Tag Archives: Lions

Lions: The Tries

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Over the course of the 2013 Test series between the Lions and the Wallabies, there were 10 tries scored. That is a slight drop on the 12 tries scored in 2009, and lower than 2005 (15), 2001 (14) and 1997 (12). We have to go back as far as 1993 for a series that featured fewer tries, when just seven were scored.

What is rare is valuable. In this Test series tries were like goals in football; the infrequency made them that little bit more important. The Lions outscored the Wallabies six tries to four, and they won the series. Leigh Halfpenny’s place kicking has correctly been highlighted as a major aspect of the series win, but tries will always be of higher point-scoring and confidence-boosting value.

It’s worth investigating how each side built their tries, and how they came about. Of the 10 scored in this series, all but two of the tries were scored in five phases or less. The only try that took more than ten phases to construct was Adam Ashley-Cooper’s match-winner in the second Test (15 phases), although the Lions did have a nine-phase effort in the third Test, when Jonny Sexton touched down.

Based on the stats above, it’s clear that the greatest attacking threat from the Lions and the Wallabies came in the very early stages of their possessions. Both teams scored two tries each on first phase, and those are probably the most memorable ones of the series. The very first five-pointer in the first Test was scored by Israel Folau on first phase possession. The Wallabies soaked up 23 phases of Lions’ attack, won a penalty and burst away through Will Genia’s quick tap.

The Lions response came through George North, on first phase too, when he fielded a dreadful kick by Berrick Barnes and made that iconic run. In the third Test, the Wallabies’ only try came from James O’Connor on first phase, directly from a scrum. In the second half, Halfpenny set up a first phase score for North when he took advantage of a poor Genia kick to counter attack.

What made ambitious attacking in the early phases of possession so effective in this series? The simple answer was having good attacking players running at defenders with the time and space to beat them. Whether that was on turnover ball, like North’s fantastic run and Folau’s finish after some Genia genius, or in the early stages of attacking from a set piece, like Cuthbert’s try in the first Test (phase three) and Jamie Roberts score in the third (phase two), there was space for the attacker to beat defenders.

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Once play went beyond five phases, both defences were very solid and aggressive in general. When the ball had been in play for extended periods of time, it favoured the defence very often with two tacklers bringing down the attacker more often than not. Before the fifth phase of possession, both sides still had the opportunity to create one-on-ones, two-on-twos and three-on-threes. With a little bit of space, those mini games suited guys like Genia, Folau, North and Cuthbert.

The two tries from which Warren Gatland likely took the most satisfaction were the Alex Corbisiero and Sexton tries in the third Test. Corbisiero’s try was not only pleasing for how early it was scored, a mental blow for the Wallabies, but also in its construction.

From a free kick, Phillips took off with a quick tap to send Tommy Bowe making yards down the right-hand side touchline. From there, the Lions forwards battered their way infield for four hard-carrying phases that featured excellent leg drive, aggressive leeching and efficient clear outs. For the scoring action, Phillips’ physical threat from close range drew Stephen Moore into the tackle that opened the gap for Corbisiero. Simple, effective and to Gatland’s pattern.

Even more exemplary of that pattern was the try Sexton scored. From a lineout on the left-hand side around 25 metres out, the Lions worked seven phases all the way out to the right-hand edge, before coming back to the left and taking advantage of the space out wide. Sexton dotted down on the ninth phase. The forward runners around the corner, the decoy line by Roberts and the patience to wait for exactly the right moment were all justifications of Gatland’s attacking system.

Interestingly, all six of the Lions’ tries in this series were created on the left-hand half of the pitch as they attacked. Whether this is due to a weakness in the Wallabies defence or a strength in the Lions attack is unclear. It’s something to keep an eye on from an Australian perspective in the Rugby Championship.

Place kicking was vital in this Test series, with some of the misses just as important as the chances taken. Still, tries are a precious commodity and the Lions came out on top of this area.

