Hi guys. The third Test between the Lions and the All Blacks was a hell of a magnificent game of rugby, hey? The drama of the series take us back to the old days of proper tours, and more than that, the physicality, pressure and execution in these games reminds us that Test rugby is a totally different sport to other rugby.
Something we often talk about, but that people don’t always understand, is why physicality is so important in rugby, especially in Test rugby. So today I want to look at a passage of play from this match that will illustrate it. But for a change I will tell the story backwards. We will start at the end and then go back to see why things happen as they did.
So here is the end. The senter, Davies has hit the fullback Barrett deep behind the advantage line. The rest of the Lions will flood the tackle and Warburton will get a turnover. But how did this hit by Davies happen?
First, look at the numbers the Lions has. The Lions is organised. They are covering Smith, Beauden and Moody inside, so Davies is safe to target Barrett deep. But more than that, for Davies to have make this hit, he must have also had a head start…
In the picture above we will go a step earlier and see that Davies was like the Welsh Usain Bolt from the starting blocks.
It is clear he is defending on the front foot, on his terms, leaving the line at pace, playing forward. Davies is defending from a incredibly positive “base” that allow him to shoot like this. And all the Lion defenders on that side is on the front foot.
Look at them. The All Blacks is in trouble before the ball has even leave the ruck. But the question is, why and how is the Lions defending on the front foot like this?
In the picture above we see the beginning of the answer. Look at that breakdown – it is a hell of a mess for the All Blacks.
Excluding Smith, there is four All Blacks and only two Lions involved at that contact point. So in other words the All Blacks attack is at a numerical disadvantage to the Lions defence. And more than that, the All Blacks is getting slow ball from this breakdown.
The extra time that Smith is waiting for the ball here give the Lions time to organise and then charge forward. But why is this breakdown such a mess for the All Blacks?
Above, we see Smith is waiting for the ball because Itoje arrived at the breakdown to spoil the party. He was second defensive arrival at the ruck and immediately make a nuisance. That force Lienert-Brown and Retallick to clean – we can see them smashing Itoje off Read, who was the carrier.
Even Whitelock (if we look at the previous picture) had to add his support. This kind of play by Itoje is what we want from a second ruck arrival, but the truth is he can only do it if he is given the right conditions. So what allow Itoje this chance to steal?
First look at Itoje. The tackle is happening in front of him, so he will be able to play forward onto the ball to try to steal it. If the tackle was next to him, or behind him, then he will first have to go backwards to legally come through the gate. And then he will be too late because Lienert-Brown (who is right there) will have sealed off the ball.
But why was Itoje able to play forwards? Look at the picture again and you will see that this breakdown is almost in line with the other breakdown in the picture where Savea and Cane is still lying. In other words, the All Blacks did not make a good gain when they carried from that ruck to this one.
So I think it is logical why Itoje was able to play forwards. This carry by Read was stopped early. If this was a better carry, then this contact point will have been deeper behind the Lions gainline, which mean Itoje will have to go backwards first, which mean he won’t be in time to slow the ball.
The player who is stopping Read’s carry is Faletau. But how was Faletau able to stop Read on the gainline?
This is that previous ruck. Savea initially make a big gain from the scrum, but we can see O’Brien is wrestling him back and down to the ground. Faletau is just behind them. The key is that O’Brien is stopping Savea dead, so now Faletau don’t have to run backwards to stay onside. The tackle happen in front of Faletau, so he can move forwards to hit Read early on the next carry.
That hit will stop Read short, which will allow Itoje to play forward and slow the ball, which will allow the Lions to settle into their sprinting blocks and Davies to shoot up to hit Barrett. Simple as that!
Every link in the chain we see above is crucial, but the most important ingredient is the physicality of players that stop other players on the gain line.
You can not have lekker things like fetching or linespeed if you going backwards. And that is why we say small players can sometimes be a liability. It is not necessarily so much on attack but on defence where they cause a problem for their team. Because even if they have amazing technique and they as brave as a honeybadger, they give away a weight advantage that often allow a crucial extra meter or two in a carry.
And as you can see above in one of the tightest Tests in recent memory, that extra meter can make all the difference in the world…
DISCLAIMER: English is Oom’s third language, after Rugby and Afrikaans.