How Crusaders stopped Lions' maul?
SUPER RUGBY AFTERMATH: The Lions most feared weapon heading into the final was their lineout maul, which they had deployed with devastating effect throughout this Super Rugby season.
They amassed 25 tries through their attacking lineout almost double the next best team (Crusaders scored 13). Their red zone lineout strike rate of 36.76% was only bettered by the Reds (40.0%), but considering they only had 20 attacking lineouts to the Lions 68, the South Africans proved over a larger sample size that they could yield results frequently.
The Crusaders own lineout, led by All Blacks Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett, and for the final few games of the year, Kieran Read, is more than capable in its own right in both attack and defence.
They possessed the best defensive lineout in the competition, allowing just one try following a lineout inside the 22. An Iron-clad resistance resulted in 96.3% of attempts failing to score a try against them from the lineout.
It was widely anticipated that this contest would hinge on the battle of the jumpers, especially inside the five. In the wash-up, it wasn’t even close. The Crusaders destroyed and dismantled the Lions most effective tool in the first half. After one more failed attempt early in the second half, the Lions opted to take a scrum on their next penalty, abandoning the lineout maul altogether.
So, how did the Crusaders do it?
The quality of their personnel makes their lineout one of the best in the game, no matter where they are on the field. They operate an aggressive defensive lineout strategy, looking to disrupt and dominate the opposition.
With the All Blacks locking duo of Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett controlling the middle, the Crusaders can compete on most throws. Both players are versatile jumpers and lifters, meaning they can switch the point of the jump quickly and perform either role as necessary.
When you add in Number 8 Kieran Read who also is a highly skilled lifter and jumper, the Crusaders can stack all three of them in a row in 5-man lineouts, and really cause headaches. This makes the short lineout a difficult option for the opposition, as the Crusaders have the ability to contest anywhere from two to four with a world-class jumper.
Blindside flanker Heiden Bedwell-Curtis is also another lifter/jumper type that the Crusaders often use in full man lineouts at two, and provides a versatile fourth cog to the array of schemes they can run.
In the final, they contested frequently for any lineout outside the mauling ‘danger zone’, and disrupted the Lions’ rhythm early. The first throw of the match was pressured by Sam Whitelock who made the correct read and got a tip on the throw.
The twin towers Franco Mostert and Marvin Orie are undoubtedly the go-to options for the Lions, with Orie a primary jumper at the front at two and Mostert stationing the middle. In full lineout situations, the Crusaders opted to stack multiple jumpers opposite them, and leave their third option Warren Whiteley mostly open at the tail, asking the question of Marx to test them at the back.
They decide not to compete to allow them to flood the base of the maul. On this occasion, they immediately unsettle the Lions by pushing the lifters off the spot, making Orie come down awkwardly. Watch as lifter Mostert (5) gets pushed backward while Orie is still in the air.
The Crusaders get better leverage by getting the lower drive, but jump the gun a little bit in order to do so, engaging before Orie hits the ground. The margin is small, but the ref could have penalised them for taking Orie in the air to set the boundaries early.
As the Crusaders get a good counter-drive going, Scott Barrett is forced into an offside position but proceeds to pull Orie’s leg, keeping him lifted and preventing him from finding stability in what was an illegal maneuver by Barrett. Orie’s protests to the ref go unanswered and the Crusaders stuff the first maul, winning a turnover.
The Lions were unlucky to lose possession on this occasion and didn’t get a ‘fair deal’ on their first lineout maul, but the Crusaders ‘flooding’ strategy illustrated how they would go about nullifying the Lions strength by refusing to compete and getting numbers to the formation point of the maul early.
The Lions can’t complain about their second maul attempt. The Crusaders delivered perfect maul defence, timing the landing well and pressuring the landing zone with three big bodies in a tight formation. Franks, Barrett and Whitelock crowd the space around Orie, getting into good position before he lands and start driving after he does, before either the lifters or Orie can get a low foundation.
The lifters are caught facing sideways when the counter-drive hits them.
The Lions are just beaten to the punch, and with leverage won, the Crusaders get them back peddling again. Delayed ancillary support from Codie Taylor and Matt Todd helps prevent the maul breaking off right and getting some second wind momentum.
The Lions were guilty of staying one dimensional, throwing to Orie at 2 with little variation from their first attempt.
Their third attempt moments later attacked the same spot, but this time with Mostert as the jumper.
Orie lines up at the 2 spot and performs a ‘slip’ (a jump-fake where he slips out the lineout) allowing Mostert to move forward and use the space. The ‘slip’ doesn’t get anyone to bite and Mostert is pressured again by the driving trio of Franks, Barrett, and Whitelock.
The Lions try a handoff to Whiteley to form a second maul, but again, delayed ancillary support from the second unit of Moody, Read and Taylor times their contact well attacking at the weakest point and keeping the pressure on. Whiteley’s transition to Kwagga Smith is also fumbled, delaying the ability of the Lions to get set.
The Lions revert to a 5-man lineout in the second half and run a nice disguise, using Whiteley at the back as a fake and having the halfback Smith move up into the lineout to lift. Despite having the Crusaders fooled for a split-second, they still recover and manage to form another tight trio in front of Orie, beating the Lions to the point again.
The Lions tried to attack the Crusaders at the front four times and failed four times, each time jumping at 2 and getting demolished by Franks, Barrett and Whitelock. The second unit and tail of the Crusaders lineout, Moody, Read and Taylor timed their involvement perfectly to keep the pressure building to man-handle the Lions pack.
The Lions didn’t attempt to form the maul against the tail, and only tried one peel variation that was fumbled.
After this failed attempt early in the second half, the Lions gave up on the drive and reverted to Plan B.
The Crusaders pack deserve enormous credit for nullifying the Lions repeatedly, beating them continuously to the focal point of the maul. Their unit worked together perfectly to blow the Lions off the spot and dismantle the team’s biggest asset, leaving them to try and find other ideas with most of the game gone.
by Ben Smith, Rugbypass