Lions: Counter Attacking

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One of the areas that has best highlighted the difference between the Lions and the Wallabies’ game plans so far has been counter attacking. The home side have been particularly threatening on the counter, with Israel Folau’s first try in the first Test being the best example. While the Lions have scored a memorably brilliant try on counter attack through George North, overall they have been far less ambitious after turning over possession.

Counter attacking in rugby is all about identifying where the space is and ruthlessly targeting it. When the attacking team loses possession, they become immediately vulnerable defensively. Having been focused on attacking, their defence is obviously not an ideal shape. For the team who wins the turnover, it is of critical importance to strike quickly.

Let’s go back to that Folau try for an example. The Lions had gone through 23 attacking phases before the Wallabies won the penalty to turn the ball over. The Lions were fatigued after such a long passage of play and they had no defensive shape whatsoever. Will Genia recognised that immediately and burst away after taking a quick tap. The Lions were scrambling to get into defensive position and we know the rest.

Jim Greenwood is an advocate of the idea that “not all space is equally valuable” on a rugby pitch. But identifying space on the counter attack is certainly high up on the list of precious spaces in rugby. When the defending team makes a turnover, very often the space for a counter attack will be wide on the opposite side of the field. If the team who has made the turnover can get the ball there quickly, they’re in an excellent position to score or at least make lots of ground.

Many coaches use the ‘two pass rule’ for counter attack, whereby they encourage their team to make two quick passes after winning a turnover. That normally gets the ball into space, and very often allows the elusive back three players to demonstrate exactly the skills they’ve been picked for.

Counter attacking clearly holds risks and possible negative factors. Long passes across the pitch are open to being picked off by intercepts; an isolated player on counter attack can be turned over; and your team will need high fitness levels to attack immediately after defending. But the risks are worth the rewards. If a team does it with intelligence, ruthlessness and support, counter attacking can be match-winning.

At the end of the video above, there are two examples of the Lions winning back their own contestable kicks. This presents situations which are similar to winning a turnover in contact. It means that the Wallabies defence is in a bad position, working hard to get back onside before tackling. Again, the focus should be on moving the ball away from the area where the Lions have retrieved the kick.

Warren Gatland’s side need to go out and try to win Saturday’s game, rather than taking last weekend’s approach of trying not to lose. There are risks involved in counter attacking ambitiously, but the rewards certainly outweigh them.

Centre Experiment a Success for Madigan

Madigan doing what he does best: ripping a flat, long pass.

Madigan doing what he does best: ripping a long, flat pass.

With many rugby fans and pundits seeing Ian Madigan as a possible Lion, Saturday’s win over Biarritz was his last audition for the part. The Leinster back’s versatility is seen as a big on-tour advantage. Having already played at both outhalf and fullback this season, Saturday saw the 24-year-old step in at inside centre.

So far in his career, Madigan has started 46 games for Leinster. 36 of those have come at outhalf and 9 at fullback. Last Saturday was his first appearance in the 12 jersey. At U20 international level, Madigan actually had more starts at fullback (5) than at outhalf (4). During the Six Nations, he made brief appearances for Ireland at inside centre. It’s clear that outhalf is his best position, and that he can now be considered as good cover for fullback. Last season, the Demented Mole even suggested trying him at scrumhalf. He’s versatile, that much is certain.

So how did the experiment of playing Madigan at 12 go?

He had an uncharacteristically nervy start to the game, knocking on 2 of his first 3 touches. The first knock-on came as Leinster tried to send Madigan boshing into the Biarritz defence direct from lineout possession, clearly not a role he’s built for. Biarritz outhalf Barraque stopped him in this tracks and Madigan spilled the ball forward. Minutes later, another knock-on. This one came under very little pressure and with a 3-on-2 outside him. He was clearly aware of this, planning his next move before he’d even caught the pill. Not a great start.

