Analysis: Why injuries may force the lions to play their best hand

Analysis: Why injuries may force the lions to play their best hand

Warren GatlandWhen the Lions first started out on tour in Hong Kong, most of the expectations in the Northern Hemisphere were that the Test team would be almost exclusively Welsh/Irish, with as many as 10 Welshmen in the side. 

Six matches into the tour, and with a raft of injuries depleting their resources, things look very different for the Lions. At the time of writing, Healy in the forwards and Roberts and Bowe in the backs all appear to have been ruled out of the First Test through injury. The claims of other Welsh forwards such as Hibbard, Evans, Lydiate and Faletau have generally weakened as the tour has progressed. The Test team may now look much more like this:

    1. Cian Healey Mako Vunipola/Alex Corbisiero
    2. Richard Hibbard Tom Youngs
    3. Adam Jones
    4. Paul O’Connell
    5. Ian Evans Alun-Wyn Jones
    6. Dan Lydiate Tom Croft
    7. Sam Warburton
    8. Toby Faletau Jamie Heaslip
    9. Mike Phillips
    10. Johnny Sexton
    11. George North Simon Zebo
    12. Jamie Roberts Jonathan Davies
    13. Brian O’Driscoll
    14. Tommy Bowe George North
    15. Leigh Halfpenny

Eight changes, with a drop in the number of Welshmen to seven and a more balanced mix of Welsh/Irish/English. More important than the change of national composition are the [enforced] change of emphasis in selection and a subtle development of playing style.

The story up front

1. Tight five work rate and ball-carrying

Three of the tight forwards will have changed, and gone with them is the power-scrummaging, penalty-winning style that characterised the second half of Wales’ surge to the Six Nations title. If Corbisiero starts at loose-head, the Lions will probably have a slight advantage but no more. If Vunipola, it will be 50/50. Instead the Lions tight forwards will have more typical Gatland attributes – ball-carrying ability, work rate and speed around the corner in same-way attacks.

In a sequence from lineout from the Waratahs game  Tom Youngs shows his range of movement after throwing in the ball at 9:36. He becomes the main engine of the lineout drive at 9:42, he’s the second tight forward around the corner at 10:00 and he’s the first Lions forward to the cleanout at the next same-way phase at 10:04 – after a gain-line charge by Vunipola. In the next sequence of Lions attacking play from lineout [at 12:36] Youngs is around the corner of the first ruck to become the ball-carrier on a second phase well beyond midfield. In both examples the Lions are well across the gain-line after the first two phases, which is one of Gatland’s main objectives.

2.   The danger of Vunipola.

Where Cian Healy is a very good ball-carrier, Mako Vunipola can be a devastating one in the initial phases.

With Alun-Wyn Jones also offering excellent value on pick and go’s through the middle in the Tahs game, the Lions suddenly have found a dynamic same-way attack with two or three better ball-carrying threats in their front five than envisaged in the original guesswork.

3.   Scrum power off the bench.

As proved by the Brumbies match yesterday morning, the Lions will be able to put an intimidating scrum presence on to the field in the last 20 minutes with Corbisiero/Hibbard/Cole coming on against a projected Wallaby reserve front-row of Sio-Fainga’a-Slipper. I believe Fainga’a is a major scrum weakness and there is a chance for the Lions to win one or two priceless penalties towards the end of the match due to their bench superiority here.

4.   The lineout and back row running threat.

The key to the Lions lineout will now be Tom Croft. With a new lineout caller on the Wallaby side now that Nathan Sharpe has retired in Ben Mowen, the Lions will be looking to challenge the Australian throw. The Lions will have five genuine lineout options on their ball and seasoned operators in the shape of O’Connell and Croft to ramp up the pressure on Mowen on Wallaby throws. The presence of Croft and Jamie Heaslip in the Lions back-row also increases the potential width of the Lions attack, because both of them function best as ball-carriers on the end of the second or third pass.

Croft has become something of an expert at splitting the two end defenders, or transition zones between forwards and backs on the edge of the field This would also potentially strengthen the Lions ‘spread’ phase when they go into reverse field from lineout if they drop Croft to the near-side, as well as their wide counters from turnover possession.


