The Lions’ Saturday team has produced two dominant defensive performances against the Crusaders and the New Zealand Maori, but will face their greatest challenge in Eden Park on Saturday. What can we learn about this contest from the Crusaders’ lack of success with ball in hand in Christchurch, and the All Blacks’ attacking dominance against Samoa?
Crusaders vs. Lions
The Crusaders have consistently looked to use their forward runners wide and flat throughout the Super Rugby season, and at the beginning of this passage during the first half of their loss to the Lions they are set up to do this:
Scrum-half Bryn Hall (9) is passing the ball from a couple of metres inside the touchline, and he has Owen Franks (3) just inside the 15m as the primary carrying option in their first forward pod:
However, the Lions’ aggressive interior press – led by George Kruis (5) – is able to shut down the space available to their first pod (circled above):
Their second pod (also circled on the diagram) is also too wide and flat to be a viable option on first phase – if Franks chooses to release the ball to Mo’unga (10), the Lions’ midfield will be able to press into the space between the groups and close off Mo’unga’s passing option.
Franks opts to carry into contact, and is stopped behind the advantage line by Kruis. The second row drops the prop and stays on his feet, rejoining the defensive line as they advance a couple of metres up the pitch. The flat alignment of the Crusaders’ second pod is exposed by the fact that they did not generate front-foot ball on first phase, and they are unable to progress the ball forward on phases two and three before Sean O’Brien forces a breakdown turnover.
This sort of alignment – the primary pod standing flat, with poor connections to the trailing option and the secondary pod – was displayed by the Crusaders on a number of occasions throughout the game:
This has been effective in Super Rugby as their forward runners are able to get across the advantage line with regularity: the Crusaders as a team have crossed the advantage line on 68% of their carries, second only to the Highlanders in 2017. The Lions, however, were able to stop this and compress the space between the first and second waves of their attack; without quick ball and forward momentum, there was little that Mo’unga and his midfield could do because of their existing shape.
New Zealand vs. Samoa
By contrast, in their warm-up fixture against Samoa New Zealand’s attacking alignment looked like that of a team well prepared to face an aggressive midfield press. Their primary forward pod often set up noticeably deeper off 9 than the Crusaders’ above, as in this example from the second half:
This sequence – in the build-up to Vaea Fifita’s try in the right corner – begins in a comparable position to the Crusaders’ above: a ruck a couple of metres inside the touchline. Sam Cane (7) is at first receiver with Charlie Faumuina (18) alongside; importantly, however, they are a couple of metres further back from the advantage line than the Franks-Whitelock-Moody pod above. Lima Sopoaga (22) trails the two forwards, and has Fifita (20) and Brodie Retallick (4) as a secondary pod in midfield. This pod is in a much more accessible position due to New Zealand’s initial depth:
The goal of this tactic is to force the opposition’s interior defenders to press the receiver in the first pod before shifting the ball to the second pod: this ball movement diffuses the line speed of the defence, as it must shift its momentum from one potential point of contact to another one which is considerably wider. The depth of the first receiver is crucial in order to draw the press, and is an aspect that New Zealand look to have emphasised after the Crusaders’ loss.
The All Blacks’ use of this is especially dangerous because of the passing ability of their primary ball-handling forwards – Cane, Retallick, Sam Whitelock & Scott Barrett – and the running threat of Beauden Barrett as the trailing option. If the outside defender commits too early to the backdoor pass, then there is space for the second forward in the pod to receive a tip-on pass; if the spacing between the interior defence and the midfield is imbalanced, then Barrett can hit the ball at pace opt to take the space himself.
Much was made of the way that the Crusaders shut down the Hurricanes’ phase attack earlier in the Super Rugby season, with many pointing to this as a blueprint for the Lions to shut down the reigning World Rugby Player of the Year. However, the Hurricanes play a basic and conservative system in the middle third of the pitch, with Barrett often taking the ball deep and distributing to forward carriers behind the gain-line. This will not be the case with New Zealand: Barrett and Sopoaga stood at first receiver and passed to a forward runner only twice in 80 minutes against Samoa, and they look to have further optimised their phase attack set-up to maximise Barrett’s best qualities while minimising their exposure to his weaknesses.
Barrett and Sopoaga received the ball as the trail runner 4 times in this formation, and looked to hit either the second forward pod in midfield or a second backline receiver. The initial depth of the two fly-halves (circled) in the sequences below clearly contrasts with Mo’unga and Havili above, while the second backline receiver (also circled) is also in a much more effective attacking position:
In the second and third images, we see Julian Savea coming off his wing and slotting in to the backline as this second receiver. His work (in particular his passing alignment) was superb on set-piece attack during this game, but it is exciting to see him getting involved in the midfield in general phase play in addition to offering a first-phase threat.
Most encouraging for Hansen, however, will have been the performance of Sonny Bill Williams on his return to test match rugby. He managed his depth exceptionally in these phase-play situations and off set-piece ball, with sharp running angles and precise footwork creating the space for him to combine with his centre partner Anton Lienert-Brown in midfield.
Williams displayed a willingness to use his short kicking game a couple of times against Samoa – an ability which may prove useful against the Lions – and the quality of his catch-pass in the face of defensive pressure was excellent:
Much was made of the absence of New Zealand’s top second rows in the wake of their November loss to Ireland, but equally crucial in the second half was the injury-enforced midfield combination of George Moala and Malakai Fekitoa. Both centres are more comfortable as a primary carrying option, and Andy Farrell’s defensive scheme – with Andrew Trimble so effective blitzing from the open-side wing – was able to pressure the pairing into handling errors as they looked to transfer the ball to wide channels. In Williams, Lienert-Brown and the returning Ryan Crotty, the All Blacks will be able to call upon three centres with excellent passing ability, and this will be a significant positive as they look to negotiate Farrell’s press.
The Lions’ defensive performance so far on tour has given them a reason to be hugely optimistic heading into Saturday’s first test, but there are already signs that New Zealand have looked to implement an attacking system which can mitigate their opposition’s key area of strength. Whether it is possible to contain a New Zealand team that scored three or more tries in every test they played last year for eighty minutes is open to question, but Warren Gatland’s side have shown over the last two weekends that they will have a better chance than most of doing so.