Taken from The Times Newspaper 12/3/16
England’s opponents today have spent five years honing a special weapon that could bring the bulldozing No 8 to a shuddering halt, writes John Westerby
Top of Wales’s to-do list at Twickenham today will be to cut Billy Vunipola down to size. The England No 8 has been standing tall as the outstanding ball-carrier in the RBS Six Nations Championship this year, looming large in the thoughts of Shaun Edwards, the Wales defence coach, but England’s opponents are confident they possess the instrument to succeed, where other teams have failed, in scything Vunipola down.
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Their weapon of choice will be the chop tackle, devised by Edwards before the 2011 World Cup, honed since then by Dan Lydiate to the extent that it has become one of the most feared defensive weapons in the game. “Dan has become world-renowned for his chop tackle,” Sam Warburton, the Wales captain, said. “People have started to copy him and teams have adapted their style to play against him, but he’s hugely influential.”
Here is how the chop tackle works, when executed to perfection. From a low position, Lydiate, the blind-side flanker, launches himself horizontally towards the knees of the onrushing attacker, lower than for a conventional tackle, his arms whipping around the ankles. As the ball-carrier’s legs are taken from beneath him, he falls headlong to the ground. He goes down quickly, too, like a tree being felled, the speed of the fall impairing his ability to present the ball to his team-mates.
And the reward? Precious milliseconds for Lydiate’s team-mates to exploit. Warburton, Lydiate’s hunting partner, will have anticipated the chop and made it his business to reach the tackle area first, ahead of the England back row, ready to pilfer the turnover ball that could set Wales on the attack. Lydiate wounds, then Warburton moves in for the kill. “Everybody knows the qualities of Dan Lydiate as a world-class tackler,” Robin McBryde, the forwards coach, said. “Then there’s the ability of Sam to get in over the ball and feed off that. With the workrate of Taulupe [Faletau] as well, it’s the balance of that back row.”
Chopping is at its most effective against powerful, top-heavy ball-carriers, such as Vunipola and James Haskell, the England No 7. The tactic was devised by Edwards in preparation for the pool matches in the 2011 World Cup, when Wales found themselves drawn to face South Africa, Samoa and Fiji, a relentless battering against the game’s most physical ball-carrying teams. Edwards saw that the bigger they are, the quicker they fall. “It’s about trying to get players to the deck as quick as we can,” Lydiate said.
The same rationale applies against England today. Wales are not smaller in many areas, but they are one and a half stone lighter per man in the back row. They will back themselves, though, to be quicker to the breakdown than Haskell, Vunipola and Chris Robshaw.
In some ways, the chop tackle is merely an expression of some rudimentary defence: the bigger they are, the lower you go. This is a time, though, when defence coaches are involved in an arms race to find new ways of stopping ever bigger athletes, an age of choke tackles and soak tackles, and over the past five years Lydiate has elevated his specialism to something approaching an art form.
It helps that he is blessed with a natural tenacity and strength, developed in his early years on the family farm in Llandrindod Wells. Leigh Jones, the former head coach at Newport Gwent Dragons, watched Lydiate making his way in the game and now, as a respected defence coach, who worked for Japan at the World Cup under Eddie Jones, he has seen him become one of the world’s best. “Dan’s always been phenomenally strong and incredibly brave,” Jones said. “It wasn’t always the sort of strength that translated into the gym, but you could tell he was from farming stock because he has that functional strength that showed up in the tackle.”
It can be thrilling to watch Lydiate launching himself into action. As he sizes up his target around the fringes, he is coiled like a sprinter, one hand on the ground, one knee almost down, ready to propel himself horizontally towards his quarry. His shoulder is aiming just above the knee, his arms to cut away from the top of the socks, his eyes trained firmly on his opponent’s feet. Conditioning work has given Lydiate formidably powerful shoulders and biceps, equipping his arms to withstand the impact from an opponent’s legs.
“He has to plant your feet early to make the chop tackle, so the risk is that you’re vulnerable to a late bit of footwork and that’s what Eddie [Jones] will be telling his players,” Jones said. “But Dan’s become a great reader of where an attacker is going.”
In recent weeks, though, there has been a complication for Lydiate as his technique has been questioned by referees. Playing for the Ospreys against Edinburgh last month, he was sent to the sin-bin for failing to use his arms in a chop tackle, when he had gone low and caught the ankles of Anton Bresler. Lydiate seemed to have been harshly dealt with, although he was more culpable against France a fortnight ago, when he did not wrap his arms quickly enough around Guilhem Guirado and gave away a penalty near his own posts.
“I’ve just got to make sure now that I pay extra special attention when I go in that I’m using my arms,” Lydiate said.
Today, his attention turns to bringing Vunipola crashing back to earth. When the England No 8 attempts to build up steam around the fringes, watch Lydiate crouch, narrow his gaze and launch himself horizontally. If Lydiate’s aim is true, the green shoots of England’s revival will have been abruptly chopped away, just as they were starting to flourish.