At one point in the final we could see the tide was turning against the Crusaders, even though the Lions was 25-3 down and had only 14 men on the field. We could see the Lions phase-game clicking into gear and, true as bob, they outscored the Saders by 14 points to 0.
Sam Whitelock said about this period, “They put us under a massive amount of pressure. I’d hate to know how many tackles we made.”
Look, I know a lot of guys will laugh and say the Lions did not win, but as rugby purists and people that is interested in the game we have to ask the question – how can you cause such trouble with only 14 men? Altitude was not a factor yet. Even the most sour grape South African surely will be interested on a technical level how that is possible?
So that is what I wanted to look at today. A piece of play in the 53rd minute that start to put the Crusaders on the back foot, and show how and why the Lions phase-play can be so dangerous…
One of the keys why the Lions is so dangerous is their quick tempo. But this kind of tempo game is difficult to achieve and it place special demands on the players. In the picture above we see a great example. Vorster has carried the ball into contact and Crockett and Samu is ready to steal. Cronje is positioned at 9, but instead he will go in for a successful clean.
It is one thing to hope that a scrummie will do this, but it is another thing to give him the technical ability to be able to do it. The point is not only that Cronje cleaned a prop and protected the ball, but that he allowed clean ball for the next phase.
The Lions knows the secret to modern rugby is that the number on your jersey don’t mean anything. If you want to play fast, and a job need to be done, you cannot wait for another guy to come and do it.
In the picture above we see what happens after that clean: Skosan was awake and went to scrumhalf and played the ball out to Mostert.
But what we are looking at is Lions’ ability to realign and create attacking shape quickly. It doesn’t help to have quick ball but slow players! Mostert lead a three-man pod with Van Rooyen and Kriel. His timing is perfect to “sell” the pod to the Crusaders and we can see the rush biting on the bait.
Franco will play out the backdoor to Jantjies where we can see another shape waiting with Ferreira and Dreyer. They will also draw their defenders and Elton will play out the backdoor again to the third shape waiting out wide with Coetzee, Ackermann, Mapoe and Combrinck.
Guys, this is easier to be said than done, especially if you a man down and that man is a loose forward. It just show the cohesion, understanding and training that the Lions have so that they are able to generate attacking shape so quickly, and with perfect depth and execution almost every time.
In this picture, we see again a example where speed of play is Lions’ ultimate goal. It is the end of the phase we talked about above. Coetzee got tackled and Dreyer and Mostert (this guy is everywhere!) clean out.
Now the big lock, Andries Ferreira arrive and simply pick up the ball and distribute perfectly to Van Rooyen coming around the corner.
What is interesting about this is first, that Ferreira knew his scrumhalf was behind him but did not just go to the ruck like most locks would. Second thing is that Van Rooyen started his run knowing Ferreira was going to pass. He time his carry based on Ferreira approaching the ruck, not Cronje. This is not a team who wait around.
Picture above is the next phase. Van Rooyen is tackled after a great gain thanks to Ferreira putting him on the front foot. What we must look at here is the close support by the Lions. They rarely let a guy get isolate and will always be on his shoulder for a offload or to secure the ball.
Who is cleaning? It is Ackermann and our scrumhalf friend Ferreira. The Lions players stays busy and stays close. A quick clean means quick ball. Cronje is back in the mix and he is right behind that ruck ready to let the ball fly.
Next phase the Lions goes wide to the other touchline. Mostert is in a pod with Dreyer when he get the ball from Cronje. Mostert draws the defence and plays out to Jantjies, who has Mapoe running off his shoulder. Elton plays to second playmaker Coetzee who brings in the wide shape of Kriel, Vorster, Marx and Skosan.
It is quite amazing to see the same names coming up so quickly in the last few phases we mention. The Lions knows the other secret of rugby – you can have more players than your opponent if you work harder.
In the picture above we continue this phase as Coetzee hit Kriel, who identify Whitelock in the line and attack the space outside him. What is interesting is that the Lions is risking going wide across the field now.
They essentially playing from touchline to touchline in one phase. Why is it a risk? Because with a man down it is harder to protect the ball and easier to get isolated.
Usually teams with 14 men will go in their shell and play tight to be safe. But what we also see is that Marx have remained on this side of the field in the Lions usual 2-4-2 (or 1-3-3-1?) shape. All it mean is that the 8 forwards remain spread across the park so that they can help in attack, but it take confidence to do that when you a forward down!
This whole passage will end unfortunately when Skosan is tackle into touch, but when I saw it I knew the Lions was still in the game. It was clear they made a decision to lift the tempo as oppose to trying to grind safely, and we could see even Super Rugby’s best defence starting to crack.
The Lions did not win the final, but for us rugby purists there was much to enjoy and appreciate. I hope you did too!
DISCLAIMER: English is Oom’s third language, after Rugby and Afrikaans.