Pro14 – the challenges facing the new league

First there was 12 and now there are 14. The addition of the 2 South African teams has been part of Pro Rugby chatter for some time, but the speed of their entry to the league has taken a lot of us by surprise.

If the coming together of the South African teams and the old Pro12 is a marriage, it is an arranged one – formed out of necessity rather than love or a great affection for each other. The Kings and Cheetahs have been kicked out of their current relationship and the Pro12 had a house available for them to move in to, with the promise of a bit of rent payable to ease the burden.

We are where we are, but the expanded league, along with the splitting of the 14 teams in to 2 conferences is a fundamental change which shouldn’t be understated. It has brought a number of challenges to the future success of the tournament which we have listed below:

 

(1) Rugby thrives on local, tribal battles

The most popular fixtures for supporters are usually those against close neighbours or teams with which there is historical context. Think Munster and Leinster or the Scarlets and Ospreys.

The South African teams are neither close in geographical terms nor is there any historical rivalry between these teams and the legacy Pro12 constituents. Would the average rugby fan in the northern hemisphere even know where the two SA teams are based or be able to name any players?

This lack of affiliation with the new entrants could be a problem when it comes to marketing and selling the games.

 

(2)  Conferences…..arggghhhhh

Splitting the 14 teams in to two conferences is a horrible arrangement that brings with it a number of complexities and issues. The first is that no longer will rival teams be able to compare their league positions as the season evolves, because they will often be in different conferences.

Splitting the two Scottish teams for example, means that no longer will Edinburgh supporters be able to compare their league position relative to their close rivals in Glasgow.  The Ospreys and Scarlets are also in different pools, so supporters won’t be able to cast a glance at the league table and see where the other team is placed.

 

(3)  Inherent inequalities

The conference arrangement introduces a number of intrinsic inequalities in to the league that threaten the integrity of the tournament. We will look at these in a bit more detail in another blog but let’s just take 1 example for this article – the relative strengths of each conference.

The teams have been chosen based on previous year’s performances but a quick glance at the conferences and one division looks stronger than the other. We may find during the season that perhaps 1 or 2 teams may under perform against their seeding which could impact the strength of that conference.

When all teams in a league play each other home and away each season the playing field is levelled out, but by splitting the teams in to conferences there will always be the perception (or perhaps reality) that one league is stronger than the other.

 

(4) Player welfare and the long season

Pity the Kings and Cheetahs. The Super Rugby season started back in the middle of February and the final league games were on the 14th July (the Kings played the Cheetahs in their final game).

Just 7 weeks later and both teams are now in the Pro14 and about to kick off another full season.

There is a lot of talk in rugby about player welfare and looking after those that play the game at the highest level but how are these messages consistent with asking the Kings and Cheetahs players to play rugby for nearly 13 months over a 15 month time period?

 

(5) The strength of the Kings and Cheetahs teams

One of the big unknowns is how the Kings and Cheetahs will perform on the pitch. They are not the strongest SA teams and with a long season already played this year and a great deal of travel there is a risk they will not be able to compete with the top teams in the Pro14.

Both teams have had a number of squad changes since the end of the Super Rugby season and with the South Africa Rugby Union looking to concentrate their resources in a smaller number of teams in Super Rugby, will the Pro14 teams be seen as second class citizens when it comes to player strength?

 

(6) The lack of a global rugby calendar

Rugby in the northern and southern hemispheres is played at different times of the year, making the addition of the South African teams a logistical nightmare.

How will rugby in South Africa be organised when 2 of the main teams are playing on a completely different calendar to the other Super Rugby teams? South Africa are currently playing in the Rugby Championship, so players will be pulled out for national team duty while the South African teams will be at full strength when the teams in the north will be depleted by their test windows being open.

How will the Currie Cup be affected by the 2 SA teams playing in the Pro14? The Cheetah’s Currie Cup team has 6 matches that overlap with the Pro14 commitments so how will they put out 2 teams thousands of miles apart at the same time? Either the Currie Cup will be devalued or the Pro14 team denuded of their best players.

