The British and Irish Lions start their NZ tour with a pussycat meow

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    The bookmakers gave odds of $1 to $1.01 on a victory for the 2017 British and Irish Lions to win their first game of their New Zealand against a New Zealand Barbarians side made up of part-time professional rugby players who had never played together.

    The odds on the New Zealand Barbarians winning were $15 to $1.

    But the game ended with a scoreline of 13-7 to the Lions, and the New Zealand Barbarians pressing hard to score a try and a conversion to win the match.

    The tour was almost derailed at its onset by a totally unexpected outcome.

    From the first indications of the lacklustre, unimaginative, slow-witted play of the tourists, Warren Gatland’s team could become the first pride of Lions that meow rather than roar.

    If this seems to be too harsh an initial judgment, look at the opposition, reckoned by the bookmakers as impossibilities to even get close to a victory against the visitors.

    The Barbarians had players from 14 New Zealand provinces. Bryn Gatland, their star player and the son of the Lions’ coach, failed to win a full-time Super Rugby contract with the Crusaders or the Blues.

    Wales' head coach Warren Gatland

    (Mike Egerton/PA Wire)

    Aside from Gatland and 18-year-old Jack Stratton, the Barbarians halfback, none of the players have played first class rugby this season. The players came out of club rugby around New Zealand. One of the players had retired and was selected as a gesture to his long service to the Wanganui union.

    The captain of the side and one of the best players on the field, Sam Anderson-Heather, resumes his career today (Monday) at his property maintenance company.

    The point to note about all this is that this scratch side, with many of its players being in their early 20s, which turned down easy penalties in the Barbarians tradition (unlike the Lions), competed successfully with the grizzled might of British and Irish forward power in the set pieces and at the ruck and mauls.

    For me, this was the main trigger warning for Gatland’s Lions.

    A pack of star internationals, playing their traditional smash and grab game, could not overwhelm a collection of all-sorts players from the provinces of New Zealand.

    If the Lions can’t overpower their New Zealand opponents in the forwards, they are not going to win many games on this tour.

    Moreover, virtually all the ingenuity and skill in the back play came from these same all-sorts provincials against a backline studded with the great names of British and Irish rugby.

    As Gregor Paul pointed out in the New Zealand Herald: “The problems as they presented in Whangarei were significantly deeper than the (Lions) players not quite knowing each other. The real issue was that the Lions looked decidedly pedestrian in all that they did – not so much physically, but mentally.

    “They didn’t have the natural instincts to pounce on opportunities when they came. They didn’t have the alertness, that intensity of awareness that has come, among other things, to differentiate New Zealand sides from everyone else in Super Rugby.”

    For years – decades, in fact – I have been banging on about the virtues of the New Zealand all-court system of playing rugby (and between 1996-2003, Rod Macqueen’s Brumbies and Wallabies).

    I have argued that when the players get the fitness, both mental and physical, the skills and the understanding to play this all-court game, they have given themselves the best chance of winning most of their matches.

    Of course, sides playing the over-structured, forward obsessed, smash-up in the backs, kick the penalties game favoured by British and more recently, unfortunately, by Australian sides, will sometimes win.

    But you can’t build dynasties on the restricted game.

    You can build dynasties, as the All Blacks between 2011 and 2016 and the 1999-2003 Wallabies have proven, by playing the all-court game at speed, with bravery and with high skill.

    A case in point from this weekend’s Super Rugby round was the Force versus Hurricanes match at Perth.

    The home side tried lineout maul after lineout maul to score against the visitors. None of the mauls resulted in points.

    The Force finally scored early on in the second half when they rampaged with a maul and then followed up with a towering bomb to force a Hurricanes error on their own line for Dane Haylett-Petty to score the try. Finally, they tried some clever play and were duly rewarded.

    The Hurricanes, with Nehe Milner-Skudder on the field shortly after this, escalated the scoreline from 17-12 to 34-17, with three break-out tries, one of them from the kick-off.

    Hurricanes’ Nehe Milner Skudde

    (Credit:SNPA / Ross Setford)

    This is the advantage of the all-court game. You can score points quickly with bunches of tries.

    The Hurricanes had played defence for long periods of time with the rugby equivalent of baseline rallies (against the baseline rallies game of the Force) and then, when the opportunities opened up, they scored easy points by rushing to the net and putting away winning volleys.

    And earlier in the day, the Waratahs were put to the sword by the Chiefs (despite a short late-term resurgence by the visitors) 46-31, six tries to four. Again, it was the all-court game of the Chiefs that destroyed the one-dimensional game of the Waratahs

    The point about the variety involved in the all-court game is that it requires all the players to have high skills, from 1 to 15, and for the playmakers to take their skills to the highest level. This means that any time the team gets on a roll, they have the potential to score a try.

    Watching the Waratahs playing their one-dimensional game, can anyone in Australian rugby seriously make the case that Israel Folau, the highest paid Australian player, has improved his rugby in the last three years since the Lions tour of Australia in 2013?

    Can anyone seriously make the case that he is remotely close to, say, Damian McKenzie as a player who makes a significant influence on the outcome of matches he plays in?

    Even James Lowe, who is leaving New Zealand despite being only 23 because he can’t make the All Blacks squad, was better value to his side than Folau.

