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Analysis: The 'Warrenball' myth and the foundations of the Sexton-Farrell axis

By Ben Smith
(Photos/Gettys Images)

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The British & Irish Lions lost heavily in the first test of the 2017 tour, securing an 80th minute try to add some respectability to the 30-15 final score.


It wasn’t without opportunity however as the Lions bombed a number of line breaks, often created from turnover ball or in transition. It was an invigorated style of Lions’ rugby, showing that they had an equal measure of enterprise too.

The notion that Lions rugby would be boring drivel turned out to be unfounded nonsense, as they rolled out a widely innovative attack.

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In the last 20 minutes of the first test, the Lions pulled Ben Te’o from the field and inserted Jonathan Sexton at flyhalf, moving Owen Farrell to 12.

The Sexton-Farrell axis, as it was dubbed, was born.

The Lions’ phase -play started to ignite a little bit with two playmakers pulling the strings.

It looked promising but the polish wasn’t quite there as errors piled up, but it did reveal a number of the plays that would be used in the final two tests.


The Lions’ attack around Sexton-Farrell was far from the monotony of supposed ‘Warrenball’ tactics – the endless pursuit of the gain line through crash ball runners with supposedly little innovation.

It combined many aspects of Sexton’s system with Ireland, adapted set-piece launches that Wales often used and took parts of the Ford-Farrell dynamic that England’s flyhalf/inside centre was used to.

It was a mesh of all that the players involved knew best, allowing for the side to be comfortable already with complexity given they had already mastered most parts of it.

Flanker Sean O’Brien later came out and claimed that Sexton and Farrell were largely influential in the attacking plans, which makes sense with these concepts on show.


The general phase play pattern with Sexton on the field was the same one used by Ireland, consisting of one pod of three forwards off 9 and a central two-man pod with another game driver in behind, Owen Farrell (10).

The first pod would often carry, setting up Sexton at first receiver on the second phase with two outside forward options and Owen Farrell out the back.

This is the same system that Ireland used for years under Joe Schmidt, with Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray well drilled in the finer details.

A number of plays are configured with this central two-pod operation, allowing Sexton to ball-play at the line or link with the second playmaker out the back to get the ball to the wide channel.

With Ireland, Sexton is generally always the first receiver with one of his midfielders Bundee Aki or Garry Ringrose filling the role of the second playmaker behind the two-man pod.

With Owen Farrell equally capable at first receiver, the Lions were able to interchange these two as required.

On this play, Farrell plays first receiver running a ‘splice’ play with the first forward Itoje dropping underneath him, with the pass option out the back to Sexton splitting the two forward options.

In the final twenty minutes of the first test the Lions’ roared into gear with a swathe of possession, revealing much of this attack.

Many of the set-piece launches were similar patterns used by Wales under Gatland and Howley, three-phase sequences used to play the same way and fire a strike play against a whittled down edge.

Centre Jonathan Davies would often be sacrificed early to produce some gain line momentum, but the remainder of the backs kept intact for the strike on the third phase.

After two phases, the entire Lions’ backline (minus Davies) is present for a strike play on the right edge with Elliot Daly (11) linking from the opposite wing.

On this play, Sexton tries to squeeze Farrell through with a flat ball that goes astray.

This would be costly as the loose ball would be scooped up by the All Blacks and led to Rieko Ioane’s second try from the clearing box kick.

The same set-up was used in Wellington, but the play was never run as a turnover occurred on the second phase.

The Lions’ built these third-phase strike plays around the key skill sets of the two playmakers.

They installed Sexton’s favourite wrap around play on this sequence.

Once again, Davies carried on the first phase leaving four backs Sexton (22), Farrell (10), Leigh Halfpenny (23) and Elliot Daly (11) available by the third.

New Zealand’s two-back defensive system requires the fullback on that side of the field, Beauden Barrett (10), to take the last man.

Israel Dagg (14) knows his assignment is the second man in from the edge, fullback Leigh Halfpenny (23).

The wrap-around play is a perfect tool to use against those playing ‘man defence’, players who are locked in on one guy.

Typically they aren’t watching the ball, so are oblivious to their assignment potentially switching, and will move where ever their man goes.

This means it is hard to get ball carriers through their channel if the carrier is their aligned man, but they are ripe for manipulation with decoys.

With Dagg playing ‘man defence’ on the edge, if Halfpenny (23) can hold or get Dagg to initiate contact with his line, Sexton (22) on the wrap-around can potentially get outside the All Black winger, creating a two-on-one against Beauden Barrett (10).

As Farrell begins the wrap pass, Dagg has eyes only for Halfpenny, offering up the opportunity to pull this play off.

Halfpenny does his job perfectly as Dagg engages in contact and leaves the window open for Sexton to get to his outside.

Effectively a ‘chip block’ from Halfpenny, all of Dagg’s momentum is stopped, limiting his movement.

Dagg would have to disengage, recover and chase Sexton from a standstill while the Irish flyhalf is coming around the corner at speed.

It is ‘manufactured separation’ through clever scheme.

However, the timing isn’t there and the pass goes to ground, losing the window of opportunity.

Sexton has to backtrack to cover the ball causing Daly to front-run him, while Anton Lienert-Brown (23) tracking as inside cover has extra time to fill in for Dagg.

In the second test, they ran the same three-phase pattern again but to the opposite side.

However, this time they ran into problems with Rieko Ioane (11) who doesn’t defend the same way as Dagg.

It also plausible the All Blacks made defensive adjustments based on seeing the play in the first test.

We see the same four players set-up to the open side, the flyhalf, inside centre, fullback and winger by the third phase.