Longer term, it looks completely impractical for a large percentage of South Africa’s players to be playing on a different calendar than the others and in particular the nation’s representative teams.

 

(7) Travel distances and costs

Yes, South Africa is pretty much on the same time zone as the other nations in the Pro14 but it is the length of travel that is often draining and physically demanding, particularly when this involves overnight flights.

The Pro14 organisers have tried to alleviate the travel costs for individual teams by paying these from a central budget but this is still a substantial amount. Last year the Scarlets travelled back from their away fixture in Glasgow by bus but this year they are flying to South Africa!

The Cheetahs are based in Bloemfontein and the Kings in Port Elizabeth; neither of which has direct flights to the UK, Ireland or Italy. The trips to South Africa (and to Europe coming the other way), will be physically demanding, with the South African teams spending a long time living in suitcases away from home.

 

(8) The Europe question

We know that the South African teams can’t gain entry to European competition next season but the odds are that a route for their inclusion will be opened up in the future.

Will more places be made available in European competition for the expanded Pro14 teams or will we see the same qualifying criteria as we currently see, which may result in a South African team taking the place of an Irish, Scottish or Welsh team in the top European competitions?

Will the SA teams  benefit from rest weeks when the other nations are battling it out in Europe?

 

 

Are the changes for the good?

Our view is that the upside of taking in the SA teams (a reported £600k per Pro12 team per year) is a reasonable sum, but nothing like the sort of money that will start to challenge the financial hegemony of the English and French leagues.

The danger is that the push for the short term financial upside leads to a longer term decline as supporters and viewers failed to buy in to the new “product”.

Super Rugby’s recent expansion in terms of number of teams and geographical reach has resulted in declining crowds and TV audiences, as viewers switch off citing a complex tournament, too many weak teams and a lack of affinity with a large number of their team’s opponents.

Celtic Rugby would do well to learn the lessons from Super Rugby’s expansion. There is a need to try and keep pace with the financial clout of the French and English leagues, but if this isn’t done carefully it could accelerate the league’s decline.

 

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Pro 14 Season Structure Explained

Hot on the heels (well nearly 2 years later) of our simple – but extremely popular, explanation of Gatland’s Law , theblitzdefence has done it again and distilled down the Pro14 season structure in to just 20 odd boxes and 15 arrows.

Why have we bothered? Well, not only has the Pro12 now become the Pro14 but the powers that be have decided to split the teams in to 2 conferences and made the structure unintelligible to the casual fan.

It isn’t always clear how home or away games are assigned but here we go:

pro14 structure1.jpg

pro14 structure 2.jpg

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Match review – SBW, Mako and flying All Blacks

If sport is entertainment, then few people can have any complaints about the 2nd test between the Lions and New Zealand. The game had plenty of controversy, a fair dose of late drama and a couple of decent tries thrown in for good measure.

After the game the Twittersphere was alive with chat about 2 incidents in particular. Here’s our view on them.

Sonny Bill Williams shoulder charge

This is an easy one to assess. Here is the footage:

It seems as if the disciplinary panel deemed the offence reckless, rather than intentional, which is very hard to justify based on the video footage and Williams’ track record.

Williams’ right arm makes no attempt at all to wrap around Watson, and he lines up his prone head from some distance out. The force of 17 stone running at pace, channelled through a shoulder to the face, jolts Watson’s head back in a manner that he was lucky not to suffer serious injury.

Garces was right to issue a red card – against the advice of Jaco Peyper, who seems to have not been on the e-mail circulation list for the World Rugby’s crackdown on head injuries.

Earlier in the week, we mentioned the importance of having a northern hemisphere referee for this game, and this is exactly the reason why. If Peyper had been the man with the whistle, SBW would have likely received a yellow card and the Lions would likely be 2-0 down in the series, with a final dead rubber to play on Saturday. It’s another reminder of the huge influence a referee has in rugby.

