The High Five: Maori All Blacks vs British and Irish Lions

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    Owen Farrell of the Lions, left, and Johnny Sexton celebrate their team's victory after the match between the Crusaders and the British and Irish Lions at AMI Stadium, Christchurch, New Zealand, June 10 2017. (AAP IMAGE/Adam Binns)

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    The British and Irish Lions have completed a comprehensive win over the Maori All Blacks by 32 points to 10 in difficult conditions in Rotorua to secure their most impressive win of their tour to date.

    They continue to shape up nicely ahead of their first test against the All Blacks next Saturday night.

    Lions are building momentum
    The rigours of the tour schedule have been debated ad nauseum but I feel now that the Lions have managed the difficult schedule remarkably well, despite the two losses to date.

    There is a clear difference between the midweek versus the Test side. The Test side have stepped up another level from their hard-earned victory over the Crusaders to dominate a strong Maori side and secure a comfortable and ruthless victory.

    While many, myself included have wondered about Warren Gatland’s appointment and strategies to date. There is no doubt he has a clear plan that is certainly starting to bear fruit, whether it is enough to beat the All Blacks or not. Well, we do not have much longer to wait and see.

    Lions impress with their clinical efficiency
    Control, composure and an 80-minute effort were all hallmarks of this Lions performance as they utilised their obvious forward strength to dismantle the Maori challenge in Rotorua.

    They dominated the Maori pack and choked the star-studded backline of any decent ball to mount any serious challenges. They had an excellent pin point kicking game denying the lethal Maori back three any real counter-attacking opportunities.

    Their discipline was outstanding, conceding just four penalties to the 14 given away by the Maori, including a yellow card to halfback Tawera Kerr Barlow, the straw that broke the camel’s back, or more aptly, the Maori resistance in this match.

    For the first time on tour, the Lions set piece was at its expected efficient best, kick offs secure, lineout tidy on their own ball, aggressive on the Maori throw and the criticised scrum finally baring its teeth. The Irish tighthead Tadhg Furlong was particularly impressive, as the Maori side struggled to contain the Lions second shove, and the maul shone as the Maori pack struggled to contain the onslaught.

    The backs also were very tidy, led by halfback Connor Murray and any doubts over Jonny Sexton starting the Test if Owen Farrell proves unavailable were erased, taking on the line on several occasions, linking with his centres nicely. Ben Te’o at second five was a constant menace with ball in hand and has provided a nice headache for the Lions coaches if Farrell is available.

    Problem areas for the Lions
    While the Test team for the Lions looks fairly straight forward with the majority of the 23 looking set and stone, the headaches now for Gatland and co seem to be who to leave out.

    This is particularly the case at lock, loose forward and at 10 and 12. There will be a bit of head scratching over one of his wing positions with George North not showing his best form while other candidates such as Jack Nowell, Tommy Seymour and Elliot Daly not catching the eye.

    The overall composition of his bench will require a few meetings I would think to decide what they want from their reserve bench and how it can counter act the serious impact the All Blacks have been managing to garner from their replacements.

    Is Sam Warburton the man to cover the back row? Does Alan Wyn Jones start with Maro Itoje likely to add more as an impact player? Can Rhys Webb match the likely increase in tempo that TJ Perenara has been able to provide? Who is that player that the Lions can bring on to spark the backline if required? Some interesting questions to consider for the overall Lions 23-man Test side.

    Bored? Are you not entertained?
    After what I thought was a really impressive display from this Lions side, I was rather perplexed by a number of comments on Social Media and within the media describing the game as tedious and the Lions lacking flair, and so it went on.

    Why? Their clinical execution and dominant set piece was a joy to watch, some of the critical areas of rugby done extremely well and I for one was enthralled, just as I was with the All Blacks on Friday night as they tore through the Samoan defence.

    One of the attractions of this game to me is the ability to play in many different styles, to compose various strategies and the eventual clash on the field, based on the skills you have and the opposition you encounter.

    The clinical efficiency of the Lions was also a pleasure to observe against a very good side. They utilised their greatest assets in difficult conditions to dismantle their opposition and nullify their biggest threats in the backs to ultimately win and win very well. It was emphatic and I just do not understand why that is worth disparaging in some quarters.

    The puzzling selection curiosity
    It has always been puzzling to me to see many players selected to play at higher levels of the game in positions that they have not been frequenting on a regular basis. So it was with an arched eyebrow I digested Damian McKenzie selected at first five for the Maori and pondered how this would work out, knowing he has not played in the position for some time.

    Now I am not suggesting that I know more than the coaches employed, nor do I have access to the countless streams of data and statistics that get sifted through at the top end. However, sometimes you just know that some things just don’t go, like loose forwards playing at lock in places like Chicago for instance.

    So there are my main talking points. The Lions tour has now reached its halfway point and I am sure there are plenty more points up for discussion as we look forward to the next match on tour, against the Chiefs in Hamilton on Tuesday night.

    This will help pass what shapes as a very long week, waiting for the first Test to get underway on Saturday night.

    A Rotundity and happy ex hooker who just loves Rugby really, oh and my kids and Kendra of course who lets me watch as much Rugby as I want, mostly. Follow Digby Ross on Twitter @Diggercane.

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