New Zealand v B&I Lions: The Breakdown

An American tourist on holiday in Ireland one time, and he happened to find himself sort of lost in someplace in east County Cavan. He was driving around back roads for a good while and eventually saw some old fella leaning against a gate, so he pulled over and said “Howdy sir, would you mind awfully telling me how to get to Dublin city? I’d be much obliged”. So the auld fella took off his cap and scratched his head, and in a fairly slow Cavan drawl says “Well I can, but if I was you I wouldn’t start from here”.

Thousands of words have been written, interviews conducted and studies done about what makes the New Zealand rugby team different from everyone else. I’ve even written about them before myself Talent Development – from New Zealand to Kilkenny. On Saturday New Zealand demolished the Lions in the 1st Test. The Lions were outplayed from start to finish. When New Zealand had possession you felt the longer they held onto the ball and more phases they went through, the likelier they were to score. The Lions, well, the more they held the ball and more phases they went through, you felt they’d get turned over at ruck time or simply kick the ball away. This article will examine Saturday’s game and the difference in mindset of both sides in the context of one area, in my opinion they key area in the game of rugby today: the breakdown. Once first phase ball has been secured (and with two top quality teams like these one can assume they’ll win their fair share of lineouts and scrums), the majority of possession in a game will come from the breakdown. If a team goes through 20 phases- you can be fairly sure about 18 of those 20 will start from rucks. The ruck is where you start from.

It was noticeable on Saturday that New Zealand and the Lions had a very different approach to the ruck. The statistics show New Zealand had a much greater number of rucks, 131, winning 127 (96%). The Lions had 76 rucks, winning 72 (winning 94%). Of these 131 rucks, New Zealand created quick ruck ball 39 times, or 30% of the time. That’s an awful lot of pressure to put the Lions under. The Lions themselves managed to generate quick ball 22% of the time from their breakdowns, 17 times out of their 76 rucks. New Zealand frequently committed a player to Lions’ rucks to contest possession. The Lions rarely committed players to contest New Zealand rucks. These two facts framed the entire contest and the stats reflect this. New Zealand competed for the ball on Lions rucks 26 times of the Lions 76 rucks, 35% of the time. The Lions, on the other hand, competed at the breakdown on New Zealand ball 18 times out of New Zealand’s 131 rucks, just 14% of the time.

In possession, the two teams had differing approaches to their own rucks. New Zealand sent two or three players to clear out, these being close to the ball carrier and clearing the ball with huge aggression, speed and power, obviously aided by lack of competition from Lions players. The Lions sent (or had to send) more players to secure their own rucks. One statistic I’d love performance analysts to stop counting as a positive is “rucks hit” – New Zealand players I’m sure have low numbers on rucks hit, as when two New Zealanders go to clear a ruck, they bloody clear it. Their attitude is “why send four to half-arse clearing a ruck when we can make two do the job perfectly”; in contrast northern teams generally say the opposite: “two guys will struggle to clear that ruck unless they do it perfectly, so let’s send four to be sure”.

There are many differences between how northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere teams play the game. Most can’t put their finger on what makes New Zealand so different, so successful. The breakdown is certainly one clear area of difference. The impact of a ruck on attack and defence go hand-in-hand, so I’ll discuss both below. This graphic illustrates why the ruck is of such value.

 

The breakdown

Northern hemisphere teams value numbers in defence and attack over all else. Coaches in the northern hemisphere believe the overlap will come eventually, and finishing the overlap is the key to scoring tries. Conversely, in defence, preventing the opponent from gaining an overlap is the key aim. Northern hemisphere coaches believe that organised phase attack will lead to an overlap, and coaching players to identify overlaps and exploit those overlaps with tries is how you score. Players are conditioned to value creating a 2v1, 3v2 or even a 6v5 as the best scenario they can have. Go along to any training session from under-10 all the way up to adult rugby and watch how many drills or conditioned games are played with the aim of creating/preventing the overlap. The key problem with this? Really good teams rarely give you a situation where attackers outnumber defenders, and even if they do their defensive skills are that good that they can deal with it.

Southern hemisphere teams value quick ball over all else. The attack’s job is to generate quick ball and the defence’s job is to prevent the opponent from generating quick ball. When you watch them play, attacking weak shoulders or defenders who aren’t set is their main aim. And in defence, slowing the ball long enough to allow the defence set up is what they’re after. They believe tries are scored by generating ruck ball so quick the opposing defence is disoriented, defenders make mistakes, and the opposing defensive line cannot be set up quickly enough to effectively shut down the opposition. New Zealand in particular expect the opposition defence to be organised, and very rarely expect there to be an overlap. They go through teams, rather than around them, better than anyone else. They look to create situations where they run at weak shoulders, and situations where the defender can maybe make a tackle, but never a dominant hit (which is where offloads come from). The key to all of this is quick ruck ball. Don’t get me wrong, the New Zealanders can kill you if an overlap develops, but first things first.

