Will Owen looks at the possible attacking structures the British & Irish tourists will employ in the Test series against South Africa

What system will the Lions forwards use?

As we approach the British & Irish Lions 2021’s opening Test against South Africa, both teams will be analysing each other’s weak points, habits and structures.

Rugby fans will also be speculating about how the Lions are going to play. Yes, we’ve seen them play several matches already, but in the majority of those Warren Gatland has kept the Springboks guessing by keeping his cards close to his chest.

We saw a similar theme on the 2017 tour, in which the Lions won only four of their seven non-Test matches. Likewise, in the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Gatland’s Wales played a simplified structure against Georgia, giving Australia little opportunity to predict their attacking patterns before they met in the pool stages.

There have, however, been two exceptions in 2021: the Japan game and the South Africa A game.

Against Japan, Gatland – and attack coach Gregor Townsend – tinkered with playing a 1-3-2-2 forward structure (one forward positioned near one touchline, two near the other touchline, then a group of three and a group of two in the middle).

Against South Africa A, Gatland’s men played a 1-3-3-1 structure (two groups of three forwards in midfield with one forward on each edge), but to a Test-match intensity.

The 1-3-2-2 structure used against Japan is a more modern structure than the 1-3-3-1; it is harder to perfect, and therefore one would assume Gatland wouldn’t have practised it if he wasn’t planning on implementing it in the Test series.

Reverting back to the simplified 1-3-3-1 in the so-called ‘unofficial fourth Test’ was likely a bluff by Gatland, giving his team a structure to play to without allowing Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber the chance to analyse the intricacies of it.

Let’s have a look at how each of these structures benefits Gatland ahead of the first Test in Cape Town on Saturday.

What system will the Lions forwards use?

The following clip shows a try scored by Tadhg Beirne – a skillful, athletic flanker.

He works perfectly as a wider forward in a 1-3-2-2 structure because he can pick good lines off his fly-half and centres, can offload well and is capable of winning rucks either on his own or in tandem with some of the smaller backs on his team.

The Lions play their first phase infield to a pod of three: Maro Itoje, Taulupe Feltau and Tadhg Furlong. As scrum-half Conor Murray sets to play the next phase, Jack Conan and Rory Sutherland reload on the left-hand side to form a group of two.

Dan Biggar shapes to utilise Ken Owens and Iain Henderson, a group of two, but Beirne, previously playing as a lone edge forward, sets his width and depth early and hits the gap outside the two. He times this to perfection and scores under the posts.

The next clip, from the South Africa A game, is a break that results in Tom Curry getting tackled. The Lions play their 1-3-3-1 structure, but elements of this shape are transferrable.

Playing behind a group of three (Kyle Sinckler, Wyn Jones and Josh Navidi) allows fly-half Owen Farrell to stand deeper and give his backs more time on the ball. This is because prop Jones is stood between Farrell and any South African defenders, acting as a blocker.

The move ends with Taulupe Faletau giving a crisp pass to Louis Rees-Zammit out wide, which is a role he can still be employed to fulfil in a 1-3-2-2 system.

Curry’s wide support line may also be indicative of him having trained as an edge forward, as opposed to playing in the middle.

The Lions have risked preparing very little of their 1-3-2-2 shape in the warm-up matches, but don’t be surprised if it makes an appearance in the Tests. At the expense of support runners, this structure will allow the likes of Curry, Faletau and Beirne more space to run in.

Will this backfire on the Lions? Does such a complicated structure require weeks of in-match preparation? Or can Gatland and Townsend trust their 23-man squad of world-class players to perform any role asked of them?

Only time will tell. All we do know is the Springboks will be hoping to exploit whatever they can figure out.

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