big hits

Analysis: The defensive passage that drove the Lions to their Wellington win

The likes of Jamie George, Jack McGrath, Maro Itoje and Kyle Sinckler all fronted up.

72:53 ON THE clock and with the scoreline at 21-21, the All Blacks have an attacking lineout on the left just in front of the Lions’ 10-metre line.

While they are a man down, the Kiwis have a chance to build towards a try or at the very least another shot at goal, having drawn penalty after penalty from the Lions’ defence in the second half.

Taulupe Faletau celebrates scoring their first try with teammates The Lions' defence came up with the goods late on. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The tourists have produced several huge hits in the game, but what follows is by some distance their best defensive passage of this tour.

Tasked with fronting up to the All Blacks in moments of extreme pressure, Andy Farrell’s charges send them backwards and force the turnover that allows them to build towards their match-winning penalty.

Stopping the first phase

One of the biggest defensive issues for the Lions ahead of the third Test is how often the Kiwis got over the gainline from set-piece platforms in Wellington.

We’ll come back to this issue in a separate piece, but it’s worth underlining that the Kiwis consistently hammered over the gainline on first phase from scrums and lineouts – one of the main reasons the Lions’ discipline fell apart.

However, in this instance, the Lions make an immediate impact.


Brodie Retallick wins the lineout for the All Blacks and they play off the top.

Jamie George [circled in white below] is the Lions’ ‘tailgunner’ – the player at the back of the lineout who acts as what the lawbook refers to as the ‘receiver’ and looks to be the first defender to meet the attack.


As we can see in the clip above, George initially sets up in the lineout, but some clever reading and re-arranging from Jack McGrath sees the Ireland prop move to the back and free George to act as the tailgunner.

That proves to be important as the All Blacks – once again – go to a powerful ball carrier directly from the set-piece in a bid to get straight over the gainline.

Rieko Ioane is the man tasked with getting the All Blacks going forward in this instance, but he is hammered by the Lions.


Ioane runs hard at George’s inside shoulder, but he might reflect no whether he could have used his excellent footwork to get to the hooker’s outside shoulder [as indicated above] and run at the seam between George and the advancing Johnny Sexton.

The All Blacks looked to get outside the tailgunner frequently in this game, but Ioane goes hard at his inside shoulder in this instance.

George and McGrath, who works across from the back of the lineout, make him pay.


George’s tackle technique was exceptional throughout the second Test and he gets it right here once again, dipping in low to target Ioane’s legs [white above].

The Lions hooker wraps his arms around Ioane’s legs and immediately takes away his power, with McGrath arriving in high on the All Blacks wing [yellow] to wrap up the ball and help George to lift him up and backwards with pure aggression.

As the front row pair dominate Ioane in the tackle, Sam Warburton sniffs a possible turnover opportunity.


Warburton scurries over to the contact area in typical fashion but he loses his feet as the tackle goes to ground and referee Jerome Garces tells him, “Leave it, six!”

Warburton obeys and the All Blacks recycle.

Double team

The Lions get lucky on the next phase as they appear to jump the gun and come up offside.


Replacement tighthead Kyle Sinckler is the man the All Blacks appeal against and he is certainly tiptoeing along the borderline.

He does back away, however, and Garces is happy to play on.

Kieran Read is the ball carrier off scrum-half TJ Perenara and now we see another of the hits that was so lacking in the Lions’ first Test defeat.

Hit 2

It’s Sinckler and Courtney Lawes who combine this time and they both hit high on Read’s upper body as they look for another dominant shot.

They both dip rapidly just before the contact, ‘loading’ themselves to explode upwards through the hit.

Sinckler Lawes

The kind of utter aggression that was missing at times in the first Test is present in this moment, with the Lions desperate to send the All Blacks backwards.

Again, Warburton is alive to the opportunity created by a dominant tackle and he swoops towards the breakdown [white below].


That means Perenara has to commit to the breakdown too [yellow] and that in turns results in slow ball for the All Blacks, a ruck of four seconds and certainly not the kind of lightning-quick ball the Kiwis thrived off in Test one.

Ardie Savea picks and jams on the next phase, using his remarkably powerful leg drive to eke back a couple of metres for the All Blacks, but they are still some four metres behind where the lineout attack began after Sean O’Brien, George and Warburton ground him


And on phase four, the Lions continue to press hard.

4 Phase

This time, Read moves the ball away to his left after Perenara passes to him, but that doesn’t slow the Lions’ linespeed.

Itoje reacts wonderfully and accelerates forward to meet Anton Lienert-Brown, who himself has accelerated hard.

Itoje Spot

There is a sickening collision as Itoje gets his left shoulder onto Lienert-Brown and although the Lions lock slips off him, he has rocked the All Blacks centre.

We then see the Lions’ work-rate and sheer desperation to make tackles shine through as Taulupe Faletau dives in low around Lienert-Brown’s legs.

Faletau Finish

Again, loosehead McGrath wraps the ball carrier’s upper body and the Lions take the tackle to deck for further defensive gains.

Savea makes a decent surge on the next phase, but Itoje and Warburton bring him down and then it’s a chance for one of the backs to make an impact.

