Ben Kay: Kicking to Kolbe might not be so daft after all
Both coaches will think they’ve got an enormous amount out of that rollocking game in Cape Town. Personally, I don’t’ think Warren will be overly worried they lost. The worst thing that could have happened is they’d got smashed and played off the park but that didn’t happen. From Rassie’s point of view, the hit-out would be very important but they tired a bit after the break, which was inevitable with so little rugby.
The interesting thing for me is how we’d talked about how the Lions gameplan in the lead-up to that ‘A’ game. It had been contrived to counteract South Africa’s power but after a few minutes, it seemed all that was thrown out of the window. I sat there watching it like it was like a rerun of the 2019 Rugby World Cup final. There was total control of the game and how it was being played, especially in that first half. It turned into a hugely physical encounter interspersed with a couple of moments of brilliance and speed to capitalise on mistakes.
The touring team that had been mixing up their game with attacking rugby was suddenly involved in an arm-wrestle. It was so pronounced a part of me that was thinking, is this rope-a-dope from Gats? You know, trying to lull the Boks into a false sense of security.
Sometimes we watch from the outside and think players and coaches should have exerted more control over what they want to do but it’s not that easy when under the sort of duress the Springboks put them under. The Lions wanted to play it faster but the Boks dictated the speed early on to suit them. On the flip side, you could say there was the chicanery of not showing your hand too soon. We’ll soon see.
Being smarter with the pick-and-go
The period that really stood out was that five minutes in the red zone before half-time. The Lions didn’t deviate from the pick and go, which seemed one-dimensional because in essence you’re feeding the beast – Ken Owens may have got more change out of running at a brick wall. Perhaps they were waiting for someone to make a mistake defensively, to get their tackle technique wrong so they could squeeze over the whitewash but it didn’t quite happen.
Maybe they needed to shift the point of contact. I’m not suggesting you ditch the pick and go but after a couple of attempts, why not shift it to a different place and get those big guards around the breakdown in a three-point stance, allowing the half-backs to see whether it could go wide and through the hands, especially as the Springboks were down to 13-men. There must have been space to manipulate.
We’ve talked in previous columns about the first-receivers decision making but it seemed lost in that period. Commentators were discussing Farrell’s performance and whether he was barking enough to move them around. Would Biggar, Finn Russell or Marcus Smith have been saying we need to change the point of contact? With Conor Murray at the heart of the action, it was curiously badly-managed because if you look at how to do that five-metre game better, Ireland have been the masters at that late sweep down the blindside when the defence has narrowed. Again, I understand them not wanting to give too much away but if it was a one-off game, you’d think, are they completely tactically inept? There must be something in that.
With a lack of Test Match intensity, it was the first time they’d been tested at the breakdown with defenders going in really hard. If you’re getting quick ball, you can just get a flow to your game but with that level of competition it became more difficult to play and get any sort of fluidity. That sort of pressure will be a huge bonus for Gats and will be a key part of deciding the Test Series.
Faf de Klerk walks the disciplinary tightrope
I love watching Faf de Klerk play and I think he’s brilliant, but he so nearly ruled himself out of the Test Series because of his defensive style. In this day and age, when everyone is worrying about player welfare, he’s one of the most reckless defenders you’ll see. He has little regard for his own safety. I’ve seen him playing for Sale and he’s got away with some of his tackles being borderline. There’s no malice to it, he’s not trying to hurt anyone, but knows if he’s going to win a collision against the big boys, he has to get in early before they get some momentum.
I don’t think it was a cast-iron red but it was living seriously dangerously. In the Premiership that would have been pored over for longer and he could have been looking at a ban. There are players on the Lions side who have had questionable tackle technique like Owen Farrell and Bundee Aki but it was a reminder that if the timing was a split-second off, it could decide the Series. It highlighted the importance of players making the right decisions.
Be brave and get round the blitz
The Lions were better in the second-half in almost every aspect. If they were going down the rope-a-dope line, you could say that physically one of the most tiring things is defending, particularly in and around the breakdown. If you want to tire them out, attack really close, get the tight five forwards blowing, stay in touch on the scoreboard and look to get round the blitz later in the game.
