As the 6 Nations nears, focus in Northern Hemisphere (“NH“) rugby will switch from national selection to Lions selection. The 6 Nations is an opportunity for players to stake a claim and prove themselves. However, is the starting point individual ability or is it playing style and combinations with the start of the selection process?
Traditionally a strong set piece has been the Lions starting point. However, there are emerging signs that blend fluency, go-forward with continuity and work off the ball might just be key to defeating the All Blacks.
These are all All Black qualities, but are there signs in NH rugby that the Lions can adopt this approach, rather than a pragmatic “field position” style?
Ireland’s half success against the All Blacks and the playing style of Irish provincial rugby teams suggests there is merit in a change of approach.
Leinster and Munster both play a style of remorseless pressure rugby both in attack and defence. There is:
• A fluency in their play
• Emerging young players, i.e. Ringrose, bring a skill set that compliments and adds to the style
• The units within the team are comfortable with the style
• The players are comfortable with each other
• Players in the provincial and national teams are go-forward players by instinct
• They work hard off the ball to sustain and build pressure
• Kickers only kick when necessary. They don’t run out of patience and kick!
• Players in the squad have played in a team that has beaten the All Blacks
• There is an alignment between the National team and the provincial teams, a sinew of understanding.
Will this approach exploit All Black weaknesses?
Both Argentina and Ireland had success taking the ball into contact then using any one of numerous tackle contest options to keep the ball going forward quickly, close to the re-cycle, easy yardage was gained.
Both ball carrier and arriving support players will need to recognise the value of quick off the ground re-cycle and go –forward ( rip and run) to get ahead of the All Black back row and create an offside line that forces other All Black players to run back first!
If we continue down this school of thought then selection leans towards certain players and quickly discards others.
To beat the All Blacks at their own game the Lions will need a very raw uncompromising back 5 in the scrum. Mobile, athletic, high octane players, tough physically and mentally. Its early days but Gray, Mahoney, Itoje, Toner and Tim Swinson (Glasgow) all jumped on that trailer.
Having mentioned Glasgow, sadly Gregor Townsend is not the Lions backs coach. He has produced a squad that recognises traditional Scottish virtues, a squad that runs hard, is uncompromising, relentless, and if you want evidence of an understanding of how to play the game, look at centre Dunbar’s work rate to get back, rip the ball off his team mate, and get the team going forward again. (Glasgow v Munster Jan 15th 2nd minute!).
Gone are the days when the Welsh backs were a shoe in…and we selected the rest.
Injuries and surprise results, the emergence of young players, the demise of established players will all come out of the 6 nation’s cocktail.
To beat the All Blacks at their own game would go a long way to towards re-establishing a global playing style, with less focus on foul play and safety and more on excitement and entertainment.