“It put me to sleep. Teams are almost afraid to play, they are just relying on a low-risk strategy. Two teams playing a similar style, it's a bit of a slugfest”
Ian Foster, All Blacks coach on the lions series.
While the South Africa and British and Irish Lions series is helping the All Blacks coach with his sleeping habits, South Africa levelled the series 1-1 with a 27-9 win last Saturday in Cape Town. In between the long breaks of play, the referee keeping 30 players apart, the “was it/wasn’t it” foul play and the yellow/red card discussions/decisions, a game actually broke out. The strategic battle between both sides was more intriguing this week but may have been overlooked with all the other sideshows. And it sets everything up nicely for tomorrow's deciding Test.
Here's a look at what took place when the ball was in play, and where that leaves everything ahead of the third test..
The Lineout Battle
The lineout continued to be an Achilles heel for the Lions. They don’t have a problem winning the ball, the problem lies in where they win it and that is completely dictated by the Springboks forwards.
For the first lineout of the game, the Lions went for a full lineout and yet again discovered that South Africa was dictating where the Lions could win it or where they were going to smash the Lion’s attempted maul.
A change of plan was needed, and a 4-man Lineout was now pulled out by the Lions, with the view of beating the massive Springboks pack for pace. But alarm bells would have gone off in Gatland’s head when he saw how close Eben Etzebeth got to stealing/disrupting one of the Lion’s go-to options.
With the Lions now deciding that short lineouts were their weapon of choice and the Springboks now prepared to challenge in the air, life was going to get increasingly difficult for Luke Cowan-Dickie and Alun Wyn Jones
A move to a 5man walk-in lineout was now played, where Tom Curry walks in from the scrum-half position and lifts Alun Wyn Jones from behind. This time it was Franco Mostert’s turn to come close to a steal. While it may be a novel way of securing Lineout ball, this lineout now limits the ability to attack as Murray has to maintain a 10m gap from the Lineout. The lineout is also incredibly easy for a talented Lineout defence to steal if repeated.
And when it was repeated the Springbok’s forwards dually obliged and came up with an excellent steal by De Jager.
This is superb Lineout Defence work by Lood de Jager . Great understanding by lifters. Some good learnings here #RugbyCoaching #LionsTour2021 #CastleLionsSeries #SAvBIL #LionsRugby pic.twitter.com/DuL492AY3B
— Brett Igoe (@brettruganalyst) August 2, 2021
In complete panic mode, the Lions moved to throwing completely over both lineouts to Robbie Henshaw, a tactic used in the first test. While this results in winning some possession, it also allows the Springboks to get a free hit on one of the Lion’s key players, and it’s increasingly baffling what Gregor Townsend has planned once the ball is won. A quick look at Toulouse in the Top14 last season may give him a few ideas on this particular play.
The "Dragon" Play
One of the leading kicking strategies from the Lions is getting contestable kicks down the left channel looking to get Duhan Van Der Merwe contesting in the air against the smaller Cheslin Kolbe.
With both men in the sin bin at the same time, the Lions moved to their “Dragon” play by moving Biggar, who is excellent in the air, down the left channel and replace Van Der Merwe in chasing the contestable kick.
Looking at how Biggar only passed the ball 3 times and found this - missed it during the game. Happened twice during the yellow card. Interesting tactical switch. #LionsTour2021 #CastleLionsSeries #SAvBIL #LionsRugby pic.twitter.com/vD17x2IZgX
— Brett Igoe (@brettruganalyst) August 2, 2021
When Murray finally launched his box kick, Biggar came very close to a try if he regathered the ball from Pollard. While it’s an interesting strategy, did the Lions miss an earlier opportunity before Pollard moved into the backfield to cover the space?
The Springbok attack
While we all pray for South Africa to stop punting the ball into the Cape Town sky and hope that Kolbe will get the ball in some space to show why he is the most elusive player in world rugby, when the Springbok decide to keep the ball in hand it is very effective. They have three fantastic ballplayers in their backline with Pollard, Le Roux and De Allende, all three can provide passing options in the Springbok’s 1/3/3/1 system and when it is operated it caused the Lions lots of problems.
With their group of 3 forwards playing off wide rucks and the next set of 3 forwards playing off Pollard, this system gives the Springbok options to go through or around the Lions.
I am asked loads about the software I am using for these #BoksvLions #LionsRugby videos. It's @MetricaSports - so easy to use. Free 14 day trial here https://t.co/y0xdafgaEa pic.twitter.com/TML89rBwu0
— Brett Igoe (@brettruganalyst) August 3, 2021
While the system might not appear often, when it does, the Lions have to scramble hard in defense. When it appeared in the 44th minute of the 2nd half, it produced South Africa’s first try for Makazole Mapimpi. It is interesting to note that the same system led to Faf De Klerk’s try in the first test.
With the series now in its last days and with selections completed by both sets of the coaching staff, it all comes down to the last 80 mnutes.
What will both head coaches come up with or will the series be decided by Gregor Townsend or will the Irish influence of Felix Jones, who masterminds the Springbok's attack decide this intriguing series?
At least we know that the series is helping the All Blacks coach sleep at night.