Madigan’s first defensive involvement will be marked as a missed tackle, but came from a scrappy situation after Leinster over-threw at their own lineout. The screengrabs below show what happened. While it was an unusual situation, it shows the demands of defending in the 12 channel. Coaches everywhere preach the importance of not getting pierced in the middle of the pitch. While the blame here should be shared amongst a few players, Madigan will be annoyed not to have prevented the line-break.

NgwenyaBreak

Click to enlarge. The action starts in the top left after Strauss overthrows at the lineout and Heguy claims the bouncing ball for BO. Moving to the top right, you can see that Sexton has stepped in to tackle Heguy but without preventing the pass to Barraque. Madigan has already drifted a little and the gap is opened. Moving to bottom left, Madigan tries in vain to grab the BO outhalf, but is in a bad position and gets handed off. Finally, bottom right, you can see that Barraque has offloaded to Ngwenya, who goes all the way to the 22, Leinster give away the penalty and 3 points.

From there, Madigan’s performance improved. In the next 5 minutes, he made two tackles on Baby and Traille, going in low on both occasions and halting their progress. It was exactly what Madigan needed, something to get him into the game. His first positive attacking contribution came after 25 minutes, taking a switch off Sexton and popping the ball inside to Nacewa. Madigan’s ease of handling was evident, highlighting the advantages of using him as an Aaron Mauger-style second five-eight.

Two of Biarritz’s first three kick-offs were aimed directly into the zone where Madigan was situated. The intention was to put Damien Traille directly up against Madigan for the high ball. The first time, the French centre got above his opposite number, nearly claiming the ball, before his team gave away a penalty. The clear sign that Biarritz intended to target Madigan was Traille slipping a sneaky little kick to the Leinster 12 as they got off the ground. BOD was clearly not happy!

On the second occasion, Rob Kearney recognised the ploy, sprinting forward and actually knocking Madigan over in order to claim the ball. It’s not a major thing, but worth watching if Madigan is to play at 12 again. At 5’11″, he’s not the tallest and could be targeted in a similar manner.

Biarritz looked to target Madigan with short drop-offs. On the left, Traille gets above Madigan. On the right, Rob Kearney recognised the tactic and arrives to rescue the situation.

Biarritz looked to target Madigan with short drop-offs. On the left, Traille gets above Madigan. On the right, Rob Kearney recognised the tactic and arrives to rescue the situation. Click photo to enlarge.

The remainder of Madigan’s half involved some effective clean-outs at ruck-time, and one gorgeous pass. With time up on the clock, Leinster quick-tapped a penalty. Sexton move it to Madigan, who looked up to see that Baby had shot out of BO’s defensive line. Most players would have either trucked it up or thrown a looping pass over Baby. But Madigan’s vision allowed him to fire a flat pass in behind Baby, straight to Nacewa on the wing. Leinster were over the gain line, Biarritz were scrambling and the passage ended with Jamie Heaslip scoring.

Madigan’s role as a second-five eight was really interesting to watch. While Gordon D’Arcy is certainly no battering ram, Madigan’s skills are more suited to a play-making role in the centre. All of Leinster’s backline possess good passing skills, but Madigan is the best passer in the country. The above was the most obvious example of the benefits of playing Madigan at 12. His passing and creativity open up even more possibilities for Leinster in wider areas.

Madigan’s second-half got off to a flyer, quite literally. As Biarritz attacked in the Leinster 22, Synaeghel knocked on and Madigan intercepted. He then showed exceptional pace to burst away and came up just 5 metres short, caught by Ngwenya. The American winger was sin-binned and Leinster added 3 points. That sheer pace is something we haven’t seen too much of in Madigan’s game, but it’s just another string to his bow.

Madigan almost scores a length-of-the-field try. Top left, he's onto the BO knock-on in a flash. Top right, he shows great acceleration to burst away. Bottom left, Ngwenya is making ground. Bottom right, hauled down agonizingly short!

