Analysing the Lions’ Back 3: Did Gatland Get It Right?
On Saturday, the British & Irish Lions get down to the business end of their tour to South Africa, as they face the Springboks in the first of their three Test clashes. Both sides have overcome various challenges in the build up to this hotly anticipated series, with COVID causing late changes in team selection, kick-off times and even match venues.
Both coaches will have endured plenty of headaches specifically related to their respective squads too. Warren Gatland will have agonised over the make up of his Test team, trying to strike the perfect balance between experience, form, and positional combinations. Potentially the biggest concern for Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber is the lack of playing time the Springboks squad will have had in the build up to such a huge series. Or perhaps they’re not too concerned at all.
With South Africa not playing in the 2020 Tri Nations Series, there is a fear that many of the Boks’ Rugby World Cup winners have been bereft of meaningful game time since lifting the Webb Ellis Cup almost two years ago. But have the Lions players really benefitted from more competitive rugby than their South African counterparts?
Lions Squad All Minutes Since 2019 RWC Final:
|Player||European Domestic Leagues||Heineken Champions Cup||European Challenge Cup||Test Rugby||British & Irish Lions||Total|
|Alun Wyn Jones||480||141||71||1067||34||1793|
|Duhan van der Merwe||987||240||240||735||320||2522|
The 23-man squad to face South Africa has averaged 2,052 minutes of competitive rugby since the 2019 Rugby World Cup, equivalent to roughly 26 matches, compared to 1,431 minutes for the Springboks squad for the first Test, a tally that works out at around 18 80-minute games.
South Africa Squad All Minutes Since 2019 RWC Final:
|Player||European Domestic Leagues||Japan Top League||Super Rugby||Heineken Champions Cup||European Rugby Challenge Cup||Currie Cup||Test Rugby||Emerging Springboks||Total|
|Damian de Allende||1424||297||0||240||0||0||0||103||2064|
|Faf de Klerk||1828||0||0||304||0||0||0||70||2202|
|Lood De Jager||701||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||701|
|Pieter-Steph du Toit||320||0||386||0||0||0||80||43||829|
|Willie Le Roux||0||1032||0||0||0||0||80||55||1167|
The difference almost solely lies in the amount of Test rugby the Lions have enjoyed over the last 20 months, with the tourists averaging over 750 minutes per player compared to just 34 for South Africa – thanks to a solitary game against Georgia in which 16 of Saturday’s 23 played in. In fact, ignoring Test rugby altogether, Saturday’s Springboks 23 have accumulated more minutes than their opposite numbers on average since the World Cup (although most Lions would have more domestic minutes if it weren’t for international duty).
Both sides might believe they’re in a stronger position given their respective game time since the Rugby World Cup. The Lions may feel they’re more battle-hardened, ready for a physically gruelling series, while the Springboks might argue they’re a little fresher and less at risk of burnout if it boils down to a third Test decider.
Warren Gatland will have struggled with plenty of selection dilemmas before deciding on the 23 men to take to the field in Cape Town on Saturday, not least in the back three. There will have been tight calls at every position in this year’s Lions squad but arguably the wing and full-back positions were the hardest to call. Below, we take a look at the strengths of the Lions back three options.
Per 80 Stats – 2021 Lions Tour:
|Name||Anthony Watson||Duhan van der Merwe||Josh Adams||Liam Williams||Louis Rees-Zammit||Stuart Hogg|
|Kicks in Play||0.9||0.3||1.9||0.5||3.1||2|
|Catch Success %||0.86||0.83||0.4||0.82||0.43||0.71|
The England wing had a strong Six Nations and has continued where he left off on this year’s Lions tour, particularly in his ability to fight for extra metres after taking contact. Watson has averaged 91 post-contact metres per 80 minutes for the Lions so far in 2021, a tally no other player has come close to.
The Bath winger’s ability to use his excellent footwork before taking contact could be a crucial factor in the Lions getting front foot ball against South Africa – Gatland will know if the Springboks stifle his side’s ability to get across the gainline then the Lions will face an uphill battle to win the series. Perhaps that is exactly why Watson has been chosen in the starting XV for the opening Test.
