Lions series reflections: The day of the Faz

Nicholas Bishop Columnist

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    At the Allianz stadium in North London, home of European champion club Saracens, the core of the faithful have a unique way of assisting attempts on goal by their own kickers.

    They close their eyes, extend their arms in mock supplication and look to inspire with ‘spirit fingers’ tingling towards the ball.

    Typically, their head-wear of preference is the fez.

    It is doubtful whether this concentration of psychic energy has ever really helped Owen Farrell boot a goal over the back dot. But the influence of Saracens as a club on Owen’s father, the British and Irish Lions defensive mastermind Andy Farrell, is much less open to speculation.

    It is where ‘Big Faz’ first cut his teeth as both a rugby union player and coach. After a long and distinguished career in league, during which he became the youngest-ever Great Britain captain and twice won the coveted Man of Steel award as the outstanding player in the UK, he finally crossed the border between the codes in his thirties.

    His best years as a player were well behind him, but his frustrations only fed his desire to succeed as a coach. Midway through his spell as defence coach of England in the Stuart Lancaster era (2011-2015) he was shrewdly enlisted as Lions defence coach by Warren Gatland for the tour of Australia.

    The Lions won that series and they only conceded four tries over the three Tests in the process of doing it. Wind the clock on another four years, and Faz has managed to pull off the same trick in a much sterner rugby environment Down Under.

    New Zealand 2016 (v.all) v.Ireland (2016) v.Lions (2017)
    Tries scored (average per game) 5.71 3.5 1.67
    Points scored (average per game) 40 25 22

    Of the four games (out of 14) in 2016, in which the All Blacks were held to scoring less than 30 points, two of those occurred against Ireland with Farrell as their defence coach.

    Against Ireland, New Zealand managed 61 per cent of their average try- and points-scoring expectation over the whole of the year.

    With better quality personnel to work with, Farrell went one step further with the 2017 Lions. They allowed seven tries in their six Saturday matches in New Zealand, and only conceded five tries in the three Tests.

    New Zealand’s five tries represented less than one-third of their total against the last Gatland-managed team to visit New Zealand, Wales in June 2016. Then, the All Blacks had scored 16 tries in three games against the Welsh rush defence coached by Shaun Edwards.

    It is not as if Farrell’s defence was not under any pressure. With New Zealand enjoying 58 per cent territory and 60 per cent possession over the three games and emerging from the overall penalty count five to the good, the All Blacks had most of the ball they wanted in the right attacking positions on the field.

    It is no exaggeration to say that the coach who made all the difference to the performance of the 2017 Lions was Farrell. He is the outstanding defensive planner and coach in world rugby. Without him, the Lions would not have come near to drawing the series, and the seeds of Gatland’s excellent tour management skills would have fallen on stony ground.

    The restarts from the final Test at Eden Park provide some excellent examples of how Farrell’s defence never allowed the All Blacks to enjoy an undisputed advantage from the ball they won back from kicks or turnovers.

    New Zealand have always been world leaders at creating unstructured attacking opportunities from kick-offs, and the way in which they went about their business at Eden Park made for fascinating viewing.

    The first All Blacks’ restart occurred in the 21st minute of the first half:

    There are threats spread wide to both sides of the kick-off in the first frame at 20:44. The 6’5” frame of full-back Jordie Barrett has been added to the tight forwards on the left, while #8 Kieran Read is split out towards the near-side touch-line alongside Israel Dagg to provide options on the other side.

    This formation has already forced the Lions into some uncomfortable defensive adjustments. Two the Lions best aerial athletes (Liam Williams and right wing Anthony Watson) have been drawn across to the (New Zealand) right to cover the threat of Read and Dagg, which means that all of the Lions back three are effectively defending on one side of the field.

    The kick-off is short left, with Jordie Barrett cleverly inserting himself into the space between Maro Itoje and his intended rear lifter (Tadhg Furlong) to win the ball back. It was one of two occasions where the All Blacks used Barrett’s height to repossess ball straight from the KO during the game.

    As soon as the ball is spun out to the All Blacks’ right, a situation of real danger has been created for the Lions at the first breakdown (20:54). Watson has been absorbed in the tackle, Daly is in line close to the ruck and Liam Williams has dropped back into the left half of the backfield.

    This leaves #12 Owen Farrell out on his own near the right-hand touch, contemplating the tackle he might have to make on Julian Savea, if ‘The Bus’ should receive the ball in space. When Savea does get the ball directly from a Beauden Barrett cross-kick on the next play, all Farrell can do is watch in admiration as Savea races away down the left side-line.