Madigan almost scores a length-of-the-field try. Top left, he’s onto the BO knock-on in a flash. Top right, he shows great acceleration to burst away. Bottom left, Ngwenya is making ground. Bottom right, hauled down agonizingly short!

His next two contributions were defensive. The first was an excellent tackle on a surging Thibault Dubarry. His hit was strong and actually forced a knock-on, which wasn’t noticed by referee Wayne Barnes. The next was another low tackle on Traille, bringing him to the deck.

With Sexton subbed off, Madigan moved to outhalf and taking over place-kicking duties on the 50 minute mark. He began by converting Nacewa’s try with ease. His form off the tee is excellent, and that continued on Saturday, with 3 from 3 in total.

Overall, Madigan’s first outing in the 12 jersey for Leinster was a positive one. While there were signs that he was slightly uncomfortable in the role at first, he grew into the game and managed to show off some of his skills. With Jonny Sexton still only 27, it’s something we may see more of in the future, possibly with the Irish national team. In terms of a Lions audition, Madigan showed glimpses of the skill set he can offer. Would you have him on the Lions squad or with Ireland this summer? Is there a future for Madigan at 12 alongside Sexton for Ireland? Let me know your views!

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Madigan’s stats vs. Biarritz, from ESPNScrum.com:

Kick/pass/run: 0/13/6     Metres run: 102     Clean breaks: 1     Defenders   beaten: 3     Tackles made/missed: 7/2

Here’s to Wally

David Wallace another magical performance copy

Wallace in full flow as Munster beat Leinster in the 2011 Magner League final. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

David Wallace is the latest Ireland legend to announce his retirement. I thought I’d share one or two memories of his days with Munster and Ireland. Hopefully, you have a few that you can contribute too. If you do, leave a comment at the end of the piece and share the love for Wally!

My first ever Munster match was a Heineken Cup pool game in 2001 against Castres. Munster won 21-11 thanks to a try from Anthony Foley and 11 points from the reliable boot of ROG. But it was David Wallace’s performance that stood out. He was named Man of the Match for what was fast becoming a typically powerful display. I still have the match programme and I wrote in ‘MOTM’ beside his name, along with a little star!

It was immediately clear to my uneducated rugby eye that Wallace was a genuine star. He would be called up to the Lions tour later in the year to replace the injured Lawrence Dallaglio. Of course he scored a try there too. The Limerick man was almost impossible to stop from five metres out. As soon as Munster or Ireland got within sniffing distance of the tryline, there was only one man they looked for.

David Wallace dives for the line copy

A familiar sight for Irish rugby fans. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

Wallace’s power in contact was second to none. As his career progressed, and his thighs grew ever larger, he became harder and harder to stop. His try-scoring record was prolific for a back-row. He scored 40 tries in his 203 appearances for Munster. For Ireland, he dotted down 12 times in his 72 caps. It may not read as particularly impressive, but to give a quick comparison, centre Gordon D’Arcy has 7 in 68 caps. Wally’s pace and freakish strength made him a serious finisher.

Anyone who ever saw Wallace live, in the flesh, will know just how strong he was. The collisions he was involved in were nearly always accompanied by a sickening thud. His ability to accelerate into contact should not be underestimated. Any rugby player will tell you how hard it is to consciously do. The natural instinct is often to simply accept a tackle. Good coaches constantly remind their players to accelerate into the contact zone and battle to stay on their feet. Wallace didn’t need to be told. He relished the physical battle and always burst into tacklers.

One of the most enjoyable games I’ve ever been at was that famous bonus point win over Sale in Thomond Park in 2006. It was into injury time when Wallace picked from a ruck and strolled over for the try that guaranteed Munster’s progress. Interestingly, there was no one in front of him that time, but if there had been they wouldn’t have stopped him. It was one of the days where I truly understood just how special Munster rugby was and Wallace played the starring role.

