ll be looking at was fairly typical of the match, and once again it encompasses everything that I’ve said so far about attacking technique and breakdown intelligence.
The Lions play off the top of the lineout, and Henshaw carries characteristically well in midfield:
This provides the Lions with great front-foot ball, and CJ Stander arrives in support of his Ireland teammate. But the Munster man’s body position is not ideal. His feet are too far forward and his torso too high and, spotting this, Charlie Faumuina takes his opportunity to counter-ruck ferociously:
There is also some really clever play from the Blues in slowing down Stander’s support. Having made the tackle on Henshaw, see how Stephen Perofeta deliberately rolls into the path of Jack McGrath who, in having to vault over the Blues out-half, cannot support Stander as effectively as required. This was typical of the Blues’ performance throughout the match; they often disrupted the Lions’ speed of ball via underhand tactics. Here, it was no different, as Faumuina’s drive disrupts Webb’s pass:
Once more, the Lions lose quick ball as the result of below-par breakdown work. But if technique is the issue here, then a lack of support is also to blame as we roll the play on a few phases. As the Lions work the ball left and Jack Nowell is brought down, diminuitive full-back Leigh Halfpenny finds himself as his side’s only cleaner…
…and is very lucky not to be penalised for going straight off his feet at the ruck, completely sealing the ball off:
The Lions will never play expansive, attacking rugby if they look after their own ball this poorly: much work on the training ground is required, both in terms of arriving in numbers and in terms of rucking technique.
Leaving the breakdown aside by rolling the play on a few phases, we get an even better idea of how confused the Lions’ attack seems. As Sexton takes a pass from Webb, the Ireland out-half takes the ball to the line:
At first glance, this once more seems to be a decent setup; Sexton’s two short options of James Haskell and Ken Owens (numbered 1 and 2 respectively) have successfully tied in two Blues defenders, with a third lurking outside them.
This seems an ideal opportunity for Sexton to release Elliot Daly, who, tracking round the back off his wing, runs exactly this kind of arcing line (the red arrow) so well for club and country. But, frustratingly for Sexton and the Lions, loosehead Jack McGrath has found himself in the way of the pass. With no other options, Sexton has no choice but to use Haskell, who is inevitably clattered by the waiting defence:
The Lions do manage to recycle the ball, but Henshaw sensibly decides that enough is enough and kicks a tidy grubber into touch.
Once again, there is a distinct lack of cohesion in the Lions attack, with out-half and forward operating on different wavelengths. This is, of course, to be expected from a newly-assembled side, and the Lions will inevitably take time to get going.
But, in their preparation for their tough match against the Crusaders tomorrow, the Lions must improve their breakdown proficiency and attacking cohesion. If not, the awkward questions for Gatland will keep on coming.