The biggest moment of the 2nd Test between New Zealand and the British and Irish Lions came in the 24th minute when Sonny Bill Williams was red carded for a dangerous hit on Anthony Watson. That event was outwith All Blacks’ head coach Steve Hansen’s control but he took immediate action to steady the ship. He moved to plug the gap in his side’s backline, withdrawing Jerome Kaino for Ngani Laumape and leaving New Zealand to play out the remainder of the match with a 7 man pack.
This surely would have been a pre-planned and prepared decision from a coaching staff that will have covered all possibilities in the weeks leading up to this series. On the face of things it’s a decision that makes perfect sense. A six man backline would expect to be heavily exposed out wide and vulnerable to spending all evening chasing a Lions’ kicking game dominated by Sexton and Farrell. Was it necessarily the right choice though?
A review of games across rugby’s top level competitions (Aviva Premiership, Champions Cup, Pro 12, Super Rugby and Top 14) and Test matches involving a Tier One nation provide some interesting data on the win rates of sides who play a man down in the backs or the forwards.
There were 22 first half red cards over the past 2 seasons in these matches. Half of these were for forwards and half for backs. When a side had a forward sent off their final results were:
Forward sent off – W4 D1 L5 *
Back sent off – W7 D1 L3
The raw data conceals a couple of interesting nuances though. In the matches where Saracens’ Schalk Brits and Montpellier’s Davit Kubriashvili were sent off their respective coaches were forced to make a change to bring on a replacement front row at the next scrum. In both cases a wing was withdrawn when the substitutions were made to leave a full complement in the pack. Mark McCall also took the same approach when Richard Barrington was carded just 10 minutes into his side’s game with Exeter. Sean Maitland was hooked and Saracens managed to eke out a draw. Updating the information to reflect this gives the following:
Played man down in forwards – W2 L5
Played man down in backs – W9 D2 L3
In matches where a side played a forward down from the first half onwards they lost 71% of the time. In matches where a side played a back short from the first half onwards they only lost 21% of the time.
The only games won by a side with a 7-man pack came from the Lions (who lost Robin Coetzee but still hammered the hapless Southern Kings) and, arguably the only significant victory against the odds in these circumstances, from Ireland who overcame South Africa in their 1st Test of the summer of 2016. It makes that triumph all the more remarkable for its rarity value (but did it then contribute to fatigue among the Irish as they ultimately lost the series 2-1?)
Weighed against that are wins for these sides who played for more than half the match a man down in the backs:
Bristol (v Worcester)
Castres (v Pau)
England (v Argentina)
Grenoble (v Brive)
Montpellier (v Castres)
Munster (v Glasgow)
Saracens (v Gloucester)
Scarlets (v Leinster)
Stade Francais (v Munster)
Forwards will make the majority of the carries, tackles and ruck entries for a side (as an example Glasgow Warriors last season saw their forwards with 54% of the carries and 68% of the tackles). Taking out a member of the pack leaves a similar workload but spread across 7 sets of shoulders rather than 8. The sides above who’ve won while lacking a back have been able to use tactics like a strong drift defence and careful positioning on kick receptions to minimise the damage of being a man short.
Apart from Rhys Webb’s very late consolation score in the opening Test, New Zealand hadn’t conceded a single other point in the final 20 minutes of their last 7 home fixtures. In the closing 21 minutes of this match they gave up 15 points (and the win) to the Lions. Instead of controlling the game late on, or pulling away as they are so used to doing, the All Blacks ran out of steam, fading off tackles and finding themselves knocked back in collision with their opponents. The additional effort expended arising from playing without a blindside flanker for 56 minutes must have contributed to that fatigue, added to which was a much higher than usual reliance on their bench forwards.
Ultimately conditions dictated that, apart from a few rare occasions, this was a match played with little width. The All Blacks ability to retain possession and control territory (even with just 7 in the pack) left minimal opportunities for the Lions kickers to push the home side back into their own half. With Kaino on the pitch until the 60-65 minute mark would the New Zealand pack’s workload have been more evenly spread? Might they have been able to resist for those vital extra minutes that could have clinched the series on Saturday? If things don’t turn in the hosts favour in the final Test this will be a decision that Steve Hansen will look back on for many years and wonder – what if?
* (Note there were 11 red cards but only 10 match results as the Jaguares had 2 forwards ordered off in the same game.)