The new buzz word amongst the Lions coaching management is ‘chaos’. Lions assistant coach, and attack guru, Rob Howley used the word to describe New Zealand’s lethal form of unstructured rugby nine times in Tuesday’s press conference.
But has he chosen the wrong word in helping the Lions to prepare for the challenges ahead?
If you watch highlights of the most lethal of the New Zealand Super 18 sides, the Wellington Hurricanes, who have just broken the all-time try-scoring record for the competition, the word ‘chaos’ does not seem to fit their play. Many tries are scored from the brilliant precision of the Barrett brothers, others by sweeping counterattacks, which showcase scintillating pace, skill and power. Reactivity? Sure. Outstanding skill and support play? Definitely. Chaos? Not so much.
The Crusaders, who have the second best attacking record in the Super 18, are even less chaotic, with multi-player accurate passing and phase play being the main characteristics of their play. The Highlanders feast on securing turnovers and mounting lightning quick counter-attacks, but this is a set in stone tactic -and certainly not chaotic. Only the Chiefs, who have enigmatic characters like Damian McKenzie, James Lowe and, to a lesser extent, Aaron Cruden, who might fit Howley’s description of ‘chaos’ rugby.
Perhaps the unstructured play of the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians has led to Howley’s misguided generalisation that New Zealand rugby style is homogenous. However, if the Lions do not adjust their tactics to meet the unique strengths and weaknesses of each Super 18 side, then this side will struggle, to say the least. Another theory could that the word ‘chaos’ was intended as a subtle dig at the New Zealand coaches, because what kind of coaching strategy is employed to teach ‘chaos’?
“We want to move ball and shift and create chances,” Howley said in the build up to the clash with the Blues. “To match the All Blacks you’ve got to display a bit of X-factor, and if that X-factor means an offload or something that’s a bit outside the box, then our players are encouraged to do that, because that’s what we’re going to need to do to beat them.”
The mention of an offload as something ‘outside the box’ is as clear a quote as any to show the difference in playing styles between the two sides. An offload in New Zealand is very much ‘in the box’ – attacking players expect to do it, defensive systems set themselves to defend it. If Howley and Gatland want to see an example of what works against New Zealand sides, they should revisit Liam Williams’ performance against the All Blacks in early 2016 and of course the historic Ireland win in Chicago. Swarming pressure, and absolute will and desire were the qualities that Williams and the Irish team possessed. The creative ‘chaos’ of the All Blacks and Hurricanes can be suffocated by pressure and mental fragility, but planning must be done to adjust to the makeup and strategy of each side the Lions face – this is no one-size-fits-all nation – or else the chaos may be reflected on the scoreboard.
Kaal Kaczmarek, Pundit Arena