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Analysis: Lions must control Laumape and Savea on the gainline tomorrow

The All Blacks’ powerful backs will look for big gains off set-piece platforms.

WHILE THE LIONS may have focused on their decision-making as one of the reasons they gave up so many penalties last weekend, the more pressing issue was how the All Blacks got beyond the gainline on first phase to draw those penalties.

There were 13 penalties in total against the Lions and the majority of them came after the All Blacks had earned ‘front-foot’ ball on the first phase of their attacks from set-piece.

Going backwards is extremely difficult for a defence and it’s when players start to make poor decisions around the breakdown in desperation to slow the ball or jump offside in their attempts to eat back some of the lost ground.

This is going to be a key issue for the Lions tomorrow, with All Blacks centre Ngani Laumape and returning wing Julian Savea set to test their set-piece defence with direct ball carrying.

Below, we get an example of the Lions’ struggles last weekend.

The All Blacks are set up for a right-hand scrum, with wing Waisake Naholo [circled below] tucked in beside out-half Beauden Barrett.

Naholo

As the ball comes back through the scrum, Conor Murray notes Naholo advancing slightly ahead of Barrett, ready to accept a pass from Aaron Smith.

Murray reacts by calling Johnny Sexton’s attention to it: “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny!”

JohnnyJohnny

His intention is to call on Sexton to get up rapidly in defence as soon as the ball exits the scrum and the five-metre offside line is no more.

Murray and Sexton will need to link here, aware that Naholo is looking to run into the ‘seam’ or space between them.

But, as we see below, Naholo is able to hammer right over the gainline for the All Blacks.

Naholo 1 Phase

Sexton initially comes forward to meet Naholo but we can see that he then slows and hovers. Murray, meanwhile, is coming across from the scrum and therefore has to make a less impactful side-on tackle on Naholo.

With Naholo having made big gains on first phase, the Lions are already chasing to catch up. While the All Blacks forwards can run upfield from the scrum, the Lions pack has to retreat in an effort to get around the corner of the ruck and defend.

Forwards

Given that situation, the All Blacks make gains on the next phase off Smith and then Jerome Kaino is next onto the ball, running directly at inside centre Owen Farrell.

Farrell

The Lions’ inside centre looks to eat back some of those metres his side have lost on the opening phases of the defensive set, but he misses his tackle on the more powerful Kaino and suddenly the tourists are in real trouble.

Sean O’Brien arrives to the breakdown as Kaino is tackled and he is penalised for not staying on his feet as he compete for the ball.

It’s a prime example of the Lions losing the gainline on first phase and paying the price with a penalty as a result.

Now, there is no intention to suggest that the Lions deliberately gave up penalties in the second Test, but their lack of discipline generally prevented the All Blacks’ from getting into their most dangerous attacking flow, the good possession having been killed early in this kind of passage.

Naholo is not playing this weekend, of course, but expect to see Savea used in a similar role.

Job number one for Sexton and Farrell in these instances is to eat up those metres as soon as the ball exits the scrums.

Below, we see the Lions do a better job.

Johnny Up

Sexton is helped by Smith knocking the ball on here as he picks it from the scrum, but the Lions out-half closes right up to the 10-metre line to meet Naholo.

The tackle is still completed behind the gainline but Sexton and Murray are able to choke Naholo up for a couple of seconds, allowing their forwards to fill the defensive line. The All Blacks kick the ball away on the next phase.

Laumape is going to be a big threat to the Lions in this area as well, with a fine example of his power coming below.

Offside

The Lions have some gripes about the All Blacks breaking the five-metre offside line before the ball is out in instances like the above – ironic, some might say – but the issue again is how much ground they lose on first phase as Laumape powers forward.

We could argue whether there was a ruck formed after Laumape’s carry here – let’s not go there in this case – but the Lions are penalised for being offside on second phase.

Off? Ruck?

Laumape is a different sort of player to Sonny Bill Williams and it’s likely that Sexton and Farrell will have considered the need to tackle him low on this type of carry.

The Lions’ 10 and 12 both like to tackle high, but if they can really come forward to meet Laumape and Savea before the gainline and chop him as low as possible – leaving the high shots for their more powerful team-mates – they are in with a good fighting chance.

From lineouts, we may see O’Brien or one of the other Lions back rows helping out their midfield.

SOB

We can see O’Brien lining up just inside Sexton in the example above.

The All Blacks only having 14 players made this a more straightforward tactic for the Lions last weekend obviously, with the Kiwis unable to have a full seven-man lineout unless they sent a back in.

But it may be something Gatland considers again. That said, dropping a forward from the lineout would reduce the effectiveness of the competition out of touch.

Lineout and Pen Off

This passage underlines the sheer quality of Smith’s passing, as he fires a long, flat pass to Laumape that other scrum-halves could not match for velocity and accuracy.

That long pass allows Laumape to target Sexton and Farrell again, and he is winning the battle in contact until O’Brien’s arrival from the inside.

There might even be temptation for the Lions to switch Jonathan Davies in the line on set-piece defence, but that will then reduce the quality of their wide defence – an area where the Welshman has been superb on this tour.

As we know, the All Blacks are more than capable of striking closer to the touchline if the opposition is showing opportunity there.

The quickest way to stop the All Blacks making these big gains on first phase is, of course, to take out their set-piece, but that is far easier said than done.

Tadhg Furlong, Jamie George and Mako Vunipola have responsibility on their shoulders to disrupt the All Blacks’ scrum, with the strong-scrummaging Alun Wyn Jones and Maro Itoje important behind them too.

And in the lineout, Gatland needs the likes of Itoje, Jones and Taulupe Faletau to do as much disrupting as they possibly can, looking to cut off or at least slow that supply line to Laumape and Savea.

Otherwise, the onus is on Farrell and Sexton to manage the threat.

If they can’t, it’s worrying for the Lions to think what 15 All Blacks might do to them given the same kind of front-foot possession as last weekend.

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