Analysing the Lions’ Back 3: Did Gatland Get It Right?
Rugby Union

Analysing the Lions’ Back 3: Did Gatland Get It Right?


On Saturday, the British & Irish Lions get down to the business end of their tour to South Africa, as they face the Springboks in the first of their three Test clashes. Both sides have overcome various challenges in the build up to this hotly anticipated series, with COVID causing late changes in team selection, kick-off times and even match venues.

Both coaches will have endured plenty of headaches specifically related to their respective squads too. Warren Gatland will have agonised over the make up of his Test team, trying to strike the perfect balance between experience, form, and positional combinations. Potentially the biggest concern for Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber is the lack of playing time the Springboks squad will have had in the build up to such a huge series. Or perhaps they’re not too concerned at all.

With South Africa not playing in the 2020 Tri Nations Series, there is a fear that many of the Boks’ Rugby World Cup winners have been bereft of meaningful game time since lifting the Webb Ellis Cup almost two years ago. But have the Lions players really benefitted from more competitive rugby than their South African counterparts?

Lions Squad All Minutes Since 2019 RWC Final:

PlayerEuropean Domestic LeaguesHeineken Champions CupEuropean Challenge CupTest RugbyBritish & Irish LionsTotal
Ali Price630202599592182068
Alun Wyn Jones480141711067341793
Anthony Watson13621302406281762536
Conor Murray67349906381661976
Courtney Lawes85528002912181644
Dan Biggar1064364808301602498
Duhan van der Merwe9872402407353202522
Elliot Daly50332009883262137
Hamish Watson8092403539912282621
Jack Conan69724001142121263
Ken Owens481551306181541438
Kyle Sinckler9093481538851722467
Liam Williams104800614159957
Luke Cowan-Dickie112359403371442198
Maro Itoje632320011361622250
Owen Farrell366160011122371875
Robbie Henshaw69267908271382336
Rory Sutherland253731447171841371
Stuart Hogg1587714010301603491
Tadhg Beirne71726805922511828
Tadhg Furlong22127104191891100
Tom Curry1471390010371633061
Wyn Jones5251062207521551758
Total171416714169017317432647188
Average745292737531882052

The 23-man squad to face South Africa has averaged 2,052 minutes of competitive rugby since the 2019 Rugby World Cup, equivalent to roughly 26 matches, compared to 1,431 minutes for the Springboks squad for the first Test, a tally that works out at around 18 80-minute games.

South Africa Squad All Minutes Since 2019 RWC Final:

PlayerEuropean Domestic LeaguesJapan Top LeagueSuper RugbyHeineken Champions CupEuropean Rugby Challenge CupCurrie CupTest RugbyEmerging SpringboksTotal
Bongi Mbonambi271032500339500985
Cheslin Kolbe158000772000802432
Damian de Allende142429702400001032064
Damian Willemse39007710045626571700
Eben Etzebeth14270046241040801834
Elton Jantjies18607880052717801598
Faf de Klerk182800304000702202
Franco Mostert70863102230080801722
Frans Malherbe2680542003403901189
Handre Pollard7840091380630976
Herschel Jantjies2430576002992671151
Kwagga Smith0945000059801084
Lood De Jager7010000000701
Lukhanyo Am3860691004830801640
Makazole Mapimpi8047039600000946
Malcolm Marx01122000030411193
Ox Nche3280807005055001690
Pieter-Steph du Toit32003860008043829
Rynhard Elstadt1784004380001172339
Siya Kolisi327010900278800794
Steven Kitshoff31806580037630601442
Trevor Nyakane14406570036041401242
Willie Le Roux01032000080551167
Total134974497670621142793963791107332920
Average587196292921217234471431

The difference almost solely lies in the amount of Test rugby the Lions have enjoyed over the last 20 months, with the tourists averaging over 750 minutes per player compared to just 34 for South Africa – thanks to a solitary game against Georgia in which 16 of Saturday’s 23 played in. In fact, ignoring Test rugby altogether, Saturday’s Springboks 23 have accumulated more minutes than their opposite numbers on average since the World Cup (although most Lions would have more domestic minutes if it weren’t for international duty).

Both sides might believe they’re in a stronger position given their respective game time since the Rugby World Cup. The Lions may feel they’re more battle-hardened, ready for a physically gruelling series, while the Springboks might argue they’re a little fresher and less at risk of burnout if it boils down to a third Test decider.

Warren Gatland will have struggled with plenty of selection dilemmas before deciding on the 23 men to take to the field in Cape Town on Saturday, not least in the back three. There will have been tight calls at every position in this year’s Lions squad but arguably the wing and full-back positions were the hardest to call. Below, we take a look at the strengths of the Lions back three options.

