The choice to leave out Josh Navidi from Warren Gatland’s initial 37-man Lions squad was one that not many predicted.
He was arguably Wales’ best player in their winning 2021 Six Nations campaign and he is more than capable of going toe-to-toe with the Springboks. Whilst the inclusions of Tom Curry, Taulupe Faletau and Justin Tipuric were all but certain, it was almost equally certain that Navidi would be included in the two remaining backrow spots on the tour. However, Gatland opted to include more mobile and attacking options in Jack Conan and Sam Simmonds in place of the Welshman.
He had the opportunity to go on tour when Justin Tipuric fell victim to injury. Navidi has been quick to assert himself with two commanding performances. The first was against the Sigma Lions where he amassed 16 tackles and a turnover. He had another solid outing against South Africa ‘A’. It was a typically physical effort from the Welshman, and he has catapulted himself into contention to start in the backrow against the Springboks.
So, what exactly would Josh Navidi offer as a backrow against the Springboks? and why is he potentially the best option at Gatland’s disposal?
Navidi’s most valuable trait is his physicality in defence. His presence alone is often perceived to making Wales play better. But how exactly does he do this? When you look at the numbers, Navidi has a remarkable ability to slow down the speed of the opposition’s attacking ball, therefore giving his defence more time and more of an opportunity to gain the upper hand in defence. Having investigated the speed of the breakdown in Wales’ Six Nations matches versus England and France, there was a stark difference in the pace with which the attacking team could recycle the ball when Navidi was involved versus when he wasn’t. To assess this, the time it took for England and France’s carriers to recycle the ball from the moment the player was tackled to the moment the 9 picked up the ball from the ruck and initiated the next phase was measured. This investigation found that Navidi was comfortably the best player in the Welsh team at slowing down opposition ball.
For example, the average time it took for the attacking team to recycle the ball without Navidi’s involvement was 3.6 seconds. The average when Navidi was involved was 5.6 seconds. Some rucks lasted up to twelve seconds solely because of Navidi’s interventions. His involvement at the contact area measurably slowed down the speed of England and France’s ball. He did this in a variety of ways.
Josh Navidi #101 – perfect Jackaling physique
The first, and most obvious method of slowing down England and France’s ball was by contesting for the ball at the ruck. Whilst, these jackal attempts were often unsuccessful by Navidi, he put himself in a position where England and France were forced to clear him out or risk being turned over. Navidi has the perfect physique for a jackal. Big, strong whilst also being compact and difficult to shift off the ball. His jackaling delayed the attack and bought the Welsh defence vital time to reorganise.
Welsh flanker employs effective Choke Tackle
He also executed the choke tackle to perfection. On multiple occasions, he displayed outstanding strength to grab the attacker in his vice-like grip and hold them above the ground, forcing other attackers to pile into the contact area to retain the ball. When he did this, the ruck speed would be as long as twelve seconds as opposed to an uncontested, clean attacking ruck which takes between one and three seconds. These additional ten seconds were vital for the Welsh defence as it prevented them from becoming disorganised and outnumbered as they always had enough time to set properly.
Employing these tactics to slow down England and France’s ball delayed the speed with which England and France could recycle the ball and launch the next phase of their attack. This gave the Welsh defence more time to organise themselves and create a more solid defensive platform. The benefits of this are best exemplified when you observe defensive sets that do not have this sort of intervention. In the lead up to Anthony Watson’s try, England were able to string together several rucks that were quickly and efficiently recycled. The Welsh defenders involved at the breakdown could not slow down the play in the same way Navidi could. There were no dominant tackles which forced England back and nobody was contesting at the breakdown to slow down the attack. This enabled England to recycle quickly, cross the gain line at will and inevitably create overlaps and weaknesses in the Welsh defence. It provided Watson a clean break and opportunity to score.
Wales was caught short on the blindside and it was the speed England’s attacking rucks prevented the Wales defence from spotting this mismatch and distributing their defence to cover this overlap. This demonstrates the importance of a defensive intervention at the breakdown to slow down opposition ball because when teams go through the phases quickly and efficiently, it inevitably creates vulnerabilities in the defensive line that are easy for top teams to exploit.
Even the most well-drilled and tactically sound defensive systems will be breached eventually because of consistent quick ruck ball. South Africa are more than good enough to punish defensive disorganisation, so it is up to players like Josh Navidi to prevent try scoring opportunities before they happen by slowing down the speed of attack and allow the defence to maintain its coherence. His involvement kills attacking threat at their source.
Having someone that can do that is crucial to the overall success of your defence. The Lions can employ the best defensive backs at their disposal, but it will mean nothing if the Springboks can recycle their ball quickly at will and expose the inevitable gaps in the Lions’ defence.
Navidi can display same qualities as past Lions heroes
The presence of Sam Warburton in the Lions’ team for the second and third test of the 2017 tour proved invaluable for the Lions. They were cut to pieces in the first test when they had nobody who could wreak havoc at the breakdown like Warburton. His presence measurably slowed down All Black ball and prevented the Lions from becoming overwhelmed in defence. It was his performance, where he employed similar tactics to Navidi, that was arguably most crucial in the Lions’ success in the last two tests. Josh Navidi is the best player at the Lion’s disposal to have a similar effect like this. The last thing they will want to see is South Africa’s terrifying strike runners such as Cheslin Kolbe, Makazole Mapimpi and Damian De Allende with the ball in their hands against an outnumbered and disorganised Lions defence.
The Boks have the weapons at their disposal to unlock even the most solid defence but an overwhelmed defence will be nowhere near good enough. By including Josh Navidi in the Lions backrow, they will enhance their chances of a series win against the Springboks.
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