    It is here that the quality of the Lions scramble defence asserts itself. The line has been broken, but none of Farrell, #1 Mako Vunipola or #9 Murray (coming from the far side of the field) have given up on the play. By the time Savea has ploughed Liam Williams out of the way, Farrell is back in position to make a tackle while Vunipola and Murray are saturating the inside support lanes so there can be no killing offload (21:07).

    This was a recurring theme throughout the game:

    In the first sequence, as Beauden Barrett is tackled by Williams after making the intercept near the New Zealand goal-line, the All Black support (with Laumape and Savea closest to the ball) is in prime position to continue the movement and score:

    But by the time Laumape has been run down by Jonathan Davies, Anthony Watson has overhauled Savea (after spotting him a five-metre start) and is blocking the critical support channel

    The Lions’ ability to scramble and own the support channels was one of their many defensive virtues. They made concrete and sensible adjustments as the ‘chess game’ from Kiwi restarts developed in the course of the match:

    After the initial disaster in the 21st minute, the Lions have adapted, with Daly moving back to the left and Antony Watson now positioned at fullback on the right-hand side of midfield as Liam Williams catches the KO under pressure from Kieran Read.

    The contest between Read and Williams under All Black kick-offs was one of the most compelling of the micro-dramas threading the game. Williams wins this one, and at the beginning of the second half, he earns a penalty after Read is hauled back for obstruction when the KO fails to go ten metres (see the highlight reel at 40:02). Elliott Daly kicked the goal from fully 55 metres out to get the Lions back in the match.

    The dénouement to that drama had the grandest of implications for the result of the series as a whole. With the scores locked at 15-15 and less than three minutes to play, New Zealand again kicked off with the intention of giving Read an aerial one-on-one with Williams:

    We were well aware of Kieran Read’s tendencies in these situations in the England camp as long ago as 2012. He tends to ‘sail’ into the receiver at the very end of his reach, and this can mean a heavy contact with the opponent in the air:

    (England-New Zealand 2012, @33:25 on the clock.)

    In this example, Read is over-extended and sails into Joe Launchbury as he goes up for the ball. Launchbury ends up on his back with the wind knocked out of him. Referee George Clancy gives England a penalty, explaining that Read was “in the air way too early” and that the contact is dangerous, while the two (New Zealand) commentators assess it as a fair contest for the ball.

    A similar scenario arose on Saturday evening. Read contests the ball at the very outermost limit of his reach and the impact of the challenge knocks Williams all the way back from the ‘L’ in Life to the ‘n’ in Standard. The challenge has at best to be at the edge of legality, but in this instance referee Romain Poite allowed it (even after review).

    It also has a critical spin-off effect, by propelling Williams back behind the point of the catch so that it appears (but only appears) that Ken Owens has caught the ball in front of him. In fact, the ball has gone backwards off Williams, and it first makes contact with Owens between the ‘r’ and ‘d’ of Standard – which in turn renders the whole argument about whether he is offside moot. Play should have been allowed to continue, at least once Poite had decided not to penalise Kieran Read for a ‘charging foul’.

    Summary:
    If a drawn series can truly belong to anyone, it has to belong to Andy Farrell, who had the outstanding coaching impact of anyone on the two rival teams throughout. Saturday at Eden Park was indeed the ‘Day of the Faz’.

    Farrell has done what very few believed was possible – to restrict a try-happy New Zealand side to under two tries per game in a three-match series. It was his defence which kept the Lions in the hunt when all the key stats (territory, possession and penalty count) went against them.

    I am happy that the outcome of the series was not decided by a refereeing technicality (and an incorrect one at that). I have not always been enamoured of Poite’s style of refereeing, with its brutal punishment of technical offences at the scrum, but at Eden Park he went against type, awarding four penalties in twenty scrums and only 14 penalties in total.

    At the same time, he followed the example of Nigel Owens (in general) and Craig Joubert (at the 2011 World Cup final) in staying out of the way at the critical time of the game, awarding just three penalties (one kickable to each side) in the final quarter.

    It was not a series that deserved to be resolved by technical penalty. The five-to-four try count over the three games is probably a fair reflection of the All Blacks’ slight superiority, but tactically they never confounded the Lions beyond repair, and they never broke their spirit. A draw was an honourable result.

    The Faz had an awful lot to do with that.

    Nicholas Bishop
    Nicholas Bishop

    Nick Bishop has worked as a rugby analyst and advisor to Graham Henry (1999-2003), Mike Ruddock (2004-2005) and most recently Stuart Lancaster (2011-2015). He also worked on the 2001 British & Irish Lions tour to Australia and produced his first rugby book with Graham Henry at the end of the tour. Three more rugby books have followed, all of which of have either been nominated for or won national sports book awards. Nick’s latest is a biography of Phil Larder, the first top Rugby League coach to successfully transfer over to Union, entitled “The Iron Curtain”.

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