Per 80 Stats – 2021 Lions Tour:

NameAnthony WatsonDuhan van der MerweJosh AdamsLiam WilliamsLouis Rees-ZammitStuart Hogg
Total Apps344342
Total Minutes175320298159262160
Tries0.91.32.100.90
Carries8.29.58.18.66.110.5
Dominant Carries1.832.11.51.52
Gainline %0.590.780.770.410.650.33
Metres Gained9611671746978
Post-contact Metres915241194843
Average Gain5.332.44.43.53.7
Clean Breaks1.82.82.10.52.11
Defenders Beaten6.47.33.523.13
Offloads1.40.80.80.50.60.5
Try Assists0.50.30.310.31
Passes4.63.52.173.46.5
Kicks in Play0.90.31.90.53.12
Tackles2.33.32.41.53.41.5
Tackle %0.710.720.6910.791
Attempted Catches3.21.51.35.52.13.5
Catch Success %0.860.830.40.820.430.71

Anthony Watson

The England wing had a strong Six Nations and has continued where he left off on this year’s Lions tour, particularly in his ability to fight for extra metres after taking contact. Watson has averaged 91 post-contact metres per 80 minutes for the Lions so far in 2021, a tally no other player has come close to.

The Bath winger’s ability to use his excellent footwork before taking contact could be a crucial factor in the Lions getting front foot ball against South Africa – Gatland will know if the Springboks stifle his side’s ability to get across the gainline then the Lions will face an uphill battle to win the series. Perhaps that is exactly why Watson has been chosen in the starting XV for the opening Test.

Lions post-contact metres

Duhan van der Merwe

The Scotland winger had a long wait before qualifying to represent Gregor Townsend’s side last year but wasted no time in taking his club form to the international stage, beating 31 defenders in his debut Six Nations campaign, breaking Brian O’Driscoll’s long-standing record in the process. He’s since taken that ability to beat defenders from the navy blue of Scotland to the red jersey of the Lions. He’s beaten eight defenders in two of his four matches so far, a feat only four other players have matched since Opta have recorded this data for the Lions (since 2009), while his tally of 14 against the Sharks was comfortably the most in that time.

Similar to Watson, van der Merwe may have been given the nod based on his ability to get over the gainline. While the former uses his dancing feet to break through contact, the latter simply goes through defenders as if they weren’t there. Time will tell if the Worcester-bound winger can maintain his sky-high numbers against the number one team in the world.

Most Defenders Beaten in a Match by a Lions Player since 2009:

NameDefenders BeatenOppositionDate
Duhan van der Merwe14SharksJuly 10, 2021
Jamie Heaslip9ForceJune 5, 2013
Sean Maitland9Combined NSW-Queensland CountryJune 11, 2013
Anthony Watson9SharksJuly 10, 2021
Taulupe Faletau8RebelsJune 25, 2013
Duhan van der Merwe8StormersJuly 17, 2021

Stuart Hogg

The Scotland and Exeter star has shown his class over the years, his consistency in attack proven by the fact he’s already gained the most metres of any player in Six Nations history, aged just 29. So far on this Lions tour Hogg has shown his desire to get on the ball and make things happen – he’s averaged 10.5 carries per game, a tally only Jack Conan can better on the tour, while his average of 16.5 touches per game is the most of any non-half-back. Hogg’s desire to get into the line has seen him bag two try assists so far, despite playing just two games – one of eight Lions to assist multiple tries on this tour.

Six Nation since 2000 most metres gained

Josh Adams

For many it seemed that Josh Adams was nailed on to start in the first Test after crossing the try line eight times in his four games – averaging one every 37 minutes, the best rate of any player across any of the last four tours. It’s difficult to imagine the Welsh winger not seeing Test action over the next three weeks though, so his ability to sniff out tries could still play a huge role in the 2021 Lions tour. If there has been a weakness then perhaps it’s aerially, with Adams taking only 40% of his attempted catches – although it should be noted that he’s faced a relatively small number of kicks so far.

Louis Rees-Zammit

Despite being the youngest player on tour, Louis Rees-Zammit has played like a veteran, showing no signs of inexperience in the Lions jersey. ‘Rees-Lightning’ has shown a rounded skillset, proving he’s not just all about pace. The Welsh flyer has averaged more tackles per 80 than any other of his back three rivals, while still maintaining a solid 79% success rate, better than the three other wingers. He’s also put boot to ball more often than his fellow back three colleagues, showcasing a kicking game that is vitally important in Test rugby. Similar to Adams, LRZ has shown a slight weakness under the high ball, taking only 43% of his attempted catches, but his ability in attack more than makes up for any minor weakness.

Liam Williams

Equally adept at playing at wing or at full-back, Liam Williams has found himself on the bench for the opening Test against the Springboks, quite possibly for that specific reason. Williams is an incredibly well-rounded player who can be a devasting runner when given space but is also solid defensively – he’s only been required to make a few tackles on the tour so far (making 3/3) but had a 91% success rate during the 2017 tour, while aerially he’s made the most catches of any player on this year’s tour (nine) and failed with just a further two attempted catches for a success rate of 82%.

Williams has also proven himself as a man for the big occasion – Saracens fans will fondly remember his crucial turnover against Leinster in the Heineken Champions Cup final in 2018-19, while Lions fans may recall his elusive running on the 2017 Lions tour which saw him gain 344 metres, 89 more than the next best player (Anthony Watson, 255).

It’s easy to imagine all six back three players on this year’s Lions tour will see meaningful game time – with each able to bring significant strengths to the team. Perhaps the biggest challenge for any of them will be dealing with the threat of Cheslin Kolbe, arguably the most elusive man in world rugby, but it is a challenge they will surely relish.


Enjoy this? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive exclusive content each week.

Design by Matt Sisneros.