Duhan van der Merwe
The Scotland winger had a long wait before qualifying to represent Gregor Townsend’s side last year but wasted no time in taking his club form to the international stage, beating 31 defenders in his debut Six Nations campaign, breaking Brian O’Driscoll’s long-standing record in the process. He’s since taken that ability to beat defenders from the navy blue of Scotland to the red jersey of the Lions. He’s beaten eight defenders in two of his four matches so far, a feat only four other players have matched since Opta have recorded this data for the Lions (since 2009), while his tally of 14 against the Sharks was comfortably the most in that time.
Similar to Watson, van der Merwe may have been given the nod based on his ability to get over the gainline. While the former uses his dancing feet to break through contact, the latter simply goes through defenders as if they weren’t there. Time will tell if the Worcester-bound winger can maintain his sky-high numbers against the number one team in the world.
Most Defenders Beaten in a Match by a Lions Player since 2009:
|Duhan van der Merwe||14||Sharks||July 10, 2021|
|Jamie Heaslip||9||Force||June 5, 2013|
|Sean Maitland||9||Combined NSW-Queensland Country||June 11, 2013|
|Anthony Watson||9||Sharks||July 10, 2021|
|Taulupe Faletau||8||Rebels||June 25, 2013|
|Duhan van der Merwe||8||Stormers||July 17, 2021|
The Scotland and Exeter star has shown his class over the years, his consistency in attack proven by the fact he’s already gained the most metres of any player in Six Nations history, aged just 29. So far on this Lions tour Hogg has shown his desire to get on the ball and make things happen – he’s averaged 10.5 carries per game, a tally only Jack Conan can better on the tour, while his average of 16.5 touches per game is the most of any non-half-back. Hogg’s desire to get into the line has seen him bag two try assists so far, despite playing just two games – one of eight Lions to assist multiple tries on this tour.
For many it seemed that Josh Adams was nailed on to start in the first Test after crossing the try line eight times in his four games – averaging one every 37 minutes, the best rate of any player across any of the last four tours. It’s difficult to imagine the Welsh winger not seeing Test action over the next three weeks though, so his ability to sniff out tries could still play a huge role in the 2021 Lions tour. If there has been a weakness then perhaps it’s aerially, with Adams taking only 40% of his attempted catches – although it should be noted that he’s faced a relatively small number of kicks so far.
Despite being the youngest player on tour, Louis Rees-Zammit has played like a veteran, showing no signs of inexperience in the Lions jersey. ‘Rees-Lightning’ has shown a rounded skillset, proving he’s not just all about pace. The Welsh flyer has averaged more tackles per 80 than any other of his back three rivals, while still maintaining a solid 79% success rate, better than the three other wingers. He’s also put boot to ball more often than his fellow back three colleagues, showcasing a kicking game that is vitally important in Test rugby. Similar to Adams, LRZ has shown a slight weakness under the high ball, taking only 43% of his attempted catches, but his ability in attack more than makes up for any minor weakness.
Equally adept at playing at wing or at full-back, Liam Williams has found himself on the bench for the opening Test against the Springboks, quite possibly for that specific reason. Williams is an incredibly well-rounded player who can be a devasting runner when given space but is also solid defensively – he’s only been required to make a few tackles on the tour so far (making 3/3) but had a 91% success rate during the 2017 tour, while aerially he’s made the most catches of any player on this year’s tour (nine) and failed with just a further two attempted catches for a success rate of 82%.
Williams has also proven himself as a man for the big occasion – Saracens fans will fondly remember his crucial turnover against Leinster in the Heineken Champions Cup final in 2018-19, while Lions fans may recall his elusive running on the 2017 Lions tour which saw him gain 344 metres, 89 more than the next best player (Anthony Watson, 255).
It’s easy to imagine all six back three players on this year’s Lions tour will see meaningful game time – with each able to bring significant strengths to the team. Perhaps the biggest challenge for any of them will be dealing with the threat of Cheslin Kolbe, arguably the most elusive man in world rugby, but it is a challenge they will surely relish.
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Design by Matt Sisneros.