by BEN CAIRNS
THERE has been a lot of talk about how the Lions let two or three clear-cut try scoring opportunities slip through their fingers in the First Test last Saturday, and it must be hugely frustrating for the tourists that they didn’t manage to capitalise at those key moments. However, it feels too simplistic to say that this was purely down to a lack of composure, cohesion or skill – because to do so overlooks just how hard it is to finish off a try against a team with the fitness levels and awe-inspiring work-ethic of the All Blacks.
Perhaps this is best illustrated by taking a look at one of the two times the Lions did manage to breach the try-line, with that stunning 80 metre kick return in the first half. This will, quite rightly, go down in history as one of the great tries of any Lions Test series, and several red shirted players deserve massive credit for the role they played in the score – but it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as impressive if the All Blacks’ scramble defence hadn’t been so irrepressible.
The genesis of the try was one of the rare occasions in the match when the All Blacks let their focus slip, and the Lions did really well to capitalise.
Aaron Cruden had only recently arrived on the pitch and was still finding his feet. The boys around him were also adjusting to a stand-off with a completely different approach to the game compared to Beauden Barrett (who had switched to full-back), and you can see that they are not expecting him to kick in this situation because they are almost all in front of him. That wouldn’t have mattered if the ball had just run into touch near the corner like Cruden had planned.
However, it doesn’t, and instead New Zealand are now under a bit of pressure. They have a really poor chase line, only two players are in the front line and there is a lack of connection. This reflects badly on Rieko Ioane, who, as the left winger and the fastest player on the field, needs to work harder. He is a real talent with ball in hand but he is not always great off the ball. Codie Taylor, the hooker, leads the chase on the left side instead, while Ioane floats around in the background.
Then we see what I reckon is Kieran Read’s only real mistake of the game, which is ridiculous for someone who has played just three games all season and been out for the last eight weeks. He is easily the best player in the world, by a country mile, and has been for the last three or four years. However, even the greats can get carried away with the occasion and lose their composure. In this event I think Read has gone for the massive hit, he chases too hard and forgets all about paddling his feet to make sure he is balanced for Liam Williams’ step (which is superb). You can see by his reaction afterwards that he is annoyed with himself.
Two interesting things happen after Williams gets past Read. 1. His next challenger is Cruden, who doesn’t have the pace of Barrett, so Williams is able to arch past him. If Barrett is still at ten then I would have my money on the tackle being made and we’d be looking at a ruck right in front of the Lions posts and a clearance kick for touch. 2. Ben Te’o makes a really cute block on Sonny Bill Williams. So, instead of there being two pincers in on Liam Williams to kill this counter-attack before it has really got going, the pitch has opened up for the Lions.
Thereafter, the support play from the Lions is excellent – which was generally something they struggled with on Saturday. They made a few breaks, but the reaction of guys to get there wasn’t good enough.
On this occasion, Farrell has run an excellent support line, which creates an option for Williams on his right and keeps the All Blacks cover defence in two minds. We then get a great offload from Williams, a good in-and-out from Elliot Daly, and at this stage, against any other team in the world, you are looking at a Lions try as soon as the ball comes back inside to Jonathan Davies.
But the All Blacks have three men back there, which means Davies still has a lot of work to do, and he does exceptionally well to suck in all three black jerseys before sending Sean O’Brien crashing over.
The three screenshots on the slideshow below highlight the location of All Blacks’ loose-head prop Joe Moody during the passage of play leading to this try. Pic 1 – having set-up the previous ruck, he has got back to his feet and onside to chase Cruden’s kick. Pic 2 – he then makes it to the 22 by the time Liam Williams is initiating the counter. Pic 3 – astonishingly he has somehow got all the way back to cross the try-line just as O’Brien is diving over.
That is about 100 metres he has run in 26 seconds, at the end of a frantic first half. It might not be the sort of pace which is going to win an Olympic gold medal, but shows a remarkable work-rate. On this occasion, all that effort is to no avail, but it does demonstrate the All Black mentality to defending, and helps explain why the Lions struggled to finish off more opportunities – if one decision or piece of skill is not spot-on then there will always be a New Zealander back there ready to pounce.
