nicked from elsewhere but I thought it worth a read.
From a Sports writer called Murray Kinsella
Lions: Breaking Down the Back Row
The Lions are lucky to be 1-0 up in the Test series, and Warren Gatland certainly needs to re-think his use of the bench, kicking tactics, lineout strategy and player selection. One area in particular that needs a change is the back row.
The balance in the first Test just wasn’t right. Many critics have highlighted Tom Croft as anonymous, while others are suggesting Sam Warburton’s lack of carries as reason to drop him. The stats that are freely available can be misleading, so I’ve taken a detailed look at each the back row’s performances.
The Leinster man turned in an excellent performance, with a huge work-rate. In attack, Heaslip made 10 carries for around 30 metres. In the tight, his leg drive was impressive as he eked out every possible inch. On the two occasions he got possession in midfield, he made big gains, busting a tackle the first time and making an offload the second.
When he wasn’t carrying, Heaslip didn’t hang about waiting for the ball. He was involved in 16 attacking rucks. Seven of those were accurate cleanouts; one was ineffective; he leeched onto attackers twice to aggressively drive them through contact; conceded one penalty; and was ‘guard’ at five rucks (meaning he didn’t clear anyone away but protected the ball).
Heaslip made six passes over the course of the 80 minutes. It was interesting to see him used as first receiver, from where he either popped the ball to forward runners outside him or made a longer pass back to Sexton. These passing skills are one of the areas where Heaslip is slightly ahead of Toby Faletau.
At the lineout, the No. 8 was an important part of the jigsaw. He claimed four throws, all at the front. Again, his lineout ability nudges him ahead of Faletau.
Heaslip was superb defensively. With nine (two assisted), his tackle count wasn’t the highest but his impact was immense. Three of those tackles were dominant, where he either sent the attacker backwards or into touch. He also managed to strip the ball from James O’Connor inside the Lions 22.
All in all, this was a complete display from Heaslip and he deserves to keep his place.
It’s becoming popular to question Warburton’s contributions and I can understand that. I’m a big fan of Justin Tipuric and would love to see him start at 7, but I feel that some of the criticism leveled at Warburton is over the top. On Saturday, he did his job and should keep his place for the second Test.
In attack, Warburton contributed three carries for a total of eight metres. All three of them were in midfield. We will come back to that. In the Lions’ attacking phase play, the captain was involved in 22 rucks. 12 of those were effective cleanouts; one was ineffective; one saw the Lions awarded a penalty; one saw them concede a penalty; and in seven of them Warburton acted as the ‘guard’.
Helping the Lions win the breakdown is Warburton’s main function, and he did well in attack. Defensively, referee Chris Pollock ruled out any chance of turnovers meaning Warburton only had five half-hearted efforts at stealing Wallabies’ possession. The second Test will be a truer illustration of Warburton’s ability at the breakdown.
The Lions captain kept himself busy in defence, with 17 tackle involvements. Seven of those saw him assisted in the tackle, with the majority of the rest being low one-on-one tackles. Warburton did miss two tackles, but neither resulted in Wallaby points.
At the lineout, Warburton didn’t catch any ball, but he contributed two lifts. Elsewhere, he made a partial block down of a Genia kick early in the second half.
Warburton’s role for the Lions is to make tackles and be the first to the breakdown. He did that job well and has done enough to keep his place in the starting team. If the Wallabies add George Smith to the mix, things get a lot more interesting.
Croft’s main strengths are his lineout excellence and his pacy running game out wide. Starting with the latter, the Englishman delivered, with four clean takes on the Lions’ throw. Three of those were at the front, with one catch at the tail. Job done in the lineout.
Unfortunately for Croft, he only got one chance to show his running game out wide and he took it poorly. With around 20 minutes to go he finally got space but it ended with a forward pass to O’Driscoll and a wasted opportunity. In total, Croft made 6 carries for 30 metres. The rest of them were in midfield or in tight, where Croft isn’t particularly effective.
In defence, Croft made 10 tackles (three of which were assisted). That looks good on paper, but his tackles lacked impact. The Englishman missed at least two chances to smash Wallaby attackers. On top of that, his decision making for Folau’s second try has to be questioned. He shot up out of the line, but didn’t tackle anyone. The try certainly wasn’t his fault alone, but he should have done better.
Likewise for the first Folau try, when he shot up on James O’Connor and created space either side of himself. In this instance, he needed to at least block O’Connor’s progress. In his place, Dan Lydiate or Sean O’Brien would have put a shoulder on O’Connor. For me, Croft just lacks that aggressive edge.
Supporters of Croft often mention that his breakdown work isn’t appreciated, but that wasn’t backed up by his display on Saturday. In 24 ruck involvements, just seven were effective cleanouts. Six of them were technically poor; four were weak leeches where his lack of aggression showed up; and seven saw him acting as ‘guard’.
Overall, I don’t think that Croft did enough to keep his place in the team.
O’Brien or Lydiate the Answer?
Between Warburton and Croft, there were eight carries close to the rucks and in midfield on Saturday. If O’Brien can come into the team and be the guy in those positions, the Lions are likely to get over the gain line more regularly.
Furthermore, O’Brien’s threat in attack would draw defenders to him and free up space for others. It usually takes two men to bring him down, and that would mean one less defender harassing Mike Phillips or marking George North out wide.
However, Dan Lydiate is a tempting option for Gatland in a potential role as stifler-in-chief of Will Genia. Lydiate could certainly perform that role expertly. The big Welshman also contributes plenty of clean-outs. His excellent discipline is another advantage over O’Brien.
Either way, Gatland needs to change the back row and my preference would be to see O’Brien in the starting team, with Lydiate coming off the bench for the last 20 minutes.