By Paul Williams
THE LIONS recorded their seventh victory in a five-try, 35-0 win against the Melbourne Rebels. It was an immensely comfortable win for the tourists, with the Rebels failing to score a point and securing just one kickable penalty – which they missed. The Lions secured 52% of the possession, 55% of the territory and their scrum was thoroughly dominant. Having received widespread criticism, the lineout functioned very well – they won 21 out of 23, with a highly respectable completion of 91.3%. After two early glitches, this provided quality possession with Richard Hibbard consistently hitting the middle and the tail. Fast, clean lineout possession coupled with an equitable approach to refereeing at the breakdown gave Owen Farrell the confidence to stand flat and consistently send strike runners over the gainline, with Sean O’Brien, Toby Faletau and Manu Tuilagi the notable recipients. Warren Gatland will be happy with that performance, but there is no more important number than zero – points the Lions conceded.
Ambitious passing and offload game
The Lions executed an expansive passing and offload strategy against the Rebels. Farrell stood flat and regularly attempted to hit runners in the wide channels. However, the most effective passes often came from a less obvious source. Sean O’Brien, Toby Faletau and Richard Hibbard regularly attempted short passes to supporting players. Whilst the passes didn’t always go to hand, when they did, they were effective. O’Brien’s inside pass to Manu Tuilagi started the break which led to Sean Maitland’s try. Encouraging the heavy carriers to pass before the tackle was a clever strategy. Big ball carriers set defenders, who have to set rigidly, with their feet wide apart in order to brace themselves for the impact. Failing to set properly can result in a player staring at the strip lighting on the ceiling of the medical room. However, a defender setting their body so rigidly means they are less flexible and unable to change their body position easily – hence passing to their left or right regularly takes the defender out of the game. Clever play.
The ‘invisibly’ impressive Lydiate
Dan Lydiate made 15 tackles against the Rebels, missing none. It was a master class in narrow channel tackling and matched the joint highest tackle count of any Lions player on this tour. Lydiate shares the record with…………himself. He also made 15 tackles against the Queensland Reds, yet Lydiate has received little praise on this tour. His selection on the Test bench was met with indifference. However, every team needs a Lydiate because anywhere between 40% and 60% of the majority of games are played without the ball. As they say, there are ‘piano players’ and ‘piano-shifters’, and Lydiate is unashamedly the latter. In fact, scrap that, Lydiate would make a terrible piano-shifter; he’d take it low around the legs and slam it mercilessly onto the floor. But he does make a devastating blindside flanker.
Farrell’s faultless goal kicking
Some have questioned Owen Farrell’s position on this tour. Many have opined that his tour has come four years too early and that his passing game and running game are not ready for this level of rugby. However, the same cannot be said of his goal-kicking. Against the Rebels, Farrell once again kicked 100% of his goal kicks, meaning that he has missed just one kick on tour. It has been an incredible performance with the boot and one that would surely be lauded if it wasn’t for the immaculate kicking of Leigh Halfpenny. As it stands there are no finer kickers in rugby than these two.
Last chance to impress
The Rebels game was the last midweek fixture of the tour and the final chance for players to press for a Test spot. From this point onwards all team changes will be dictated by injuries and tweaks to game-plans, and the chance to impress on the field, for the majority, is now over. If this was the last chance for players to put their hands up, then Ian Evans and Richie Gray literally did. Both locks won six lineouts each and Evans also stole three of the opposition’s throws. Deciding who gets the second-row bench spot for the second Test will be difficult. Richard Hibbard carried well and his lineout work was reassuringly accurate. Sean O’Brien once again blended powerful ball-carrying with a passing game rarely seen in players with his physique. But the most impressive display came from Toby Faletau; it was the complete, modern, back-row forward’s performance. Faletau doesn’t sit in the wide channels or hide in the narrow channels, he tackles and carries all over the field. He was the second highest tackler, the pack’s leading ball carrier and beat twice as many defenders as anyone on the field. If this was the last chance to impress, Faletau and O’Brien certainly did.