Williams supposedly “showed remorse” in the hearing, which helped to reduce the length of the ban, but we know he has a history of these sorts of tackles so what was he sorry for? Certainly not the action, perhaps he was sorry he was caught?

Here are a couple of examples of his back catalogue of similar shoulder hits:

Mako’s ruck clear out

This wasn’t Mako Vunipola’s greatest game; he struggled at the scrum and then seemed to have a period of red mist where he incurred the wrath of Garces on a couple of occasions.

With 52 minutes played, he clattered late in to Barrett following a kick, and after a TMO review, a penalty was given against him. Perhaps that penalty riled him because just 2 minutes later he cleared out the same All Black at a ruck and was given a yellow card. This is the offence:

There are two interesting aspects to this offence and the resulting punishment.

Firstly, a number of people wanted to draw parallels between the incident and the Sonny Bill Williams red card, to claim that Vunipola should also have been issued with a red card for contact with Barrett’s head.

This doesn’t hold true because the SBW offence is a clear shoulder to the face, with the full momentum being focused through the shoulder with the aim to hurt the opposition.

Vunipola also fails to wrap his right arm, but as we can see if we look frame by frame, his shoulder initially makes contact with Barrett’s upper chest or shoulder area. There is no evidence that the shoulder drives straight in to Barrett’s head. As both players fall to the ground the right arm does come across Barrett’s head but with very little force.

Taken on it’s own, with contact to Barrett’s shoulders and no attempt to wrap the right arm, a yellow card is warranted.

Here’s the “but” though, which raises the second issue…… If we listen to Garces’ discussion with Vunipola and Warburton, Garces says the following as justification for the card, “The ball is here [points to an area behind him], you clean out….[points to an area further away].

The insinuation is that the card was given for clearing out a player away from the breakdown. It wasn’t given for contact with the head.

 

Diving All Blacks

As soon as Vunipola cleared out Barrett we tweeted:

It was good to finally see a Lions’ player adopt the style of rucking we often see in the southern hemisphere, and one that has been common from the All Blacks in the 2 tests.

In both hemispheres, referees allow players to go off their feet at the ruck after they have bound on to the opposition. It may be against the laws, but custom has dictated that it is permitted which is why we always end up with a pile of bodies at every ruck.

The difference with the southern hemisphere interpretation, is that players are often allowed to come off their feet and dive at the opposition, before they have made contact at the ruck. As long as the clear out results in fast, attacking ball referees in the south tend to mostly ignore it.

This was the reason why it was a surprise that Garces pinged Vunipola for his clear out; we have seen dozens like it from New Zealand teams over the last few weeks. So if clearing a player out while off their feet, away from the ball is an offence we should see this applied more consistently, particularly with southern hemisphere teams.

To show how common these incidents are, here is an example, also taken from the 2nd test:

When this was tweeted a number of people commented that we can’t compare Cane’s action to Vunipola’s because Vunipola made contact with the head, but we need to remember that Garces didn’t penalise the head contact, he gave the offence as clearing out away from the ball. That is why we can make the comparison between the two.

Murray has made the tackle, the ball is available and he is moving away from the contact area. Cane makes no attempt to wrap his right arm but dives off his feet to strike Murray in the rib area.

This example is from the 1st test. It’s Cane again, who comes late to a ruck where the ball is clearly available and dives forward, putting his elbow in Jon Davies’ face as he does so.

The final example is taken from the lead up to the first try in the first test. Moody (wearing 1 for NZ), comes up to the tackle area where Liam Williams is starting to move in to position to attack the ball on the ground. He sees Moody diving off his feet and jumps back, away from contact.

There is an argument to say that Williams should have been a bit stronger at the tackle area and put his head where it hurt, but we shouldn’t need to ask players to risk their heads when 18 stone of All Black is flying towards them. We just need the current laws enforced.

