warren gatland lions

When  Warren Gatland took up the role of Ireland Head Coach in 1999, his style of play was immediately recognised around the world for its use of complete power play for 80 minutes. But how effective has this plan been across the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour to Australia?

Let’s start with the obvious: what does ‘Warrenball’ consist of? The media-dubbed ‘Warrenball’ style of play involves the use of players who favour a style consisting of complete power and crash ball. The game plan requires quick ball from the base of the breakdown and for pods of forwards to crash the ball into the opposition’s defensive line. From here, the ball is sent wide very quickly to expose the gaps left as the opposition have been sucked in by the crash ball. In theory, it works very well.

From the initial announcement of the 37 man squad to tour Australia, it was clear to everyone what his plan was: to use ‘Warrenball” against the supposedly small Australian back line (until Israel Folau was discovered, that is) and to destroy their forward pack at the set piece: again, another supposed area of weakness for the Wallabies.

However, Gatland completely underestimated the Australian forward pack: had he forgotten that an understrength Australian outfit had ripped apart Northern Hemisphere powerhouses England and France during the Autumn internationals, with a side missing stars such as David Pocock, Will Genia and James Horwill? England and France are two sides who pride themselves on the strength of their forward packs, not just in the loose but also around the park, and to see them ripped apart was a shock to both sides.

So, how did the plan work in the warm up games? The plan worked well in Hong Kong against the Barbarians, despite the sweltering heat and the ridiculously high humidity levels, as the Lions comprehensively beat a star-studded line up against them, with big performances coming from captain Paul O’Connel, Mako Vunipola, and Mike Phillips; all are players whom epitomise the type of players Gatland requires to make sure his plan works.

Against Western Force and the Melbourne Rebels, arguably the two weakest Australian Franchises, the Lions brushed them aside easily, as the powerful running from the likes of George North and Tommy Bowe, and big forward performances from Dan Lydiate and Sean O’Brien was too much for the opposition to cope with. Against a massive, although depleted, Waratahs outfit, the Lions stepped it up a gear and an outstanding performance from Jonathan Davies saw the Lions home. However, the flaws of the plan were exposed, as poor defence from the Lions saw the Waratahs waltz through to score their first try, which was extremely frustrating from a Lions’ fans perspective, as it was a second row who galloped 20 metres and then collapsed over the line like a felled tree!

There was times however, when shear power did not work. In the pouring rain in Queensland, the Lions struggled to adapt to the conditions and scraped home thanks to smart work at the base of the scrum from Ben Youngs who scrambled over. The Lions really struggled to deal with the dynamo that is Quade Cooper, who terrified the Lions with his expansive and outrageous passing game and his fearless ability to run the ball from deep at defences, which led to the Reds diving over for the first try of the tour. Had Robbie Deans dropped his personal vendetta against Cooper, then he could have caused even more headaches for the Lions, and potentially even won the series for the Wallabies.

The Brumbies game was also a time where the Lions failed to adapt to the game in front of them, and suffered an extremely embarrassing loss, when missed kicks cost them dear. It did not start well when Gatland called up an entirely new back line from around the world, with Brad Barritt being shipped in from Disneyland, Christian Wade from Argentina, and worst of all Shane Williams from Japan, which is hardly the most competitive standards of rugby. The Brumbies sent out a physically huge side, missing all of its Australian stars, and immediately exposed the defensive frailties of the Lions, and they opened the scoring after brushing off feeble tackles from Christian Wade and Stuart Hogg. The Lions failed to adapt their style, as they still tried to sent power runners through the middle, but this was ineffective, as the Brumbies counteracted the power presented to them by putting in some monstrous hits and stopping the Lions from crossing the gain line. The failings of the plan was highlighted when in the middle of the second half, when a woeful long pass from Stuart Hogg ended up behind Billy Twelvetrees. Twelvetrees regathered, and was met by a wall of white and yellow jerseys. He tried to run the ball through them, but was sent crashing into the Canberra earth. Frustrating at the very least.

So, to the tests, where you’d expect the Australians to have worked out the style of play of Gatland’s men. In the first test, the Lions struggled to break down the determined Australian defence, until a moment of magic from George North shifted the momentum in the Lions favour, as he brushed off four weak tackles and sprinted away to the line. The power players from each side dominated the game, with Folau showing sheer speed and then gorgeous footwork to cross over for two tries and Alex Cuthbert hitting a superb line to cross over the second try. However, the impact players on the Lions bench failed to have any impact, and would have cost the Lions the game with their consistent penalties had Kurtley Beale had his studs on. So far, the plan had mixed success.

In the Second Test at the Etihad in Melbourne, despite the electric atmosphere bouncing off the roof of the stadium, the game was rather flat as the power of the Lions was extremely ineffective, as they failed to make any line breaks. Repeat, no line breaks. This is awful, especially when the Lions back line contained some of the best backs in the northern hemisphere, if not the world. The defence was solid, but finally 75 minutes of resolute tackling was broken when James O’Connor used his dancing feet to commit the defence and unleash Adam Ashley-Cooper for the test winning score. In this game, the power failed miserably, as the Lions struggled at the set piece and the break down, and then in attack they were completely ineffective, although the one moment of magic came yet again from George North, when he picked up Israel Folau, ran with him and dropped him on the ground, much to the delight of the crowd.

I arrived at the team hotel in Sydney on Thursday before the third test, unknowing of the fact that they were there. When I found out that they were staying there, I was very lucky to be able to collect autographs and chat to players that I personally idolise, such as Manu Tuilagi, George North, Tom Croft, Mike Phillips and Jonathan Davies. Only then do you get a true sense of actually how massive these guys are, particularly with how muscular they are. You then realise why Gatland has adopted this strategy, as the modern game has such a massive emphasis on players being tall and muscular, and he has been extremely sharp in adapting his game plan to the requirements of the modern game. What’s more is how relaxed these players are, as they’d happily pose for photos, chat to fans and sign shirts. This was epitomised at midday on game day, when Adam Jones signed my Lions shirt, posed for a photo with myself and then proceeded to chase his two year old daughter around the lobby of the hotel. He then proceeded to have a storming game in the third test only 8 hours later.

In the third and deciding test at the Olympic stadium in Sydney, the plan was brilliantly executed, after Gatland got his selection right, bringing in big game players such as Sean O’Brien, Toby Faletau, and Alex Corbisiero. The power in the scrum was immense, typified with Ben Alexander being sent to the sin-bin after 25 minutes for repeated infringements, and never returning after being tormented by Corbisiero. In the second half, the power blended perfectly with the pace and raw talent, all typified in the three second half tries. Jamie Roberts had a great game back from injury, creating good quick ball by getting over the gain line, and scored a great try by taking a great line through James O’Connor and Christian Leileifano to cement the win. Gatland should receive great credit for taking some big selection gambles, primarily picking Jonathan Davies over Brian O’Driscoll, which proved a big success; and Richie Hibbard over the impressive Tom Youngs.

In conclusion, I feel that the ‘Warrenball’ style of play has been extremely effective over the 2013 Lions tour, although the style has it’s short failings,  as sometimes it is unable to adapt to the game or conditions in front of it sometimes. Gatland must address these issues if he wants to try and achieve the mantle of the greatest coach of all time.