The breakdown is where these cultures clash. On Saturday, the Lions stood off rucks, allowing New Zealand win their own ruck ball easily, and ensuring their defensive line couldn’t be outflanked by superior numbers. New Zealand were pretty delighted with this, launching phase after phase of attacks with this super quick ball. On the other side of the ball, New Zealand went after each Lions ruck whenever possible. On occasion, New Zealand managed to win a turnover on the ground or penalty at the breakdown, but the main reason they did this was to prevent the Lions from having quick ball. Contesting the ruck slows the ball down. Slowing the ball down does two key things: makes the Lions commit extra players to the ruck which takes away players from their attack, and most importantly gives the New Zealand defence an extra second or two to set their defence and number up.

Ruck after Dagg&Barrett scramble
Straight from a turnover, the Lions kick ahead where Barrett and Dagg have to scramble. Even with 6 of the Lions pack in the frame and New Zealand on the back foot, the Lions don’t compete.

 

The selection of scrumhalves is a very telling example of the difference in philosophies. The New Zealand team selected Aaron Smith at 9, probably the quickest 9 in world rugby at present. The ruck ball was quick, but his passes were like a machine gun, sprayed here there and everywhere. As soon as he saw a bit of white in a ruck, the ball was gone. It hugely helped the attack gain momentum. On the Lions side, Conor Murray is far more methodical. He is selected for a range of attributes- he is a very good tackler, his box-kicks are the best in the world, he is strong around the ruck, he rarely makes mistakes. His delivery and ability to build tempo in his team’s attack is not the strongest facet of his play.

Changes for Saturday’s 2nd Test? The Lions need to up their speed of attack and to compete at ruck time in defence. So personally, I’d make a couple of changes to the side. There was a noticeable improvement in the Lions tempo when Rhys Webb came in, albeit with the game already decided. Whether the Lions decide to bring Webb in to start on Saturday depends on if they value his energy and tempo over the range of skills Murray has, and that will come down to whether they want to play a quicker game or not. Likewise, unpopular as this will make me sound as an Irishman, I’d bring in Warburton for O’Mahony, and Itoje for Kruis, both changes designed to make the Lions more competitive at ruck time. O’Mahony has been excellent on tour, but the game the Lions need to play would fit Warburton perfectly. He’s a ball poacher and turnover getter, and if they go after New Zealand he can make some huge plays. Itoje has to start. There’s no point bringing on an impact sub with the team already fighting a losing cause. Use his energy from the start.

The Lions can win the remaining two tests. I could speak further on other aspects of the game like the set piece, the kicking game, each team’s defence systems. But all of these all stem from the breakdown battle. The Lions need to focus on winning the ruck contests first and foremost. Win that battle and everything else will follow.

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Meath warmup & performance

On Sunday I attended the Leinster Senior Football championship semi-final between Kildare and Meath in Tullamore. It was a roasting hot Saturday evening and I headed down with my dad, eager to see what I thought would be an excellent match between two up-and-coming teams. Cian O’Neill had looked to be building a very good Kildare side and achieved promotion to National Football League 1. My dad and I had gone to watch Meath play Louth in their opening fixture in the Leinster championship, and as I had seen Louth a few times previous and know their level, we were very impressed with Meath that day. So we figured this semi-final would be a belter.

As in Parnell Park a couple of weeks ago, we arrived at the ground over 90 minutes before throw-in, with unrestricted seating in the stand it’s the only way to get good seats. For both games we got great seats and we saw everything (including a Kildare player who should have got the line!). As someone who works coaching, analysing and mentally preparing teams, I’m intrigued by all aspects of the game – warmup, manager body language, player body language, how the players communicate, substitutions, everything.

At 6:00pm on the dot out came Kildare to a big cheer from the supporters on the terrace on the far side. Their management had their cones and gear laid out well in advance, all organised and under control. They got into their warmup, doing a few different drills, all stuff they did without supervision. While Kildare were warming up, Meath backroom staff came out to set up their cones and equipment, and at 6:13 Meath came out to a massive pop from the crowd. When they came out all their gear was well organized and ready too. Meath worked away at their warmup, again the players knew what their routine was. I had been at Parnell Park a fortnight previous and recognised the drills they did, for example a wheel-shaped truck-and-trailer foot & hand passing drill that took up most of their half of the field, and a very good defense drill along the end line where they work to repel attackers. Meath, being traditionally old school, spend a lot of time in unstructured play in their warmup too, shooting for points or goals and passing amongst themselves. Paddy O’Rourke in the Meath goal spent a good period of time practicing his kickouts with the sub goalkeeper. During their warmup, Kildare left the field at around 6:23 and re-emerged at around 6:40. Meath stayed out on the field from 6:13 onwards. Kildare’s warmup was a little more structured than Meath’s.