Williams and Murray raised their arms to try and draw Peyper’s attention to the incident but he seemed to signal “be quiet” by placing his finger by his lips. From the next ruck the Lions concede a penalty and from a quick tap a try is scored.

These aren’t isolated incidents though, they are just symptomatic of the difference in approaches and refereeing interpretations between the north and the south. Keep your eye on this type of clear out in the final test.

 

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Neck rolls – a dangerous offence?

We know rugby is a complex game to follow and understand, but are there any other sports that can leave seasoned followers completely unable to answer basic questions about the sport?

In the recent game between the British and Irish Lions and the Hurricanes, the following tweet appeared in our timeline:

After ummming and aahhhing for a while we were completely unable to come up with a logical explanation! Perhaps there isn’t one.

Let’s have a look at the two incidents that the tweet is refereeing to.

Henderson yellow card for “tip tackle”

First up, we have the Iain Henderson yellow card; awarded after he picked up the ‘Canes player, lifted him through the horizontal so causing him to land on his shoulder.

The response on Twitter ranged from a penalty all the way to a red card. It’s the sort of offence that could justify a red card, if we took the World Rugby guidelines in their literal sense.

In our view a yellow card is probably about right.

If we consider the safety risk to the tackled player, he is put down more on his side than directly on the top of his shoulder or neck/head and there is little downward force.

Laumape neck roll

Moving on to the second offence, which involved the ‘Canes Laumape, we see the centre make contact at the clear out, initially with Halfpenny’s shoulder, but as Laumape tries to move the Lions’ player he pulls the neck to the side to force him off the ball.

This is a classic example of what we have come to call a neck roll.

It occurs when a player clearing the ruck holds the jackal’s head or neck, and twists or forces it to the side of the ruck. Where the head goes the body usually follows, forcing the jackal off the ball and away from the ruck.

World Rugby clampdown

World Rugby were conscious that this technique was dangerous, so as part of the 2016 focus on high tackles they also included a specific reference to contact with the neck in their guidelines (see below):

neck roll wr.jpg

The reference to the neck roll is clear and the sanctions are clear, so why are we seeing the neck roll being treated as a relatively minor offence?

In terms of danger to players, the Laumape offence is equally (if not more) dangerous as the Henderson tackle, but referees have been very reticent about issuing yellow cards for these offences. Why?

The other issue to mention is the frequency with which a clear out by the neck occurs in a top level game. Watch any professional fixture and you will see it every few minutes. On this tour there have been numerous examples – the vast majority of which were picked up at the time or later cited.

Here are a couple of examples. The first involves James Haskell, who provides an excellent clear out in the Chiefs’ game, but closer inspection shows him making contact with the top of the shoulders and neck area.

The second incident is also taken from the Chiefs’ game and ends with Dan Cole being treated for a neck injury after having his neck grabbed in a head on tackle.

 

What’s the solution?

There are two actions that World Rugby need to urgently take.

The first is to properly enforce the law that says the jackal (the defending player trying to win the ball at the tackle), has to support their body weight at the breakdown.

This is rarely enforced which is leading to the jackal having his head inches above the ground over the ball, leaving the player clearing out no option but to make contact with the head or upper shoulders to clear out.

By forcing the jackal to support their own body weight, the head will be higher off the ground, so allowing space for the clearing player to get under the jackal to move him.

The second action should be to enforce their own directive around the neck roll, both on the field and with subsequent citings.

This isn’t just an area for World Rugby to tackle though. Ultimately it is the players – usually following directions from coaches, who are making these dangerous actions. We know from a previous article that players have been coached to attack the neck area – here.

It’s time for players to consider the welfare of their fellow professional and stop the practice of neck rolls.

 

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It’s time to end the Haka

We have been treated to a number of Hakas over the last few weeks and with the test series between the Lions and the All Blacks just starting, there are plenty more to come.

But is the Haka appropriate for modern, professional elite sport or is it an historic sporting anachronism that should be consigned to the rugby dustbin?

