Lions Spread GroupIn the first five parts of this series I’ve looked at the potential players for the Lions and Wallabies and showed you some brief glimpses of what we might see from the Lions in attack. Today to finish the series I’m going to look at the Lions probable attack system.

Every international team uses a system in attack – with so much emphasis on the improvement in defences it’s not viable to use an unstructured attack plan where players “play what’s in front of them” and just react to what the defence is doing and effectively make it up as they go.

The equation many seem to believe regarding the 2013 Lions in attack is:

Lions = Wales = Conservative, direct attack

The first part of that equation is valid but the second part ignores the fact that Wales are not a conservative team in attack.

I’ll offer a different equation to describe the Lions in attack:

Wales 2008-2009 = Lions 2009 = Wales 2009-2013 = Lions 2013 = Balanced attack between direct and expansive attack

The Welsh attack system has been the same for many years and it’s quite basic. Descriptions of how it works go something like this – either kick the ball down field or a) crash ball from Jamie Roberts; b) forward pods running close to the ruck same way across the field for a few phases; c) ball passed behind a screen of three forwards and try to get it to their big wingers on the opposite touch line; and d) repeat a) to c).

Yes, you see all of those elements in the Welsh attack system and yes, their system hasn’t changed much for years but there’s more to it than that. The system is basic and it’s very similar to the systems used by many other international teams – there’s no revolutionary stuff included but who tries to be revolutionary with their attack system in international rugby? That approach just wouldn’t work – you have players coming in from various teams who have all been playing with different attack systems and calls and you have to get them working together in a reasonably short space of time.

Therefore you keep things basic and work on developing combinations within the system as quickly as possible – that process is made easier if the system you’re using is the same or similar to what’s been used by the group of players in the past.

In the case of Wales they’ve been reasonably successful in the last six years – no doubt they would have liked better results against Sothern Hemisphere teams but they’ve won three Six Nations tournaments since 2008, two of which included grand slams. As a result Welsh players have made up the majority of the 2009 and 2013 Lions squads so it’s no surprise that Wales have retained a pretty similar attack system for some time and that the system was largely adopted by the 2009 Lions team.

I think an attack system consists of two parts – firstly the pattern, which defines where you want to go on the field – an example of this is the Crusaders wide-wide attack pattern where the ball is moved from touch line to touch line repeatedly to try and stretch the defence. The second part is the structure – what sort of shape is used (or where do players position themselves) to move the ball according to the pattern – an example is the Waratahs use of a three man pod of forwards in the shape of an arrowhead which is repeated within their pattern.

I’ve broken the video today into two parts – Part A looks at the Welsh attack system with examples from matches in 2012 and 2013 including the final match of the Six Nations that Robbie Deans has said showed the direct attack we’ll see from the Lions. You’ll see that the structure they use involves two groups of players that I’ve called the ‘Punch’ and ‘Spread’ groups – the Punch group normally consists of forwards but can include backs when required and the Spread group normally consists of the backs but can include forwards.

You’ll see that the pattern is the Punch group playing directly at the opposition defensive line until space opens up wider for the Spread group – if space doesn’t open up the Punch group keeps working the ball the same way phase after phase across field until the far touch line is reached. Then the aim is to move the ball back the other way to the Spread group. As I said – nothing complicated or different to what you see at most levels of competitive rugby.

Part B of the video looks at the Lions on the 2009 tour to South Africa and you’ll see the similarity between the attack system they used to that of Wales.

I know people generally prefer short, sharp videos on the Internet but with so much content to discuss these videos are longer than usual – hopefully that doesn’t put you off. The original cut of the video was 47 minutes long with so many examples of this attack system I could show you.


You’ll see that the Punch group can receive the ball from either the #9 or the #10 but it is preferable to have that group fed by by the #9 so that the #10 can stay out with the Spread group ready to receive the ball on the next phase and feed them.

One important thing with the use of an attacking system is that if an opportunity arises that is outside the system, players need to drop the system immediately and take advantage of the opportunity that has been presented – you don’t get enough opportunities to ignore them for the sake of staying true to a system you’re using.

The system used by Wales and the Lions on the 2009 tour is based on the ball being moved away from the ruck but when the opposition defensive line starts to spread to counter this, they will break out of the system and play directly using pick and drives to drag defenders back closer to the ruck – this is the direct play people refer to and no doubt we’ll see that from the 2013 Lions as well whenever the Wallabies spread out and leave space around the ruck.

Can we expect to see a similar attack system from the 2013 Lions to what I’ve shown in the videos? It would make sense – with a large number of players from Wales and a large number of players from the 2009 Lions tour expected to make the Lions test team the use of a system that they’re used to would help in getting combinations working faster. No doubt there will be some variations as you don’t want to be too predictable but I expect we’ll see the same basic system.

