The bubble of hype that grew around Racing Metro after their summer of ambitious recruitment has burst due to several laboured performances in the opening rounds of the Top 14. Much of the individual focus has been on how Ireland and Lions outhalf Jonny Sexton is settling into a new league, but the struggles of Dan Lydiate have gone largely unmentioned.
Of course the fact that Lydiate is not yet standing out has much to do with the inevitable settling in time at a new club in a foreign country. However, it is also clear that the flanker is not yet comfortable with the role he is being asked to play on the pitch and that his teammates have not grown accustomed to his particular skills. With Wales, Lydiate is almost exclusively a defender. When his team has the ball, his role is mainly restricted to clearing out rucks, which he does excellently. At Racing Metro, the Welshman is expected to get his hands on the ball more often. French fans, coaches, presidents and sponsors want to see their marquee signings making big plays in attack. But Racing are not playing to Lydiate’s strengths.
What exactly makes Lydiate such a good defender? The fact that Paul O’Connell admitted to asking the 25-year-old to do individual tackling coaching with him during the Lions tour speaks volumes. Brian O’Driscoll was another to talk about how inspirational it was to see Lydiate’s defensive expertise up close during the tour of Australia. Both legends mentioned that tackling is an aspect of the game that Lydiate works on tirelessly. Lydiate is king of the chop tackle. There is simply no one who matches his ability to instantly cut defenders down by taking out their ankles. Anyone can throw themselves on the ground in front of an attacker, but Lydiate’s technique is more than that. The former Dragons’ back row is intelligent in his chop tackling, often preempting where the attacker will step next.
The chop tackle involves the vital element of surprise. Very often, the ball carrier simply doesn’t expect to be brought to ground so swiftly. Likewise, his teammates may be a split second off the pace in getting to the breakdown. When the chop tackle is performed effectively, the attacker hits the deck immediately and alert defenders can benefit greatly.Wales have adapted to Lydiate’s strengths wonderfully over the last three years. As soon as Lydiate gets close to an attacker, his teammates on either side are instantly switched on to the possibility of a turnover. Lydiate chops them to the deck and his Welsh teammates pounce on the ball, either slowing it or making a steal.
For the Lions tour of Australia, Lydiate was coming off a long injury spell and was not at his best. Another element that limited his effectiveness was playing with new teammates. While many of them were Welsh, it was a new set-up and not everyone was finely attuned to his tackling ability. The same applies at Racing Metro. Many of his teammates are still learning what he does, and how they can benefit from that. Lydiate is regarded as one of the best defensive players in the world, but there is a case for considering his strength as an attacking weapon too. Take a look at the video of his incredible performance against France in 2012, and note the Alex Cuthbert try in particular. That score comes directly from one of Lydiate’s expert chop tackles.
We always hear that attack is the best form of defence, but in this case can we say that the opposite is true?
Scoring in the early phases of possession is the key to rugby at the highest levels. Most tries are scored in five phases or less, and the interchange of possession is an excellent chance to score tries.Turnovers present a situation where the defence is unprepared and consequently vulnerable to a counter attack. A tackler like Lydiate provides his team with more chances for the sort turnovers that lead to try-scoring opportunities.
The idea is obvious enough. As soon as Racing Metro learn to benefit from Lydiate’s excellent tackling, they can provide turnover possession for their wonderful array of counter-attacking wingers including Virimi Vakatawa and Marc Andreu. Present those players with an unstructured defence and they will do damage.
Lydiate has plenty of adapting to do. Off the pitch, the change of language and culture are obvious obstacles to be dealt with. On the field, he will have to get to grips with a more prominent ball-carrying role. He has the physical attributes, intelligence and work ethic do that successfully. But just as the Welshman must adapt to Racing, they too must adapt to him.
Is the chop tackle a technique that coaches work on specifically? What do you think makes it an effective tactic? Is it important to combine the chop tackle with a range of other styles in your defence training? Feel free to post your opinions on Lydiate and the chop tackle in the comments section below.