 

Was the Haka always like this?

Looking back in the Youtube archives we find this little gem, showing Sid Going leading the All Blacks in the 1973 fixture against the Barbarians. Note that the Barbarians aren’t forced to face the Haka and the rather leisurely pace and tempo of the performance.

Fast forward a few decades and we see a completely different approach.

 

The fairly sedate Haka of the 1970s has been replaced by an overtly confrontational version, with South Africa being forced to stand opposite and accept the “challenge”. Gone are the friendly faces and slightly comical movements of the earlier Haka; to be replaced by bulging eyes, puffing cheeks, lolling tongues, aggressive body language and the controversial throat slitting gesture.

But it’s 2017 and this isn’t the old amateur days of friendly rugby, this is now a professional game with people’s livelihoods and careers depending on results.

World Rugby should now tell New Zealand to drop the Haka – there are 3 strong reasons why.

 

It’s our history and culture

“The All Blacks have been performing the Haka for well over 100 years now”, says Dan Carter in some promotion fluff for their corporate sponsors AIG.  He may technically be right but there are two aspects to this that need to be considered.

The first – highlighted in the clips above, is that the nature of the Haka has changed considerably as the decades have progressed. Today’s Haka bear’s no resemblance at all to the Haka of the pre-1980s.

Does this mean that the older versions of the Haka were not true to the history and culture of the Maori challenge and that the more recent versions are a more accurate portrayal of the Maori’s cultural heritage?

A more cynical view would be that the All Blacks now use the Haka as a tool to both intimidate the opposition and to provide inspiration and strength for themselves.

What started off as a low key homage to Maori culture has now become a well choreographed show, more akin to Broadway than Rotoroa.  The All Blacks have even written their own Haka – Kapa O Pango.

The second aspect to note is that the historical use of the Haka (in the rugby context), is not as clear cut as you’d think.

It may have been first used by the New Zealand “Natives” team in 1888, but it was used exclusively for overseas fixtures until 1986.

This means from the turn of the 20th century to the end of the 1970s the Haka would have been performed about 100 times in test matches – there was a rarity value and understandable interest from oversees audiences to witness it. Compare this to the average of 12-15 games that New Zealand play in a calendar year nowadays and we start to understand why interest has reached saturation point for many.

It was Buck Shelford who redefined the All Black’s Haka as the aggressive “war dance” we see today and also introduced the Haka to New Zealand’s home fixtures.

 

A cultural icon or commercial vehicle?

We are told that the Haka has special cultural resonance with New Zealand’s rugby team and must therefore be treated with respect. Any slight (perceived or real) against the Haka is criticised by commentators in New Zealand and often by the sport’s governing body, World Rugby.

We know that World Rugby’s tournament rules dictate that the opposition have to face the Haka and must retain a certain distance. They have been happy to levy fines against teams that have breached these protocols.

On one hand opposition teams must respect the cultural heritage but on the other, the Haka is now used as a commercial tool for the All Blacks. There are legitimate questions to ask around the devaluation of the cultural heritage given the commercial exploitation by a number of large corporate sponsors.

This issue was covered in more detail by The East Terrace in this article, which highlighted a number of advertising campaigns and promotional campaigns which exploited the sacred Haka.

Here is an example. A few minutes extolling the history and symbolism of the Maori culture and the Haka, drawing on the links with the All Blacks……all for a video by Beats by Dre.

 

If the Haka can be used to sell life insurance policies, savings accounts or headphones for commercial gain, why are France or Ireland forced to stand and accept the Haka on the rugby field?

 

Competitive advantage?

Can anyone image a football world cup final where Argentina are forced to stand in front of Brazil (don’t encroach within 10 metres though!), as they perform a national dance? Or England being made to watch a traditional Bavarian cultural performance in a fixture against Germany, while being made to respectfully stand and watch?

It wouldn’t happen, so why do we still have it in rugby?