Since preparing the videos and drafting this article we’ve seen the Lions play the Barbarians in the tour opener last night and although the Barbarians defence in the final two thirds of the match was so poor that the match opened up, in the first twenty minutes we saw the same attacking system I’ve described here in use by the Lions. Just watch the first possession the Lions had in Hong Kong to see it in use.

Knowing what’s coming and being able to defend against it successfully are two different things. The Wallaby coaches and their team of analysts will have been all over this attack system for months so despite Robbie Deans making public comments that he expects the Lions to play direct, conservative rugby I doubt that’s what they’ll really be planning for.

  • Lewis

    Great article. Interesting that only one try was scored in both videos though. Does this indicate that the majority of Wales/Lions tries come when they break out from this system? Or does it just show that the games have been typically low on tries?

    • Scott Allen

      Plenty of tries scored in those games but picked the clips that best show the point I’m trying to make.

      The purpose of a system is to open up opportunities so yes, probably find most tries scored once the defence has been broken down and then you encourage players to break out of the system and take the opportunity presented any way they can.

  • stevo

    Scott, is this similar to the Tahs’ attack this year?

    • Scott Allen

      Yes, just a variation. All Blacks use something similar again.

      In fact I reckon if you look at most teams you’ll find a bit of this system in their play. There are only so many systems that you can design that are simple, yet effective.

      • JeremyBC

        So true. I think there are just subtle differences how the punch and the spread are applied. The actual system is the same.
        For example, the All Blacks “punch unit” in 2012 used the pattern of two short passes from the ruck to quite good effect until it was read well and negated by the English.

  • Gnostic

    Saved the best for last Scott great stuff.

    The Lions will I believe execute far better than Wales so the Wallabies narrow wins over Wales cannot be relied upon Also the weaknesses in the Welsh team that the Wallabies have beaten will not be present in this BIL side, and there will also be a massive belief that I think has been absent from the Welsh side. The only weakness I see in the Lions is the lack of back-up 10. I do not rate Farrell that highly to execute the spread plays and that view was reinforced last night.

    • taffythebeermonster

      Wales have frustratingly failed to ever get anywhere near their best XV on the park together against the Wallabies in the last 5 years. Ironically, all their best players (other than Priestland) are available for this BIL tour!

  • Bairdy

    Appreciate the effort you put into these articles Scott, especially to inform the less intelligent rugby masses such as myself!

  • Vinnie Gorham

    bloody hell your good scott! you need to be wallabies analysis man

    • Scott Allen


  • Vinnie Gorham

    watching these two actually make me think just how boring and structured rugby can be lol

    • Scott Allen

      Our game has become defence dominated and attack systems are now such an important part of the game to try and break down those defences.

  • Deez

    This is why I love this site. Thanks Scott – cant wait for the series to begin!

  • Rodrigo Rezende

    Scott, this is great reading. Thank you mate!

  • pants

    The obvious question is, what is the wallabies attack system? Has it progressed from “play what’s in front of you”?

  • Patrick

    Gee Scott you should get an AO for this. Or a seat on the Wallabies coaching staff!

    Thanks, it’s awesome stuff and really appreciated.

  • Red Beard

    When Gats coached Waikato in 2006 they played a similar style. Off set piece, the ball would be moved across field via miss pass to far touch line. Back four of scrum would be first to resulting breakdown followed by second pod (numbers 1,2,3,4). Working as pistons both pods would attack channel between 10 metre line and touch line. Once channel had been exhausted and defending team were commited around fringes, Donald would call for the ball and set backs alight. Players I spoke to said it was the simplest game plan they had ever been given and loved it. Waikato won the Air NZ Cup that season.

  • Cramps

    What a tremendous series Scott, thank you!

  • Bloke from Germany

    Agree or disagree it is great to read a thoughtful and thought through analysis-

  • Martin

    Anyway to see the 47 minute cut? Very interested!

  • Murray Kinsella

    Excellent work Scott, really enjoy this kind of analysis.

    I thought the 2009 Lions were actually over-committed to moving the ball the same way after using the spread group. They used up the remaining 5-10 metres nearly every single time, and i thought they actually missed a couple of chances by trying as hard as possible to use every single metre of space going one way.

    I think this year’s Lions will be less likely to do this with Sexton at outhalf. He’s better at seeing space and mismatches than Jones was in 2009. I reckon he’ll spot more opportunities than Jones did, and the Irish man is very assertive when he wants the ball.

    There was times in 2009 when Phillips actually had to wait for forward runners to get around the corner to ensure they used up the 10 metres left near the touchlines. It’s obviously better to have quite a defined game plan when a team comes together in such a short space of time, but with Sexton involved, the Lions attack will be more varied. (I hope!)


Scott is one of our regular contributors from the old days of G&GR. He has experience coaching Premier Grade with two clubs in Brisbane.

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