In Depth

Lions tour: What is 'Warrenball' and what's wrong with it?

Coach Warren Gatland exasperated with criticism of his tactics, as the tourists aim for 'rugby chaos'

British and Irish coach Warren Gatland has reacted angrily to jibes about his coaching philosophy after he was accused of coming to New Zealand to play "Warrenball".

With his team already under intense scrutiny following a poor performance in their opening warm-up game, Gatland was unimpressed with questions about his approach at a press conference ahead of the game against Auckland Blues.

"The Lions coach became exasperated at having to defend his acumen and flexibility as a tactician after Steve Hansen, the All Blacks coach, joined those who have criticised his approach," says Owen Slot of The Times.

But what is Warrenball and why is being used as a stick to beat the Lions with?

What does it mean?

Warrenball has become a pejorative term for a supposedly blunt, one-dimensional game plan based around the "crash-ball". It involves big runners in narrow channels using their size to try and burst through the defensive line and make yards.

Rightly or wrongly, the move, which has been employed for years, has become synonymous with teams coached by Gatland.

"The tactic most readily associated with Gatland is the use of a big ball-carrier at number 12," says Slot.

Where did it come from?

Gatland revealed the genesis of the expression in his press conference, naming coach Brian Smith, England attack coach from 2008 to 2011, as the man responsible.

"Look, a few years ago Brian Smith coined a phrase 'Warrenball' and I don’t know whether that was because he was jealous of how much success we had," he said.

"We had a group of players who came through Wales at the time who ended up being pretty big physical players. The modern game of rugby is about getting across the gainline, trying to get front-foot ball and playing to space if that is possible."

Is it a new idea?

No, big runners have always had a place in the game. One of the most iconic moments of the Lions' victorious tour of South Africa in 1997 came when Welsh centre Scott Gibbs bulldozed opposing prop Os du Randt.

Gatland's critics say he has no plan B and is not prepared to pass the ball enough, relying instead on a constant barrage of big runners trying to blast holes in the defensive line.

Does it work?

It can do. Gatland built a successful Wales team around "giants" such as Jamie Roberts, Alex Cuthbert and George North "running hard and direct", says Tom Hamilton of ESPN

Gatland has had a successful coaching career at club and international level and all his teams have been physical in attack and also defence, adds Hamilton. However, few people expect that approach to be enough against the might of New Zealand.

So is it a fair accusation?

That remains to be seen, but with so little preparation time, the Lions are unlikely to play a complicated brand of rugby in New Zealand and Gatland's choice of personnel suggests brawn will play a significant role.

"Gatland looks likely to stick with that policy on this tour," says Slot. "His two inside centres are Robbie Henshaw, the 6ft 3in, 16st Ireland player who plays [against Auckland Blues] tomorrow, and Ben Te'o, the 6ft 2in England centre who weighs 16st 9lb and played on Saturday."

Will that be their only tactic then?

Few believe the Lions will be able to beat the All Blacks with such a basic plan and big runners will not be the only weapon in their arsenal, says Robert Kitson of The Guardian.

"Far from relying on a simple crash ball approach on this tour, Gatland believes the Lions will have to vary their game if they want to win a series against the All Blacks for the first time since 1971," he says.

That may explain why Gatland is so bemused by the accusations against him. Indeed, Mick Cleary of the Daily Telegraph says the Lions want to adopt a philosophy of "rugby chaos" based around keeping the ball alive in the tackle.

"The unstructured  approach is an antidote to the one-dimensional ‘Warrenball’ label that the locals have pinned on this squad in anticipation of Warren Gatland using the direct gain-line tactics that have served him well down the years."

Coach Rob Howley has spoken of the need to offload the ball in the tackle, saying: "We want to be able to move the ball and shift it and create chances."

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