Part of the reason is rugby is still anchored in the old amateur days. Players had day jobs, so a defeat wasn’t great but no livelihoods were at stake; today’s players, coaches and support teams are reliant on the income from rugby to support their families.

The other reason is the commercial opportunities for both the All Blacks and World Rugby that come from the Haka.

Does the Haka give a material advantage to the All Blacks? We can never prove this assertion but if you look at the quotes from ex-players, you get a sense of the importance placed on it’s meaning and symbolism. Here is a quote from Ma’a Nonu after the Welsh standoff in 2009:

“What the Welsh did wound us up… it was really hard (to accept),”

Aaron Cruden talks in the AIG promotional video about what the Haka means to him:

“Spiritually, gaining strength from the guys beside us….getting that positive energy going”.

Why wouldn’t an All Black gain an advantage from it? The mere fact the opposition is forced to stand and face the Haka, immediately confers a power inbalance. It says the All Blacks are dictating the order of these proceedings and you (the opposition) are powerless to do anything.

The way the All Blacks choose the positioning of players in the formation (more experienced at the front) and the shape of the formation (the triangle suggests something aiming at the opposition) is not by chance. They fully understand the psychological impact on the opposition.

In professional sport, both teams should be given a level playing field on which to perform. Allowing one team to perform a Haka just before kick off without the right of response of the opposition, immediately skews this playing field and gives one team an advantage.

 

Time to end the Haka?

These are the reasons why the Haka should be removed from the official pre-match programme.

There are legitimate claims why the Haka may be performed and the economic benefits accruing from it shouldn’t be overlooked in the world of competing professional sports. We would therefore not propose scrubbing the Haka completely but the following rules should be introduced:

  • The opposition team should be given the opportunity to decide whether the All Blacks can perform the Haka immediately prior to kick off. Some teams may be happy to face it, while others (Pacific Island teams) will also want to perform their own versions.
  • If the opposition team declines, the All Blacks are welcome to perform the Haka on the pitch in the lead up to kick off, but not less than 20 minutes before kick off.

This second point will mean that the cultural element can be satisfied and those supporters that want to see it, can do so, but it removes the requirement for the opposition to be present and face it.

This compromise should keep New Zealand happy while also recognising that rugby is now a professional game and needs to act as such.

 

To see the best and worst responses to the Haka read this article.

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5 tactics the Lions should use to beat New Zealand

We now know the test squad that the British and Irish Lions will take to Eden Park this Saturday for the 1st test against New Zealand. There are some surprises there – particularly in the back 3, but the key to the game will be in the forwards.

On the tour so far, the Lions first string pack has performed well and they hold the key to achieving success this weekend. By contrast, the backs have struggled to provide much impetus off set play but have shown that they can cut free when they play a looser, more spontaneous game.

Don’t expect the Lions to turn the test series in to an open game of rugby. Gatland will stick to what he knows well, which is a highly structured game built around kicking, putting pressure on the opposition and accumulating points through penalties.

Here are the 5 key areas that the Lions should look to exploit if they want to win.

 

(1) Attacking mauls

The Lions forwards coach Steve Borthwick knows how to coach an effective attacking maul, and he hasn’t disappointed on this tour.

As an example, if we look at the Chiefs’ game (see clip below) it’s Justin Tipuric who takes the lineout, with Iain Henderson stepping in front of him to provide protection – illegal, but usually ignored by referees. As the ball is transferred to the back, the Lions pack drive through the right hand side of the right, where Henderson and Haskell have positioned themselves.

The Chiefs illegally bring down the maul and a penalty try is awarded.

This time it’s the Blues on the receiving end of the Lions forward power.  Itoje takes the catch from an Owens’ throw and after readjusting the maul, it is Stander who crosses the line.

In every game, the attacking maul has been a strong weapon. Expect to see a lot of it on Saturday, particularly if the weather is wet, as is being forecast.