No hesitation

Sexton, starting as the fourth man out from the ruck and appreciating that the All Blacks are hoping to make gains in narrow channels as they did in the first Test, races up to shut down Codie Taylor.


The key here is that there is no hesitation from Sexton.

Whereas the first Test saw defenders just hesitate and slow when they got to positions like the one Sexton is in below, therefore allowing the All Blacks to use their excellent footwork, Sexton keeps on coming.

Sexton .

Sexton takes the tackle to the All Blacks, whereas in the key moments of the first Test the Lions had allowed the Kiwis to dictate the physical contests.

Backfield cover

Suddenly, the All Blacks realise that they are going nowhere and they look for the kicking option.

Perenara glances into the backfield as he approaches the ruck and then Aaron Cruden drops in behind it in order to buy himself time for a possible kick.


When the ball arrives into Cruden’s hands he has time to kick the ball and we can see that he is scanning the backfield for space.


Obviously, the Lions’ linespeed plays a part in him opting not to kick in the end, but it’s also worth noting how Gatland’s side have filled the backfield throughout this passage of defence.

So when Cruden looks up, he sees something like the representation below.

Back Three

Cruden [22] is on the ball and as he looks up he sees that Anthony Watson [red 14] is covering deep to his left, while Liam Williams [red 15] has the middle of the pitch covered and Elliot Daly [red 11] is hanging back deep right.

It’s full backfield cover for the Lions and this is where their numerical advantage after Sonny Bill Williams’ red card tells.

They can afford to drop an extra body into the backfield at all times, with the All Blacks less likely to be able to attack wide with their 14 men.

That said, the Lions’ wings are disciplined in moving to join the frontline when the threat of a wider attack is there.

In the instance below, Watson is moving forward as the All Blacks have threatened to move the ball to their left wing.


And below, Daly comes forward as there is a threat of the All Blacks shifting to ball to that wing.


So it is in this particular instance that Cruden cannot locate the kick space and he suddenly feels the pressure from the advancing Itoje.

Cruden attempts to sidestep past him, but Itoje makes the kind of tackle he is superb at. The Saracens lock excels at making tackles while coming forward at pace and it’s one of the reasons he is so good on kick chase.

While Cruden offloads to Lienert-Brown, the centre is stopped dead by another double tackle from Lawes, who goes low, and George, who hits high.


As we see above, O’Brien is even able to target the breakdown again and though Charlie Faumuina clears him out efficiently, it underlines how much more opportunity the Lions’ aggressive defence provided them in this passage.

Folding, communicating

The All Blacks go to Wyatt Crockett for a one-out carry on the next phase, but he is stopped dead by Itoje and Sinckler for no gains.

As that is happening, we should note another strong element of this passage of defence – how the Lions numbered-up and worked hard to fold.


In the image above, we can see that Sexton, McGrath and Lawes are already working hard to fold to the Lions’ right [red arrows] even as Crockett is being tackled.

Jonathan Davies [white] is communicating for them to go, having looked up in front of him and seen little attacking threat from the All Blacks on his side, while Conor Murray [yellow] is doing to same having looked up and seen numbers in the Kiwis’ attacking line on his side.

Again, it’s basic stuff, but something the Lions did superbly through this passage.

It means that when the All Blacks play to the left on the next phase, the Lions have enough bodies in position to make yet another good tackle.

Toby Tackle

It’s Faletau who chops in low to take out Read’s legs, with McGrath assisting once again and then combining with the arriving Warburton to bring more breakdown competition.


Garces warns the Lions pair away but it’s more slow ball for the All Blacks and with the chants of ‘Lions, Lions, Lions’ now deafening in Westpac Stadium, the Kiwis are having to fight desperately for every inch.

Intelligent reading

Savea brings another good contribution on the next phase with a tip-on pass, but we see intelligence in the Lions’ reactions here.

Drop SOB

Itoje is the man tasked with tackling first receiver Savea and as he advances slightly ahead of his team-mates, the All Blacks are essentially looking to target the space in behind him.

Scott Barrett is the man running onto Savea’s pass and we can see that he runs diagonally in behind Itoje to target that space.

But O’Brien and Sinckler read the situation perfectly as they drop into the space behind Itoje to plug the gap.

SOB Sinck

The All Blacks do still get over the gainline but it’s good reactions from the Lions defence once again, and then we see more breakdown competitiveness from Warburton.

He has just come from competing at the previous tackle and he’s still hungry for more, clamping down onto the ball after Barrett is grounded.


Once again, Garces tells him, “No, six” but the extra second Warburton adds to the ball is important as it allows the Lions to get set for the next phase.

They are in good shape to the fringe of the ruck and finally the All Blacks make the error that gives the Lions the turnover they’ve been seeking.


It’s the inexperienced Ngani Laumape who spills the ball forward, eager as he is to make a dent in the defence and help the All Blacks to move forward.

The Lions scoop up the ball a minute and 13 seconds after the initial lineout throw and while they can’t create a turnover attack chance, their thrust from the subsequent scrum leads to Sinckler drawing the match-sealing penalty.

While Farrell had to hold his nerve to slot the three points, the Lions will believe it was this defensive passage that secured them the opportunity to send this series to the final Test.

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