Liam Williams (15) is running the short, flat option off Owen Farrell (12) designed to interest Rieko Ioane (11) but we can see the All Black winger is already well outside him.

Ioane plays passive, in a jockey stance to Williams’ outside shoulder and is ball-watching, scanning the backfield to identify the loop run by Sexton.

Anton Lienert-Brown (23) also does a tremendous job of holding off from committing to Farrell, which enables him to switch to cover Williams.

Once Sexton is confirmed as the recipient, Ioane is free to close on him with the inside help from Lienert-Brown covering Williams.

With a free release and no players to swim around, Ioane is able to swarm Sexton and shut the play down, preventing the pass getting to Watson.

Another simple three-phase sequence employed a ‘second man’ screen pass, this time with Davies preserved to be involved.

This third phase second man play is quintessentially Wales, a staple pattern used under attack coach Rob Howley.

But with Sexton and Farrell involved it becomes a little more potent with two classy ballplayers able to finesse the late touches required.

The second man play successfully creates incidental contact on Sonny Bill Williams (12) giving Owen Farrell a three-on-two.

Again brilliant shadowing from Lienert-Brown (13) saves the situation. He is able to switch his assignment late to again take down Williams and prevent the overlap from becoming more.

Although the Lions’ plays weren’t coming off completely, there was an air of danger about them and the intent was clear.

They were testing the All Blacks edge defence frequently, trying to go around them.

It was something that Warren Gatland had learnt when Wales had toured New Zealand the previous June.

Wales had some success spreading the All Blacks and killing them after back-to-back wide phases.

When Wales recovered a box kick early in the first test, they immediately went to width to attack the right-hand edge.

Sourcing a one-on-one matchup with Liam Williams on Julian Savea, the Welsh fullback scrambles down the right edge deep into the 22 after beating the All Black winger.

After breaching the All Blacks’ defence, Wales do not waste time to hit them again with width.

With both backfield defenders caught up tackling Liam Williams, there is no secondary cover in behind.

They spread the ball through the remaining backs, flushing the ball behind the forwards to get the opposite edge.

It is another All Black winger’s error that is costly when Waisake Naholo (14) bites in on Hallam Amos (11) leaving Taulupe Faletau free on the edge to score in the corner.

This wide-wide attacking sequence off a recovered box kick was surely noted by Gatland and his staff.

They didn’t have to go through the All Blacks’ as they were often susceptible out wide, the power wingers didn’t handle disadvantaged numbers well.

Fast forward back to the second test of the Lions series and the visitors are getting increasingly desperate, down by 18-9 with twenty minutes to go.

They need a try and they need it now to get back into the match and potentially save the series.

They have a lineout platform with both sides reduced to 14-men.

It’s not as much space as Wales had on the first phase after recovering the kick, but it is as good as any to hit wide.

They call a bold wrap-around play that brings in the blind winger Elliot Daly (11) to overload the far edge and manufacture an overlap.

Anton Lienert-Brown (13) makes another good read, shooting past Davies to try and cut off the pass to Daly.

It would prove to be the most pivotal split-second moment in the entire Lions series because if this never happened, Ken Owens faux pas would never have been important.

If Lienert-Brown cuts off this pass from Sexton, the Lions don’t get the downfield break they need to finish this wide-wide two-phase punch and keep the series alive.

Sexton used a low release point to make it difficult for Lienert-Brown to grab. It ends up being a hard target for Daly, but he reins it in.

The All Blacks’ containment has failed, and the Lions streak away downfield.

The Lions have the All Blacks stretched and the two decision-makers know they have to play wide again and land the blow on the opposite side.

They call a deep second man play that gives Owen Farrell plenty of room to fire out wide.

Davies (13) will hold the defence from sliding for an extra half-second but with Farrell so deep there is no risk that a blitzing defender can shut down the access to wide channel.

Farrell links with Liam Williams, who finds that same man again, Taulupe Faletau.

Is it any surprise that Faletau is positioned out wide exactly where he scored against the All Blacks a year earlier?

The Welsh number 8 powers through the cover tackle of Israel Dagg and scores in the corner in the exact same circumstances – following a break down the right-hand side, then immediately finding the opposite edge.

In less than 30 seconds the Lions finally gash the All Blacks with their width attack that had been probing since Sexton joined the field for the last twenty in the first test, and for good measure in awful conditions.

The ‘second man’ play they had used four or five times from Sexton out the back to Farrell had one last use in Wellington.

With another lineout platform, the Lions work the same three-phase sequence to the right.

Ngani Laumape only has eyes for Owen Farrell out the back. Sexton delivers a perfectly weighted short ball to the unassuming Jamie George.

All night Sexton had thrown the pullback pass to Farrell, until when the defence very least expected it, he hit the short option for a line break.

From the breach, Conor Murray snipes on the next phase and the Lions strike again.

The Lions 24-21 win would end a 47-test unbeaten streak at home for the All Blacks that stretched back to 2009.

It would be the visitors that played the most expansive rugby over the course of the series, and ironically, the All Blacks who centred their game plan more towards ‘Warrenball’ tactics – designed around Sonny Bill Williams’ carrying before it was derailed by suspension after this second test.

Only with the series on the line did the All Blacks go all-in on an attack centered around the reigning World Player of the Year.

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The Sexton-Farrell axis was designed to pick apart the All Blacks on the edges, and it did that. In the second test, the Lions had a 6-1 line break advantage and scored two tries to zero.

Whether a 35-year-old Sexton can join Farrell for the next Lions tour remains to be seen, but if he did, they would have to configure new plays against the Springboks aggressive out-in rush tactics that deliberately target the second receiver.

It may not happen, but the 2017 Lions tour proved that innovative and attacking rugby does not solely reside in the Southern Hemisphere.


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