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RUGBYPASS+ Beard perfectly groomed for Lions

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Beard perfectly groomed for Lions By Will Owen

The first Lions game saw a sight nobody wished to see. Alun Wyn Jones fell victim to a dislocated shoulder in the seventh minute against Japan, meaning the British & Irish Lions captain had to pull out of the tour to South Africa. The skipper will be missed not only for his leadership but also his work-rate, hard carrying and ability out wide. As Conor Murray steps up to the plate as captain, Jones’ compatriot Adam Beard has been tasked with filling the famous red No5 jersey.

Beard’s selection has not come without debate, as you would expect on any Lions tour. In turn, this means the likes of James Ryan and Jonny Gray have missed out once again. These are two locks with world-class standards and to air frustration over their omission would not be the worst take. But don’t let that overshadow the fact Beard is still a shrewd selection, a player who was unlucky to miss out on the original squad.

Warren Gatland’s job is not to pick the 23 best players in the Test series. It’s to pick a side who will beat the world champion Springboks. Granted, there is a strong correlation between those two, but the omissions of Ryan and Gray do not mean they are worse players than the Ospreys’ lock.

Beard will slot into Jones’ role more easily than any other lock on tour – he is a solid distributor, good rucker and is comfortable in the wide channels.

Shortly, we’ll have a look into how Beard will fit into Gatland’s Lions system. Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that Gatland could yet find a use for Ryan or Gray – Ryan is an excellent carrier and set-piece operator, whilst Gray would be handy picking and going near the goal-line, while also boasting a near-impeccable tackle success rate.

It’s never nice to speculate on the possibility of injuries on a Lions tour but if England’s Jonny Hill became unavailable, his Exeter team-mate Gray would be the natural like-for-like replacement. A brute in the tight and a defensive nuisance, Gray would offer exactly the same impact as Hill in this system. Similarly, if Iain Henderson wasn’t fit, Ryan would be a great replacement. Both brilliant at the breakdown and lineout, it is likely Gatland would assign them both similar roles.

Beard will slot into Jones’ role more easily than any other lock on tour – he is a solid distributor, good rucker and is comfortable in the wide channels. Let’s analyse how he would aid the Lions, based on his performances for Wales.

First, we’ll look at his role in attack.

In the below example, from the 2021 Six Nations match against England, Wales are playing with a 3-3-2 system, with Ken Owens, Josh Navidi and Jones all involved on the previous carry.

Fly-half Dan Biggar assesses his next pocket of three forwards: props Tom Francis and Wyn Jones in combination with Beard. Jones is in the lead carrier position, with Beard acting as his tip-on.

Typically, centre Jonathan Davies would be stood behind Jones, acting as his boot back, however Wales shift the point of attack. Based largely on the numbers on their backs, England expect Alun Wyn Jones and Beard to exclusively act as carrying options. Beard swaps roles with Davies, who instead acts as Jones’ inside support.

Beard runs an overs line, away from Jones, meaning he is no longer a rucking option but instead an outside runner.

Biggar passes across the face of outside defender George Ford, giving Beard a 2v1 with Ben Youngs, setting Taulupe Faletau free.

Two phases later, scrum-half Kieran Hardy goes back toward the blindside, on which Beard is stood as first receiver. He engages Youngs once again, allowing Davies to set Faletau free once again. Typically, the centre would feed the lock to carry, but Beard and Davies swapping roles allows Wales to go to the same touchline twice within three phases. This passage of play results in a try for full-back Liam Williams.

With Justin Tipuric ruled out, it’s probable that the likes of Faletau, Sam Simmonds and Tadhg Beirne will be the front-runners to play as part of a two on the edge of the Lions’ attack. Having a versatile lock who can link up with these quick back rowers will be crucial.

Now, let’s have a look at one of Beard’s main USPs: his maul defence. The following example is against Scotland, again from the 2021 Six Nations.

Beard is constantly trying to get his long levers of arms around Scotland’s lineout catcher Scott Cummings.

The bold, threatening figure of Gray attempts to leave the maul to re-enter from the back to give Scotland more go-forward. Beard’s right hand remains gripped on Gray to prevent him from moving to a more impactful position. Faletau manages to wheel the maul towards the touchline, at which point Beard spots an opportunity to stunt the Scottish momentum.

Making sure he doesn’t change his bind, Beard pins Cummings to the maul whilst also knocking Matt Fagerson off balance. The maul goes to ground and Beard isn’t penalised. 

This is one of many examples of Beard’s efficient maul defence. Let’s look at one more example, from the Ireland game the week prior.

On this occasion, Beard manages to hoist his large limbs over the titanic frame of CJ Stander, hassling hooker Rob Herring at the back of the maul.

The Irishman attempts to break off multiple times, but Beard has both of his hands on his jersey. This means he has to call upon his scrum-half, Conor Murray, to take the ball from him.

If Herring was intending to break off, with Murray hanging further back, Ireland were most likely planning a move using the scrum-half at first receiver. Beard’s intervention prevents Andy Farrell’s men from being able to utilise an extra number in the backline.

Additionally, when Murray arrives, Beard continues to haggle the hooker. This disrupts the transfer to Murray, which allows Biggar to shoot out of the defensive line.

Biggar’s positioning leaves Ireland with no option but to carry sideways. Beard buys his fly-half enough time to completely disrupt the Irish attack. This set ends with Johnny Sexton aimlessly kicking the ball to Leigh Halfpenny, who calls a mark.

While he may be less experienced than the likes of Gray and Ryan, it is important not to underestimate Beard. He has only lost four of his 18 starts for Wales and has no trouble stepping up when the pressure is on. He slotted seamlessly into the Welsh national team, winning all of his first 13 games. His defensive work is outstanding, plus he will be a tremendous addition in attack. He does not have the brute strength of a lot of locks but he will certainly form a tremendous combination with the likes of Henderson, Hill, Beirne and Courtney Lawes.

The inclusion of Beard is not an example of ‘Welsh bias’. Albeit there may be an implication that Gatland knows Beard well, having coached him since the autumn of 2017. The Lions coach will hence know what the lock responds well to, how to utilise him best and, ultimately, how coachable he is. Beard is an extremely adaptable player who will fit into almost any position in a 1-3-2-2 structure.

More analysis from Will Owen

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