South Africa defend like Saracens did in their pomp but if you can get round the outside-centre channel to the wing, you can prosper. There’s a lot more risk than a normal hard-press followed by a drift to take you towards the touchline because the shoulders of that last defender naturally turn in away from the touchline. If you can get a ball around that defender, you can get a Lions runner hitting the ball at pace. It’s that fine balance between getting absolutely smashed and doing it late enough to lose the defender so he can’t recover because his shoulders are turned.
There was a brilliant pass by Chris Harris to Louis Rees-Zammit where he shaped pull it back to Elliot Daly but then he changed his hand position and went flat to get it into the wide channel. That’s an area they’ll feel they can really exploit South Africa but it requires taking a bit of sting and dominance out of the opposition defence. The Lions require players with supreme handling skills in midfield because if it goes wrong, South Africa have the wheels to punish you, as we saw with the Nkosi try. It is a high-risk, high-reward strategy.
Why kicking to Kolbe might not be so daft after all
With Faf at the helm, the Springboks resembled Sale. Their kicking game was on point. Look at the first few times the Boks had possession, it was a box-kick followed by a really good chase and going hard at the breakdown. Correspondingly, the Lions kicking game early-on was atrocious. Balls were going into touch, there were charge downs and poor execution. That’s an area they’ll putting a lot of an onus on in the next few days.
Pundits will say you should never kick to Kolbe but that’s not strictly true. It’s a good strategy but you have to be accurate. You want the ball to drop into his hands while he looking into the skies and for someone to take man and ball. He really reminds me of Jason Robinson with his running style. You look at those short, nimble players, like Shane Williams, or Marcus Smith. When they’re running, they eyeball you and both feet go in the air. For a millisecond they unsettle the defender before stepping them. They know they have power and acceleration to go round anyone.
That said, if your kicks are accurate enough, you can take him out of the next phase. You take his superstrength away from him. A three-man chase, with a middle man focusing on the ball and then if he steps into one of the other guys, you’ve got him. We used to deliberately kick to Jason (Robinson) because better- the-devil-you know. You’d prefer that to seeing him coming into the line from the next phase. Do it well and it could frustrate Kolbe.
Curry was too hot to handle
Tom Curry was outstanding. I know I’ll incur the wrath of any Scotland fan by saying that at the expense of Hamish Watson, but the Sale man showed his minerals. There was a moment where he got into a grapple with Rynhardt Elstadt which showed how much physical strength he’s got. Curry was their main ball-carrier. The stats back up as the highest tackler and the player who took it as first receiver most. Alongside him Faletau prospered in the wide-channels but you need the right game-plan for that to work. He is Warren’s No 8, the guy he wants to pick, but they didn’t play to his strengths enough in the first-half. Elsewhere in the back row, as much as I admire (Josh) Navidi, I think they’ll go for a big blindside. Tadhg Beirne has played very well and has put pressure on Courtney Lawes.
To me, playing Watson and Curry in the backrow is a bit of a gamble because you want a lineout option, which didn’t go too badly. An area they’d have been less happy about was the mauling play which the Springboks won hands-down. It was interesting to see how effective Adam Beard was when he came on, in that area.
Half-back and midfield selection still up in the air
Of all the combinations, you’d say half-backs and midfield is still up for grabs. When you think about it, no one has really stood out, so do you default to historical reputations and, the ‘Test Match Animal’? It’s asking a lot for Conor Murray to flip back into being the player he was but I didn’t think he was as bad as some say he was. I’ve said from the off that I would go with Biggar at 10 because Farrell hasn’t done enough to warrant being the starting 10.
There could still be room for the England captain at 12, and outside him I thought Harris had another good game. It’s really tight between him and Elliot Daly who continues to catch the eye. One man who has been invisible in the last few weeks is Robbie Henshaw who has to prove his fitness against the Stormers. He could go straight into the Test side because of his form in the Six Nations and the fact Gatland is a fan but the pressure is on.
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