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Wallace never accepted the tackle, always fighting to stay on his feet. (c) Liam Coughlan.

He wasn’t simply a bosh merchant though. Wally was an intelligent player with a phenomenal work-rate. His support play from 7 was underrated. He scored plenty of tries by simply being in the right place at the right time, the mark of a great player. His fitness was unquestionable, with the big carries and hits coming for the full 80 minutes. On top of that, he always came across as good craic and a nice guy.

Two Heineken Cups, two Magners Leagues, a Celtic Cup, three Triple crowns, a Rugby World Cup, a Grand Slam and two Lions tours. That says it all really. A legend of Irish rugby.

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Photos courtesy: Ivan O’Riordan.

Shaggy Bows Out

Horgan

Horgan during last season's HC quarter-final win over Leicester. (c) Ken Bohane.

The week after Jerry Flannery announced his retirement from the game, fellow Irish international Shane Horgan has decided to call an end to his career too. The 33-year-old has been struggling with a long-term knee injury in recent times and his time as a professional is now over. As with Flannery, we have to celebrate the sheer quality that Horgan contributed to both Leinster and Ireland during his 14-year long career. He was the complete winger at his peak and his long list of honours proves just how good a player he was.

A minor footballer with Meath, Horgan’s parish roots would later help him to dominate aerially on the rugby pitch. His earliest rugby experiences were with home club Boyne RFC and then Lansdowne RFC before Leinster gave him his first professional contract in 1998, at the age of 20. The imposing winger quickly set about making himself a vital part of the set-up and a try-scoring international debut followed in 2000. He went on to win 65 Irish caps, scoring 21 tries, some of which will never be forgotten.

Horgan was central as Leinster grew year by year to the levels they now play at. Whether on the wing or at inside centre, ‘Shaggy’ was reliably hard-working and physical but had genuine intelligence and delicate offloading skills too. His finishing ability was unquestionable. The aforementioned fielding skills also made him a try-scoring threat in any one-on-one aerial contest. Throughout his career, Ireland and Leinster consistently looked for Horgan (6’5″ and about 105kg) to get on the end of cross-field kicks, often to spectacular effect.

BOD finds Shaggy copy

Horgan, 14, takes an offload from Brian O'Driscoll during his last ever Leinster appearance, the 2011 Magners League Final against Munster. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

I was always a particular fan of Horgan’s stint at inside centre. At a time when players like Brian O’Driscoll were the standard shape and size for centres, Horgan was considerably different. His strength and offloading ability in the 12 jersey were something fresh for Ireland. Of Horgan’s three test caps off the bench for the 2005 Lions, two were in the centre, showing just how well the Meath man adapted to the position. Today, we see far more centres and wingers of Horgan’s dimensions. A really complete player, he was good wherever he was chosen.

So, to his long list of honours. Two Celtic/Magners Leagues as well as two Heineken Cups with Leinster were just reward for his service. He made a total of 207 appearances in the blue jersey, scoring a remarkable 71 tries. With Ireland, he played in two World Cups (’03 and ’07) as well as winning three Triple Crowns. A true measure of the man is that this time last season, he was playing superbly for Leinster and, at the age of 32, pushing hard for a spot in the 2011 World Cup squad.

Unfortunately injury has denied him the opportunity to make a farewell appearance this season. He has transitioned smoothly into the world of punditry with RTE, where his sensible and knowledgable contributions are in stark contrast with some of this peers. Shaggy has always come across as an intelligent character and that is backed up by what we’ve seen so far.

Horgan was a brilliant Irish winger who was maybe even a little bit ahead of his time in terms of playing style and build. Imagine the hype that would surround a player of his size and strength if he was emerging from the Leinster Academy now? Horgan says that he feels “fortunate to have played at a time when Leinster and Ireland experienced such great success”. The truth is that he played a major role in that success and in helping both teams to progress to where they are now.

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Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane, Ivan O’Riordan.