 

Kick and press

The scrum half or outside half, kick and press is a favourite of Gatland’s. The target used to be to try and compete in the air and win the ball back, but there is a sense that with the defending player having the “rights” in the air, it is better to wait for the catcher to land and then then tackle him.

We saw the consequences of mistimed tackles in the air with Liam Williams earlier in the tour, when he was shown a yellow card.

Conor Murray has been chosen for his game management and primarily his ability to execute perfectly the box kick.  The example below is from the Maori game where Murray’s inch perfect kick results in a penalty from which Halfpenny kicks 3 points.

Interestingly, the Maori dropping this ball is Rieko Ioane, who has been chosen in the All Blacks team for Saturday. Ioane, at just 20, is a superb talent with the ball but there are still question marks over his ability to handle the more structured kicking game that the Lions will try and play.

Expect a barrage of kicks on the New Zealand wingers and a fast pressing Lions line to try and turn the ball over, win the penalty or force the All Blacks to kick back.

 

Scrum

Not that long ago Mako Vunipola was known as a great carrier but an appalling scrummager – which is a pretty important skill for a test level prop! His improvement has been stark to the point that a scrum with Mako at loose head is a potentially dominant weapon against the All Blacks.

In the Maori game, the test front row (Mako, George and Furlong) were dominant with referee Peyper rewarding them with a penalty try:

The good news for the Lions is that Jaco Peyper is the referee for the first test!

This clip shows that not only is he willing to penalise the weaker scrum, he is also happy to award a penalty try, which is vitally important against All Black teams who can be very cynical when defending their try line.

Later in the game Peyper was again comfortable to penalise the Maori scrum, this time for wheeling.

Not only does the Lions scrum have the potential to provide a stable platform for the half backs, it could be a potent weapon.

 

Midfield blitz defence and attack the breakdown

One noticeable aspect of the Lions – Crusaders game was the speed and strength of the Lions’ midfield blitz defence. Super Rugby teams tend not to compete too much at the breakdown; being happy to give the ball away and reform the defensive line as a priority, rather than lose bodies in the breakdown.

In the  north the breakdown is a fierce area of competition and in turn the midfield defence tends to push quickly on the opposition, closing down their time on the ball. Both these aspects were evident in the Crusaders game, meaning the New Zealand team had poor quality ball to play with and little space when they did receive it.

The Lions were then able to convert this defensive pressure in to points and territory.

Te’o has been chosen for his ball carrying but also his defensive qualities, and alongside Farrell and Davies they have an important role in Gatland’s team.

If we look at the alignment of the Chiefs backs defence off first phase ball,  we see the centres are deeper than the players inside, meaning there isn’t a strong pressing line facing the Lions.

Chiefs defensive line

Contrast this with the Lions hard press against the Crusaders (below) with not only 10, 12 and 13 forming a flat line with very small spacing, but Murray also works across to take the ball carrier.

Cruseders defensive

Expect the All Blacks to use small diagonal kicks behind the Lions midfield to try and negate this rush defence.

Perhaps the best example of attacking the breakdown was England’s performance against New Zealand back in 2012. In that game, England’s intensity at each tackle and breakdown was quite outstanding and it was that pressure which finally caused New Zealand to crack.

They are a team that are at their best when they have time and space to run; cut that option out of their game and you stand a chance.

 

Forward carriers

The Lions have a number of very strong ball carriers who are crucial to the success of the team. We have seen how Eddie Jones has built his game plan around the forward breaking the line to make space for their pacey backs – the Lions need to use similar tactics if they are to get the best out of Daly, Watson and Williams.

The front row can all carry, Itoje is excellent, Sean O’Brien and Faletau can also make the hard yards; these are the crucial players who along with Te’o must get the Lions over the gain line.

In this clip against the Highlanders, it’s initially Iain Henderson who makes the hole against a well formed but passive defence, and Sam Warburton takes the ball for the secondary thrust.

