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Analysis: The Lions backs need to find their clinical edge rapidly

While the forwards were impressive against the Blues, the backs have work to do.

WHILE A DEFEAT added to the growing sense of pressure on the Lions in New Zealand, their performance against the Blues in Auckland on Wednesday night was much-improved.

The forwards were particularly impressive for Warren Gatland’s side as they dominated the Blues at maul and scrum time, although their late lineout failure has understandably attracted much of the focus.

CJ Stander scores his sides first try The Lions' only try came from a maul. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

That botched set-piece was certainly damaging, but it has received more attention simply because it was in the final minute of the game. Earlier in the contest, the Lions missed other opportunities and the backs were at fault on these occasions.

After Gatland’s pack showed quality at Eden Park, it’s now up to the backline to step up to the mark for Saturday’s clash against the Crusaders.

Early chance

The real difference between the teams on Wednesday night was how clinical the Blues were. Arguments are ongoing about the validity of Sonny Bill Williams’ try, but the scores from Rieko Ioane and Ihaia West were ruthless.

Taking chances clinically is one of the key strengths of New Zealand teams, with the All Blacks leading the way in this regard.

Early on this tour, Gatland’s Lions have been sorely lacking a clinical edge and they need to find it urgently.

Henshaw

Above, we see the Lions spurning a chance as early as the third minute on Wednesday.

Gatland’s men made a superb start to the game and this incident comes on 15th phase after some brutish and technically-excellent carrying and rucking from the Lions forwards.

They have eked out metres and stressed the defence, creating this opportunity for the Lions backs but it is missed and a phase later Sonny Bill Williams wins the turnover at the breakdown.

As we can see below, the Lions have eight attacking players on their feet to the left of Rhys Webb as he launches the phase.

8

Now, the Blues actually have eight players of their own on that side of the ruck, as we can see below.

Blues

However, Webb’s pass instantly removes three of the Blues defenders from the equation – bypassing only two Lions players – and as the ball arrives into Dan Biggar’s hands [he's circled in white below], the chance is clear.

Chance

Loosehead prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi [red]  is now marking up on Biggar, while Blues centre Williams [yellow] has begun to turn inwards, concerned about the possible running threat of Lions out-half Biggar.

Williams hesitates and that’s the cue Biggar needs to pass. He instantly releases the ball to Henshaw.

The pass is perhaps a fraction higher than Henshaw [white below] would have ideally liked but as he receives the ball we can see the stress on the Blues centres [red].

Centres

Williams is darting towards Henshaw in recovery, having been briefly stalled by Biggar, while George Moala outside him has sat back on his heels, worried that he is going to have to tackle Henshaw himself.

If Henshaw can burst off his right foot as soon as he catches the ball, it will serve to further entice Moala to bite in on him, while also taking him to the outside of Williams.

Even if Henshaw can simply catch and pass to Leigh Halfpenny outside him in one slick movement here, Moala and the Blues are in trouble. The Lions don’t have a glaring numerical advantage but the defence is strained and ripe to be broken through.

Below, we can see that Biggar is actually pointing to Henshaw to get the ball to the outside, where the opportunity lies.

Biggar

But Henshaw has already made a decision to step back inside off his left foot, taking him past Williams but only into the waiting hit of Tu’ungafasi and Scott Scrafton, who hammer him into the ground.

We don’t know what kind of communication Henshaw was getting from the outside in this instance, but it’s an opportunity to score in the opening minutes after fine phase play from the Lions forwards.

It goes without saying that the entire shape of this game would have been completely changed had the Lions showed a more ruthless edge.

Open goal

Instead, the Blues went down the other end of the pitch and showed the Lions exactly how clinical Kiwi teams can be, with 20-year-old wing Ioane finishing off some intelligent and skillful play by Tana Umaga’s side.

The Lions then had a chance to bounce back within four minutes, but again their execution when handed an opportunity was lacking.

Payne

Jared Payne is inches away from getting a try on his return to Eden Park here, but it should never have come down to such fine margins.

This is the 10th phase of another strong passage of Lions attack with the forwards – and backs like Jack Nowell and Elliot Daly – carrying and clearing out impressively.

They work the chance wide on the left but again the Lions backs miss.

Numbers

As we can see above, the Lions are numbers up and with the ball in Biggar’s hands, there’s a gilt-edged chance to score.

It’s actually a five-on-three in the frontline, with the Blues having Stephen Perofeta [blue 4] in behind sweeping across as cover.

The Blues are in emergency mode defensively and, lacking in numbers, they are drifting in an attempt to cover across and eventually use the touchline as the key defender.

It’s up to Biggar and the inside backs to fix those drifting defenders and give the outside attackers a clear charge to the line.

This time, it’s not about simply catching and passing under pressure to send the ball out wide, rather it’s about sitting the drifting defenders down to preserve the wide space.

One thing to note is how deep the Lions backline is here. Had they been able to get up a little closer to the gainline, the Blues would have been forced to make decisions earlier and the Lions might well have run in untouched in the corner.

However, they’re lying deep on this occasion and even with that depth, the Lions should still be able to take advantage of the exposed defence.

Biggar

Can Biggar straighten just a hint here before passing? He doesn’t need to take the ball all the way to the line and run into Blake Gibson, but even a single straightening step asks a real question of Gibson and entices him to stop drifting.

Instead, Biggar shifts the ball onto Henshaw.

Gibson is therefore able to drift out onto Henshaw, but still the opportunity beckons.

Henshaw

We can see that Williams in the Blues defence has backed away outside Gibson [red], eager to keep the chance of drifting alive.

If Henshaw can add even a single straightening step here, it can sit down both Gibson and Williams enough for the Blues defender on the edge, Matt Duffie, to be lured into biting in the attacking line onto Halfpenny.

Instead, the ball is shifted on by Henshaw without really fixing anyone.

Halfpenny does much the same, as Williams and Gibson are able to continue drifting hard. While that pair are working across from the inside, wing Duffie knows he can now bite down on Elliot Daly [red arrow below].

Backfield

Duffie can do so because he knows he has cover behind him to take the last man and use the touchline as an extra defender, forcing Payne over that touchline.

We can see that Stephen Perofeta is fulfilling that role in behind [yellow], and though Payne goes very close to scoring, the Blues’ defence survives.

Had the Lions’ inside backs been more clinical in fixing defenders in midfield, they could have ended up with the scenario whereby Duffie had to bite further in the line and deal with Halfpenny, therefore leaving Elliot to draw in Perofeta and free Payne to score untouched.

Again, it’s an early chance in the game for the Lions backs to reward the fine work of their forwards but they lack the clinical element required.

The two incidents above are not the only two of this nature from the Blues game and this area will be a major work-on for the Lions in the coming weeks.

Looking back on the win over the Barbarians, we saw something similar to the above examples on a number of occasions, most notably when Stuart Hogg’s pass to Anthony Watson was inaccurate with the tryline in sight.

The Lions are doing well to create a handful of opportunities of this nature and if they are to compete with the All Blacks over the course of the three-Test series, as well as with the Crusaders and others, they simply must find a ruthless streak immediately.

With a potent-looking backline named for Saturday’s clash in Christchurch, hopes will be high.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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