    The fact that excessively talented players in Australia (think Folau, Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale) do not kick on to greatness is one of the main weaknesses in the game in this country.

    Israel Folau Waratahs Super Rugby Union 2017

    (AAP Image/Paul Miller)

    The main reason for this is talented players like Folau are allowed to coast through matches, doing the occasional brilliant thing, but not taking control of the match like McKenzie, the Barretts, Ben Smith and all the other playmakers lighting up the New Zealand sides.

    Everyone involved with rugby in Australia, the Super Rugby franchises, the ARU, supporters, commentators and journalists, need to be more demanding of the coaches and the players in the Australian Conference.

    If we accept a mediocrity that occasionally rises to the brilliant, we will continue to get more mediocrity from our players.

    This is why I endorse Michael Cheika’s approach to selecting his Wallaby squad for the June Tests. He has discarded older players who have coasted and shown only occasional energy and passion in their game. He has brought a number of young players, the latest being Jake Gordon for the injured Nick Phipps, who have some fire in the belly and skills that stand up under pressure.

    Hopefully, Cheika is going to select his starting XV on what he has seen this season and at training about how the players are responding to his call for the Wallabies to go back to the hard and skilful running game and the abrasive forward play of the early 2000s when they reigned supreme in world rugby.

    If the Wallabies do not adopt the all-court New Zealand/Macqueen game this year, the major championships will continue to escape their grasp.

    Getting back to the Lions match, I was interested in a comment made by Justin Marshall that sums up for me how poor commentary is totally unhelpful to players needing to improve and for supporters wanting to their team to shape up against a combative opposition.

    I don’t want to make a habit of bagging Marshall. I did so last week about his penchant for making inaccurate judgments of refereeing rulings (Greg Martin is a serial offender, too).

    However, someone has to call out the influence of inaccurate media commentary and biased attitudes on players and coaches understanding what is going wrong with their performances.

    Towards the end of the match, Marshall was asked, as a former All Black halfback, how he thought the Lions halfback, Greig Laidlaw, had played.

    “Good,” Marshall replied. And then, possibly trying to ingratiate himself to British audiences watching the game, he added: “Very good.”

    What utter nonsense. Laidlaw stood over the rucked ball for an eternity while his forwards slowly lined up like ducks to be shot down, or tackled down, as easy targets.

    He rarely cleared the ball with any speed. He was pedestrian in his thinking about which runners to pass to and, in general, he was out-played by a kid with one first-class game to his credit.

    One of the main reasons why the Lions played like pussycats in the backs was because Laidlaw’s service from the rucks, lineouts and scrums was so slow and laboured.

    Marshall should have acknowledged this.

    Compare Laidlaw’s play with that of TG Perenara of the Hurricanes against the Force. To my mind, you had to go back to the glory days of Gareth Edwards to see a halfback with the passing, running, tackling skills that the Hurricanes captain showcased in Perth.

    TJ Perenara Hurricanes Super Rugby Rugby Union 2016

    (AAP Image/SNPA, Ross Setford)

    Perenara also turned over ball at rucks, something that the Great Gareth never did in his heydey.

    The all-court game requires a halfback with the energy and speed to get to every ruck and get rid of the ball quickly and accurately. The halfback, too, has to have an ice-cool judgment to pick out which runners to hit with flat passes and when to pass behind the first line to unleash the second line of attack.

    Laidlaw was totally at sea in fulfilling these requirements.

    A better judgment on Laidlaw’s play came from the old curmudgeon himself, Richard Loe, in his column in the New Zealand Herald: “If halfback (Greig Laidlaw) and fullback (Stuart Hogg) are the best Scottish rugby players, no wonder no others got picked.”

    Before the opening match of the tour, Warren Gatland said: “Hopefully the plan is to (shock and awe) New Zealand. I said to the players this morning, ‘If we’ve got a four-on-two on our goal-line, then you’ve got to move the ball and do something. I don’t want you to play by numbers.'”

    The only shock and awe that came out of the match was that felt by Lions supporters, and perhaps players, amazed at the performance of the New Zealand Barbarians and disappointed with the play of the Lions.

    Unfortunately, players who have only really played by numbers throughout their careers will continue to play the numbers even when advised not to.

    I was interested in the comments of Stephen Jones, the British rugby writer who resolutely espouses the “playing by numbers” game as a much better alternative to the expansive all-court game played by Rod Macqueen’s Wallabies and the All Blacks more recently.

    According to Jones, any criticism of the Lions is “preposterous” because of the imposition of a “dangerous shocker of an itinerary on the cream of British and Irish rugby.”

    Welcome to the world of Super Rugby, Mr Jones.

    The Blues travelling from Auckland and the Reds from Brisbane played a terrific match on Friday night, in a hot sauna bath atmosphere at Apia, with the Reds having four days to acclimatise themselves and the Blues only two days.

    The cream of British and Irish rugby should have been able to walk off the plane on landing in New Zealand and then thrashed the makeshift New Zealand Barbarians side.

    It will be interesting to see what the bookmaker odds are on the Lions for their match against the Blues on Wednesday.

    Another poor performance by the Lions won’t be able to be written off due to travel fatigue, as it will be the Blues who have done the travelling.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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