The first game of the 2021 British and Irish Lions Tour has shown some interesting ideas about what Warren Gatland’s game plan will probably be, both in defence and in attack.
First and foremost, it is important to understand that what has been seen on the pitch is a mix of the need for trying the mechanisms and combinations for the Test Series and, on the other hand, the need for keeping the game undercover, in order to prevent the Spingboks’ coaching staff from studying some countermoves.
The defensive setup put in place by Steve Tandy has shown some interesting features. The player distribution on the pitch is a 13+2, that is, 13 players in the defensive line and 2 in the backfield. The idea is to create density in the central part of the pitch, between the two 15m lines, in order to contain the physicality of the South African pack. This solution inevitably leaves spaces in the 15m channels and requires great reading and understanding skills from the players, in order to avoid dangerous situations.
The first example comes from the first minute of the game. The Japanese side makes two carries in the midfield and the Lions’ defensive line is very dense and compact with Adams on the 15m line. When the Japanese move the ball wide, the Welsh winger is able to stay in the line, remaining connected with the player on the inside and buying time for Biggar to close the space. In the clip it is possible to see the work rate of the inside defenders, Conan and Sutherland, working to close the inside channel and push the opponent to the touchline.
A few minutes later, the same defensive set-up is explored again by Japan on the other side of the field, where the Brave Blossoms manage to create a mismatch between Van Der Merwe and Matsushima, with the latter of the two quicker and faster. In this instance, the South African-born winger is able to tackle the opponent player, but this situation highlights one of the dangers of this defensive system.
This kind of defence, even though risky, puts the emphasis on creating density in the middle of the pitch and forces the opposition to play in the wide channels where the touchline acts as an extra defender. On top of that, a breakdown on the side of the field means that the defensive line is set up on one side only, so it’s able to create an aggressive line speed.
This happens in the 29th minute of the match. After a couple of carries, the Japanese side moves the ball wide. Henshaw and Adams manage to stay connected and, with the help of the inside defenders, push Yamanaka to the touchline. Doing that they lose some ground that they immediately regain after going up fast, with a good speed of the line led by Henderson, and a good tackle by Lawes.
During the second half, two important things happen: the first one is Owen Farrell coming up as inside centre, bringing an increased line speed in defense. The second one is the role played by fatigue and tiredness in the efficiency of the defense. Both these elements are shown in the following clip, from minute 57. The Lions’ defense is tired and struggles in folding on the left side of the pitch, leaving only 4 defenders in almost 30 meters. The Japanese gain is impressive but in the following phase Farrell leads the line in a great aggressive rush. Nevertheless, the Japanese manage to create a break, thanks to their great handling skills by them and the tiredness of some Lions players.
Wrapping up this defense analysis, it is worth mentioning the use of the choke tackle by the Lions players. This tackling technique, largely used by Joe Schmidt’s Ireland, was put aside in the last few years due to the new laws’ interpretation about high tackles. The choke tackle has been used vastly in this first game with good results, and it is interesting to see if it will be used again during the Series.
Talking about the attack, it is interesting to see how the two different playing styles, the one by Gatland and the one by Townsend, will merge during the tour. During the first match a simple structure has emerged, mainly because the focus of the game has been on a high tempo and gaining confidence among the players. Nevertheless, there are some situations that are worth mentioning.
The first one is a power play from a lineout. The full lineout is won at the back with Tipuric immediately attacking the line with Murray on the inside. Aki runs a beautiful line targeting the fracture in defence between the lineout and the first defender. The forwards move from the lineout to the open side, isolating the short side which is quickly occupied by the backs. It is possible to see how Adams, after being stuck in the breakdown, immediately rushes in his position and scores a great try with nice footwork.
The second situation comes from a lineout too. The lineout is played with 4 players with 3 possible jumpers, which is a good option against South Africa. The ball is moved from 9 to 10 to a pod of three forwards in the middle of the field. During the breakdown two forwards come around the corner while three forwards occupy the short side, committing the defenders. The third phase is played with a pod of forwards receiving off 9 on the open side. In the next phase, Biggar has three possible options and decides to serve Beirne to carry. In the next few phases it is possible to see a 1-3-3-1 structure for the deployment of the forwards and Biggar’s decision, forced by a lack of forward progress, to kick a high ball on the left side, with Tipuric challenging a smaller player like Matsushima.
The next sequence shows which kind of players Gatland and his staff decided to pick in the back row. Instead of big, physical players (such as Vunipola or Stander), they decided to go with dynamic and skillful ballplayers: Jack Conan is this kind of player. He played a great game and he has been utilized in the wide channel where he can exploit his physicality, velocity and technique (in the clip one of his many actions in the game is shown). Another player is Tadhg Beirne who, even though he doesn’t execute a great tip pass to Biggar in this instance, has great handling and is able to perform this kind of pass. Justin Tipuric, who unfortunately has to withdraw from the tour due to injury, is the epitome of this kind of player, but also Faletau and Simmons can be included in this category.
Over the next few games the offensive game plan and the defensive structure will keep on evolving and it will be exciting to see what’s coming next.