Backline changes

5.   Reorganised midfield

What many of you Aussies may not know is that Jonathan Davies spent all his early rugby career with Llanelli and the Scarlets as an inside centre, so he will be quite comfortable in that position. Only the presence of Jamie Roberts at 12 in the Wales team forced him to move one position out to 13 when he entered the Test arena. His pairing with Brian O’Driscoll also puts the Lions’ two most intelligent defenders together in midfield, and we can expect them to swap roles both with and without the ball quite frequently.

Davies is an excellent spot-tackler who times his runs out of the line superbly, while O’Driscoll (along with Conrad Smith) has been the best defender of the 13 channel for some years now.

6.   Jon Davies as a ball carrier

As a ball-carrying replacement for Roberts, Davies offers a smaller target for the Wallaby midfield than Jamie Roberts. His power is compact and centred around his hips rather than being spread over a longer frame, he has softer hands and a better appreciation of space than his much larger colleague, as his two try assists against the Waratahs demonstrated. There’s a nice showcase of Davies’ attacking talent and methods on youtube, for those of you who are interested in exploring further.

7.   The day of the jackal

Another aspect improved by the enforced selection changes is the number of natural competitors, or ‘jackals’ the Lions now have at the defensive breakdown. This is a good rough-and-ready guide to a team’s ability to compete at breakdown without the ball. The Lions have six with Davies, O’Driscoll, Heaslip, O’Connell and Vunipola – in addition to their obvious fetcher Sam Warburton. This is above the Test-match average – compared to the Wallabies, who will have just Benn Robinson and maybe Lealiifano outside of Mike Hooper. There will be alterations according to defensive strategy at the breakdown, of course, but having guys who can play above the tackle ball is an invaluable base asset.

8.   Taking away the obvious targets

Although the need to stop Roberts and North on first phase was a tough prospect for the Wallaby defence, it also gave them a clear sense of purpose. They knew who to look out for and they knew the threat was direct and coming straight at them. Now the threats have more strings to their bow. When Davies hits the line he will not offer just power, he will offer hands and feet. Likewise if the Lions shift George North over to the right wing they will open up a slot for Simon Zebo on the left. Zebo is an excellent all-round footballer who has played a lot of rugby at 15. He has a good left foot and the skill-set of a conjuror!


Warren-Gatland-squareThe injury list could ironically force Warren Gatland to select a better and more flexible Test side than many ‘experts’ forecast before the start of the tour. He has a chance to pick more dynamic ball-carrying tight forwards and increase the speed and effectiveness of his same-way attack, while Croft’s presence as a wide striker is a bonus when the Lions try to use the full width in one phase. I believe the set-piece focus will shift from the scrum towards the lineout, where Croft and O’Connell will look to target the new throwing/calling combination of Moore & Mowen.

The scrum will however become a serious issue for the Wallabies when the benches are emptied in the last 20-25 minutes, and this could be a key issue in a tight game with the quality of the Lions’ goal-kicking. I believe the Sexton-Davies-O’Driscoll midfield will also create more problems for the Wallaby inside defence. There will still be the physical threat of George North looming in the background, but Jon Davies will be able to run with a lot of the complex Leinster loop plays Sexton and O’Driscoll love so much. The Lions defence will be improved, both on the ground and in terms of reading the attacking intent with this combination.

I believe this could turn out to be an exciting, explosive game – and the Lions will be in the mood to win it after the hurt of the Brumbies loss! They certainly have the all tools they need, even if they’ve stumbled upon them partly by accident.


Nick has worked as a rugby analyst and advisor to Graham Henry (1999-2003), Mike Ruddock (2004-2005) and latterly Stuart Lancaster (2011-2015). He also worked on the 2001 British & Irish Lions tour to Australia and produced his first rugby book with Graham Henry at the end of the tour. Since then, three more rugby books have followed, all of which of have either been nominated for, or won national sports book awards. The latest is a biography of Phil Larder, the first top Rugby League coach to successfully transfer over to Union. It is entitled “The Iron Curtain”. Nick has also written other books on literature and psychology.

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