Ordinarily, having worked so hard to create a chance, the Lions could expect a simple two-on-one to finish off the move, but against the All Blacks they invariably have to work two, three or four extra phases.
Looking ahead, Warren Gatland clearly feels he saw enough cutting edge in the First Test to justify rolling the dice in selection for Saturday’s potential series decider. He has gone for more mobile, dynamic players. They will look to contest at the breakdown much more and be less predictable, using different options and more width.
Maro Itoje had to come in to the starting fifteen after both second-rows were outplayed last week. He will bring massive work-rate and energy, and will contest the breakdown with his usual ferocity. Courtney Lawes on the bench makes complete sense, partly because of his performance on Tuesday but also because he will give much more impact than George Kruis would as the game inevitably opens up.
The contact area will be key again. The All Blacks are the best in the world at generating quick ball from the ruck. A lot of the time you could say it is illegal because they are just launching themselves off their feet into it, but because it is so quick and accurate the ball is away before the ref has had time to think about blowing his whistle, and before the opposition have had a chance to compete.
Another ploy the All Blacks use to speed up their ball is tackling the tackler. The Lions wanted to get their opponents running into space between two defenders, so that both their players could work to hold the ball-carrier up and create a maul situation – but when that happened New Zealand’s next two players smashed the tacklers rather than target the ball carrier. Again, that is right on the line in terms legality, but it is so quick and so accurate that they get away with it.
Sam Warburton coming in for Peter O’Mahony at blindside flanker looks like a possible shift in mentality. While they may still look for the choke tackle at times, the Lions have picked Warburton for his work on the ground – Warburton is a master jackaler – and he will be a key man in trying to slow the speed of All Blacks ball.
Picking Jonny Sexton to start at stand-off is the biggest call. This is all about trying to be less predictable in attack and play with more width. The All Blacks were guilty of getting tight at times in the First Test, partly due to the direct game plan they employed, which meant there were opportunities on the outside for the Lions especially off turnover. However, they were unable to exploit this. There is no question that Ben Te’o was one of the Lions better performers last week, but he doesn’t have the ball playing ability of Owen Farrell at inside centre and was guilty of tucking when there was space on his outside.
In this first clip, Cruden has committed to O’Mahony, so if Te’o gets it away then O’Brien and Daly have a two-on-one versus Israel Dagg, with Beauden Barrett at 15 in the backfield out of shot.
On this occasion, Anton Lienert-Brown is committed to line-speed, so if Te’o hits Davies early he will have time to get the ball through to Anthony Watson, who is in acres of space. Williams will also be able to get in support, to take advantage of Ioane closing the gate. But the Lions’ inside-centre only has eyes for carrying the ball forward and the opportunity is lost.
In this final clip , Te’o once again goes forward with the ball when he really needed to send it wide to Taulupe Faletau, which would have seriously stretched the All Blacks.
It is worth noting that all three of these moments happened during a five minute period either side of half-time when the Lions were on a high after O’Brien’s try, and another score at this point would have turned the game on its head. But they didn’t have the tools in midfield to really punish the All Blacks when they got the chance. Te’o was doing what he was there to do, but Farrell’s peripheral vision at inside centre in any one those situations could have been deadly for the Lions.
So, as well as Te’o played last week in delivering that physicality he was tasked with and limiting the impact of Sonny Bill Williams, I didn’t think it was a crazy move to bring him off so that Sexton could team up with Farrell for the final 20 minutes. As soon as the Lions lost the second try, to make it 20-8, they had to do something to turn the tide. The game was running away from them and the best way they could change it up was by getting two ball-players at 10 and 12 to try and change their point of attack.
This week, the Lions possess a huge amount of physicality off the bench with a lot of strong ball carriers – like Kyle Sinckler, Lawes, CJ Stander, Te’o and Jack Nowell – who can really raise the intensity. I expect them to use all the bench, and pretty early. Rhys Webb made an difference when he came on last weekend so he should get longer this time, too.
Overall, it is a very brave selection. Gatland is looking to go toe-to-toe with the All Black’s by playing a high-energy, all-pitch game; rather than the out-muscling approach which was expected but didn’t quite materialise last time out. It’s always harder to create than destroy but we have to applaud the positive nature of the selection.