Will Owen assesses how the British & Irish tourists reaped the rewards of technical nous in the first Test against South Africa

Lions Analysis: Smart decision-making in contact

Despite South Africa’s dominance for large periods of the first Test on Saturday, it was the British & Irish Lions 2021 tourists who emerged victorious.

On the basis of their warm-up games, it would have come as no surprise to see Warren Gatland’s side play a fast, high-tempo game – but in an environment with little space and minimal line breaks, the Lions’ primary job was to match the Springboks up front, defend well out wide and kick well enough to find points.

Beating the Boks physically isn’t as simple as being stronger than them – a difficult ask against the likes of Bongi Mbonambi, Franco Mostert and Pieter-Steph Du Toit. The Lions had to pick their battles and utilise players best equipped for each collision.

Lions’ smart decision-making in contact

This clip shows a fantastic kick by Ali Price, which Duhan van der Merwe bats back to Courtney Lawes. Lawes carries brilliantly, beating the challenges of Willie le Roux and Pieter-Steph du Toit.

Spotting the threats of Siya Kolisi and Kwagga Smith, Lions Maro Itoje and Luke Cowan-Dickie bind tightly onto Lawes once he is tackled. Cowan-Dickie quickly pops to his feet to show the referee he is legal and Itoje gives Price a wide base from which to pass the ball.

Noticing these two forwards are already committed to rucking over, Tom Curry runs away from the tackle to offer Dan Biggar a decoy option on the next phase. Biggar throws a skip-pass to Stuart Hogg.

With no edge forward, it would usually be risky to go wide this early, but the Lions spot that the only breakdown threat is winger Makazole Mapimpi. Hogg carries the ball in and Daly, in conjunction with Anthony Watson, wins the ruck with no forwards wasted and all eight on their feet.

Daly and Watson aren’t as strong in contact as the forwards, but this is a good example of the Lions being smart in choosing when it’s worth the risk to go wide.

The next clip showcases Maro Itoje’s match-sealing turnover – another example of the Saracen’s technical nous.

As Rynhardt Elstadt carries the ball in, Itoje shoots slightly out of line, in front of Jack Conan and Hamish Watson. He opts to tackle high and hold Elstadt up.

Itoje then twists his body to block inside latcher Malcolm Marx’s path to the ball and steer the carrier away from outside latch Eben Etzebeth.

Despite the Boks’ attempts to drive Elstadt forward, Itoje’s body angle turns this into a 1v1 contest for the ball. Itoje shows the strength to hold Elstadt up for long enough to legally rip the ball free.

Itoje then dives on the ball to secure possession, and subsequently the match, for the Lions.

Itoje’s and the Lions’ tackle choice and distribution of forwards in these two clips are subtle but effective. They may not be as strong as the Boks, but they are astute enough to compete.

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