IMG_7115

A lot has been said and written in the days since Meath were hammered by Kildare, for some reason a lot of this has focused on their warmup. It was a hell of a hot evening in Tullamore. Meath has a new manager this year in Andy McEntee and their warmup has changed considerably, I’m sure, from that of his predecessor. It wasn’t the telling factor in their loss of the game though, nor was it the reason they beat Louth well a few weeks back. Those who are pointing to the warmup as the reason behind the poor Meath performance are either deliberately or unconsciously deflecting attention away from the real reasons behind Meath’s loss. If Meath were tired after that warmup then they aren’t fit enough to stay with a team as well prepared as Kildare.

Here, in my opinion, are the reasons that Meath lost.

  • Meath cleared out their forward line, leaving two men inside, McMahon and Lenihan. These two had been well-used in the game against Louth (where Louth have had no sweeper since Derek Maguire headed to America). Meath played the ball in deep to these two against Louth, and then their pace men, particularly Graham Reilly and Cillian O’Sullivan, fed off them and caused Louth considerable damage taking the ball at pace heading for goal. Against Kildare, this couldn’t happen. Kildare used a sweeper, Eoin Doyle, in front of them. Meath tried for almost the whole first half to put the ball in and then chase it looking to feed- this fell down as Lenihan and McMahon could barely win a ball between them due to poor quality ball, poor quality runs, and the excellent positioning of the sweeper.
  • Meath have gone with one fielder and one runner at midfield, rather than two fielders. For their kickouts, Ronan Jones made runs to drag his man away from the centre of the field. If his man followed it would leave space for his partner Menton to be kicked the ball. If his man didn’t follow a shorter kickout to Jones could be made. This didn’t really work at all. Kildare put a few men around Menton and with his marker Kevin Feely just as good in the air, Kildare either won clean ball or had numbers on the breaks. Kickouts put Meath under severe pressure throughout the game, with Paddy O’Rourke eventually trying to find Cillian O’Sullivan, by no means a big man or noted fielder with long kickouts. Meath badly needed a second (and third and fourth) kickout option.
  • Meath refused to carry and pass to break the Kildare defence down. Only Cillian O’Sullivan and Bryan Menton did this with any real threat for Meath in the game. O’Sullivan worked his balls off throughout, and while his final ball let him down at times, mostly this was due to having no support. To hear the abuse he got from his own fans was shocking. Padraig Harnan and McEntee from wing back tried to support by making overlapping runs. The other Meath forwards were ineffective and seemed to not understand they needed to change their gameplan.
  • I’ve been to a lot of games in my life, and this was the first time I saw a player at county level not really make much effort at all. One Meath forward spent most of the game hovering around the centre-forward position, and made little to no effort to get involved in the play. If his man was passed the ball he’d jog over to him but in the entire match I would say he reached maximum effort only three or four times. Even with his teammates running closeby him, he never looked for a pass but twice. Up until he was substituted with about 15 mins left to play, Meath effectively had only 14 players. Clearly something was mentally or physically wrong with the player and I hope this can be remedied as he has serious talent.
  • Kildare are a more complete team than Meath right now. I couldn’t see any real weaknesses in their team. They look finally to have some quality forwards rather than their tradition of relying on one or two stars to fire the majority of scores. They are very shrewd. Several examples of this: Meath man marked Niall Kelly with Mickey Burke, a sensible option to be fair, but Kelly pulled Burke here, there and everywhere and left the centre-forward position empty for Kildare to run into. Another being the deployment of Doyle as sweeper. Another being the use of Ollie Lyons to provide the overlap in attack. They could think quicker on the line and play and think better on the field than Meath.

Sadly, the media has jumped on the warmup. Lads who weren’t in Tullamore on Saturday night talking about things they didn’t see. Lads who were in Tullamore talking about things they don’t know about. Meath management and analysts will, I hope, see what the real issues were and will remedy them. This is a good Meath team. They are going the right direction. A couple of changes to personnel such as moving Jones to wing forward and bringing in a fielder at midfield, dropping Wallace and Reilly and bringing in O’Coilean. I’d leave Burke in the corner and allow Keogan to hold the centre-back position too. Their problems in this game, as I outlined, are fixable. But lads whingeing about the warmup? Just lazy analysis, plain and simple.