This footage below, comes from the Ireland New Zealand game in 2016. Although Furlong doesn’t carry the ball too far towards the All Black line, it’s his ability to bump off the opposition that would provide a real lift to his team mates.

This is another area where the Lions have a distinct advantage. The bench will also be important here with the Lions opting for perhaps more athletic and mobile forwards to close down the space as bodies tire and the All Black attacks increase in intensity.

Sinckler, Owens and Itoje are also able to carry so expect the Lions’ forward barrage to continue for the full 80 minutes.

 

Can the Lions win?

The key to the game will be in the forwards battle. Do New Zealand have the strength there to negate the Lions set piece dominance and break down specialists? If they do then the Lions may have to look for a plan B, which we know Gatland coached teams are often missing.

The second consideration is can the Lions dictate the pace of the game to a speed they are comfortable playing week in and week out in the domestic leagues? If so, they stand a chance of snuffing out the All Blacks’ attacking runners. It’s expected that Sonny Bill will run in to contact and look for an offload, we know Smith is happy countering from deep – stopping them is another issue though.

 

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The best …..and worst responses to the Haka

If you’ve been following the Lions tour over the last few weeks you may feel as if you have reached Haka saturation point. Well, do not fear, with the test matches on their way we have a few more eye bulging, throat slitting performances still to come.

For a few decades there has been the feeling that the All Blacks gained a physiological advantage from the Haka, which was unfair on the opposition team, who have to stand there and accept it.

To counter this perceived advantage coaches, and players, have adopted various response strategies. Here are 9 of the best – and the worst.

 

Number 9 – Ireland u20 2009

Jerome Garces does his best to push the Irish youngsters back in to their own half, but there is no stopping the green wall as it heads towards the junior All Blacks.

 

Number 8 – Tonga 2003 

What better way to counter a challenge than by laying down your own. Tonga respond to the Haka with the Sipi Tau.

 

Number 7 – Munster 2008

Munster’s very own Haka in the mist of Thomond Park.

 

Number 6 – France 2007

This Rugby World Cup quarter final in Cardiff lives long in the memory for the fact that France won the game. What is often forgotten is the line of red, white and blue that faced the haka across the half way line.

“The Haka confirms France are well and truly up for the game,” Richie McCaw later wrote in his autobiography. Maybe facing up to the Haka does work?

 

Number 5 – Australia 1996

New Zealand’s Antipodean cousins can be little scamps when it comes to respecting the Haka. In the 1996 Tri Nations fixture in Wellington, the whole Australian team decided to stretch some hamstrings rather than accept the challenge of the Haka.

This wasn’t a great idea – Australia went on to lose 43-6. Ouch.

 

Number 4 – Richard Cockerill and England 1997

Cockers isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but he will certainly remain long in the memory for this response to the Haka, and his coming together with Norm Hewitt.

 

Number 3 –  Wales 2008

It’s 2008 at the Millennium Stadium and Jonathan Kaplan tries desperately to shift one team or the other to get the game starting. Wales – with their hands on hips and Adam Jones looking mildly bemused won’t budge, so finally it goes down to New Zealand to move on…..otherwise they’d still be there today.

 

Number 2 – David Campese

The shy and retiring Aussie wasn’t one for the limelight usually and on a number of occasions he shunned the Haka, preferring instead to do some stretches and warm ups under his own posts.

 

Number 1 – Ireland 1989

Willie Anderson starts the ball rolling with innovative responses to the Haka with a slow march towards the All Blacks line. It took Shelford by surprise but he loved the challenge.

 

And the worst……British and Irish Lions 2005

The 2005 Lions tour was a disaster. O’Driscoll’s symbolic picking up of some grass after the Haka was supposed to show cultural empathy but not only was the protocol wrong it set the wrong tone for the series.

It was an act that made the Lions look subservient; a team that would respond to whatever the All Blacks wanted them to do.  Showing a little respect is one thing, kow-towing to the opposition before a battle is another.

 

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