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Ben Kay: Gatland so much more than Warrenball

By Ben Kay

Trending on RugbyPass

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The biggest statement around the Lions and their gameplan came 7,000 miles away from Johannesburg at Twickenham when Marcus Smith was informed he was to fly out and join the squad.

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That selection has been made because it’s a like-for-like replacement for Finn Russell, who is struggling with an Achilles injury. Some sages may have wagered Gatland was taking Russell because he was playing so well you couldn’t leave him out, but that he did not necessarily fit the gameplan the Lions were looking to employ, but Smith’s selection proves that theory totally wrong.

Warren Gatland could have gone with a game-management 10 like George Ford or Johnny Sexton, a tried and tested Test 10, but he’s gone with the most influential player in the Premiership last year. Smith is a guy who’s game this year has been all about attacking teams and scoring more points than the opposition, rather than playing in the right areas and worrying about how you defend.

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Gatland wants a 10 who can play and Dan Biggar is doing that with his varied passing game and cross-field kicks. Would we have seen Owen Farrell playing 10 if Finn Russell wasn’t struggling with injury? I’m not so sure. We know he can cover 10 and if you have him on the field in a Test Series, you don’t need a 10 on the
bench but with the selection of Smith, it makes you think Gatland was going into the Test Series looking at Biggar and Russell as fly-halves and Owen as a 12.

The type of rugby the Lions have been playing out in South Africa so far is certainly not the ‘Warrenball’ Gats used to get flogged with in the press. Warrenball is why he got the first nod back in 2009, because it had been successful with Wasps and then Wales, but this tour is changing the perception many have of him as a coach. It proves smart coaches use the tools and skillsets that they have within the squad to best meet the challenges the opposition will throw at you. Historically some Lions teams have taken on the opposition physically and relied on individual moments of brilliance from their superstars.

Even in 2017, where we saw some fantastic tries, like Sean O’Brien’s try started by a side-stepping Liam Williams, but they were pretty attritional encounters. That was the right way to play against New Zealand, but it’s not going to work against the Springboks.

For the second Sharks game, the Lions were taken on physically and they started to creak. Their No 8, Phepsi Buthelezi, carried a few times, and while Hamish Watson played well again, it was the first time where he got carried in contact. It reinforced why the Lions don’t want to go head-to-head physically.

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As a player on a Lions tour, you have two choices; to try not make any mistakes or just gamble a little bit and try to create moments that will stick in the coach’s mind. Selection, both starting in the team and on the bench, is based around how the Lions are looking to play. What I’ve liked about their approach is how they’ve seemed to say, ‘who are the most successful team against South Africa and how do they play?’ I’m not comparing the Lions to the All Blacks, but whole crux of it is not allowing the opposition to know what’s coming next.

Right now, they’re constantly trying to play in different areas of the field. The amount they’re playing off 9, 10 and 12 is about as even as you’re ever likely to see. Look at the stats; 30 per cent of plays off the scrum-half, 15 per cent off 10, 8 per cent with the pick and go, 9 per cent maul, wide-plays 10 per cent and two passes off the fly-half 9 per cent. It’s a really open, balanced style. They are hitting the opposition all over the field, not over-indexing one area. Obviously physical dominance and a defence that is not as sharp is going to help you with that, but the cast is set.

What the Lions are doing is trying to create defensive hesitation taking away the Springboks’ strengths which is line-speed and physicality but when there are opportunities reverting to their traditional set-piece strengths and attacking the fringes like Tadhg Beirne’s pick and go try. You wouldn’t traditionally think that would be an area to attack with all the Springbok muscle around the breakdown but if you’re spreading things out and they’re worried about you going wide, their ruck defence could be a little thinner due to a lack of numbers committing.

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There are some interesting selection decisions to make in the next few days because everyone has had a turn, apart from Marcus Smith who should get a run on Saturday. Now it’s about getting those combinations right. The No 13 shirt is pivotal. On form, I didn’t think Elliot Daly should have been selected before the tour, but he’s really put his hand up. He has looked better as a 13 than at full-back with England. Saturday was a battle between the two strongest candidates because Chris Harris and Daly are playing well on both sides of the ball. Daly’s DNA is slightly more attacking while Harris is more the defensive glue.

Elliot Daly

Elliot Daly/ PA

Does that mean Daly’s stock is starting to rise because of what he can do in wider channels? Maybe. If he’s picked you don’t need as much versatility in your back three, you can pick specialists, which means you could start with Van der Merwe who is an out and out wing. He could use his power-game to dent some holes, cause
some trouble and get the Lions on the front foot. He’d have a physical advantage over whomever he faces. Some will say you have to pick someone who could best defend Cheslin Kolbe, but there’s a mismatch with Duhan and the Lions mindset is just to score more than the opposition.

If Van der Merwe and Adams start, it’s one of Hogg, Watson and Williams to choose from. I wouldn’t want to be in Gatland’s shoes right now. I thought Williams and Watson were brilliant at the weekend. They have a bond from 2017 and clearly respect and like each other.

If you pick Daly, Williams, Watson and Farrell, you don’t have to worry about utility backs on the bench, you can pick specialists because you’ve got everything covered. If he feels he’s covered in the backline, Gatland could go with a 6-2 split on the bench, as he’s done against South Africa A, in a similar way to the Springboks during the 2019 World Cup.

Duhan van der Merwe/ PA

The red card had a massive effect as the Lions ran away with it, but of course they were too loose at times and there were individual errors. Gareth Davies was charged down and picked off for an interception, and Conor Murray was charged down, too. The errors in the game are indicative of individuals trying to make things happen. You don’t get noticed making the caterpillar ruck longer or blocking at the side of the ruck but you do if you put in a really good chase, make a dominant tackle or show your workrate. Everyone is probably thinking, ‘shit, I need to get my GPS numbers up’.

Up front the forwards are making really good decisions around the breakdown. Whether they play tight, out the back or around the opposition, there are no egos there thinking, ‘I’m going to run through this bloke and make myself look good’. They are showing an appreciation of space on the field, rather than going with pre-disposed ideas of how to approach the breakdown. It is heads-up, smart rugby, which is pleasing.

I think Jamie George advanced his cause with his lineout accuracy. The worry for Ken Owens is that the lineout dipped a bit when he came on. There was an overthrow and one where it came down on the Lions side but only just, for scrappy ball. The set-piece is a major strength for the Springboks.

Rory Sutherland was another to stand out with his carrying game and he was solid scrummaging-wise. Furlong and Sinckler like to use their dancing feet allied with their ball handling ability and having someone like the Scotland prop who is going to go route one and get through the tackle is useful when options are limited. If it comes to him, it’s less likely to be an attacking move, more a momentum phase but that’s not a criticism.

Summing up, their gameplan seems to be trying to make the South African’s worry about every play and create uncertainty. So far, the coaching team have been shrewd by mixing things up, but you wonder if the players and management will stick to it in the Test Series if a couple of mistakes leads to tries against them.

Will they revert to a more conservative ethos which plays into Springbok hands or stick with high-risk, high reward? There is less than a fortnight to the first Test. Can they hold their nerve?

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Ben Kay: Gatland so much more than Warrenball

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