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The Wrap: Lions keep series, and their future, alive

The Lions made history by defeating the All Blacks. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
Expert
2nd July, 2017
268
4991 Reads

As soon as Maro Itoje was allowed to stand with impunity in the middle of the channel at the All Blacks’ first lineout, and the throw was blown for not straight, you just knew it was going to be a difficult night for the world champions.

The dreary weather and the Lions’ resolve to stamp a more assertive defensive presence than in Auckland meant that any prospect of an expansive All Black game went out the window, and the way to a series win would be a war of attrition and accumulation.

For 75 minutes they managed this, keeping their nose in front or level because, apart from Sonny Bill Williams’ moment of madness, they were more disciplined than the Lions. But such a narrow game plan – forced on them admittedly – never ever felt like it was enough to create the try scoring opportunities that would provide a scoreboard buffer.

Such is their strike power it is usually the All Blacks who only need to play well for a quarter of the match to win, but tonight this applied to the Lions. It may have taken them an age to figure out how to play against 14 men, but when they finally did stretch and move the All Blacks out of their comfort zone, it won them the game.

That, along with some inspired defence in the final five minutes, when the All Blacks, controlling possession in the Lions’ half and looking for a late winning score or tying penalty, were rejected time and again until a turnover was eventually forced.

Coach Warren Gatland rightly looked chuffed with himself at the presser, vindicated in his selection and tactics, his Lions achieving the almost unheard of feat of outscoring the All Blacks, two tries to none. He knows full well how New Zealand react after a loss, but nevertheless returns to Auckland with his side mostly healthy and intact, and with a spring in their step.

In truth, more intelligent play would have had the match wrapped up much earlier. The middle half of the game was marked by the Lions’ propensity to give away penalties; Itoje and Mako Vunipola, who conceded four on his own, the chief culprits.

Conor Murray British and Irish Lions Rugby Union 2017

(AP Photo/Mark Baker)

It was while Vunipola was in the sin bin that things finally came together for the Lions. The ball swung to both edges, featuring some impeccable handling and passing, before No.8 Toby Faletau found himself one on one with Israel Dagg, too big and too powerful for the score.

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Earlier, with referee Jerome Garces required to maintain a higher profile than Jaco Peyper last week, the game quickly settled into a battle of field position, both sides keen to be in the right half of the field when the penalties were dished out. To an extent, that worked well for New Zealand, Beauden Barrett converting seven for their 21 points, although the three he missed were all from handy positions.

It’s hard to argue against taking the points in a tight Test match but, in retrospect, the stream of penalties – ten shots at goal – took the continuity away from the All Blacks’ attack that they had last week, and denied them the opportunity to build concerted pressure and force try scoring opportunities.

In that respect, the Lions will be delighted that the match was played on their terms. Bottling up the All Blacks’ inside running channel, combined with not having to defend a full backline, earned them that right to strike decisively when they were ready.

It was here where one of Gatland’s contentious selections was justified. Instead of meeting New Zealand’s alternating bash and barge from Waisake Naholo and Ngani Laumape head on with beef of his own in Ben Te’o, the ability of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell to distribute and direct play wide at the key moment provided their point of difference.

Gatland also showed great feel for the game in not going to his bench as a matter of course, recognising that Conor Murray and Sexton were working well and also have recent experience in closing out a match against the All Blacks. The changes he did make however, were astute, Courtney Lawes and Kyle Sinckler both adding energy to help spark the Lions’ push in the final quarter.

In a game where there was intensive scrutiny of a number of incidents, it was curious that TMO George Ayoub didn’t make more of Sean O’Brien’s shot on Naholo, which left him visibly concussed as he went to the ground. The citing commissioner caught up with things later, although O’Brien was last night cleared to play in the decider.

While locals might complain at the injustice, it was interesting to note that the incident was played once on the stadium screen, but not repeatedly to catch the referee’s attention, as happens too frequently in other stadiums around the world.

Whether this was because of new protocols or simply random luck, it is important that, right or wrong, decision-making is left in the hand of the officials and is aided but not unduly influenced by home town TV producers pandering to a lynch mob.

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Sonny Bill Williams New Zealand All Blacks Rugby Union 2017

(AAP Image/Dean Pemberton)

As for the game’s other major incident, the best thing that can be said for Williams is that he didn’t intend to make contact with Anthony Watson’s head, Watson slipping down in Naholo’s tackle as Williams entered the contact area. But to enter with his shoulder cocked like he did, under today’s laws, is like playing Russian Roulette with five bullets loaded in the chamber, making for an easy red card decision for Garces.

Hansen’s reaction to replace Jerome Kaino and leave his backline intact raised eyebrows, but is hard to criticise. While it meant Anton Leinert-Brown spending more time in the forwards than he will ever care to again, the alternative – Sam Cane covering in the backline – would have surrendered as much, if not more initiative.

In short, that’s exactly what a red card is supposed to do: make life difficult for the affected team and provide the other side with an advantage.

A common prediction before the tour started was the Lions would struggle as the weeks progressed due to fatigue and injury. There is enough adrenalin flowing now to overcome any fatigue concerns and, remarkably, Gatland still has almost all of his first choice team fit and desperately keen to make history. It is a huge bonus.

Instead it is Steve Hansen who is faced with injury (and suspension) concerns, half his backline shot to pieces with Ben Smith, Ryan Crotty, Williams and now potentially Naholo ruled out of contention.

Laumape had a good tour match for the Hurricanes and did nothing wrong in his Test debut, but it is a huge ask at this stage for him to come into the side and offer the type of variation and soft skills in attack that make the All Black backs such a difficult proposition.

If Hansen is forced to close ranks and stick to a crash ball game, not only will that make him feel uncomfortable, it will play right into the Lions’ hands.

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On the other hand, the potential recall of Malakai Fekitoa to the starting XV doesn’t inspire total confidence and will necessitate more positional changes.

When I spoke with Graham Henry late last year about this tour, he said it was important for the preservation of the concept moving forward that the Lions have a win, at least in one Test if not the series. New Zealand fans won’t necessarily feel good about that, but the reality is that the sharks are circling, and a tied series heading into a decider is the best way to keep them at bay.

The influence and power of England’s premiership clubs grows by the day, and it is a sad truth that people like Exeter Chairman Tony Rowe have recently spoken out strongly about how the Lions – a rugby institution since 1888 – have become an impediment to the premiership, and how clubs aren’t properly recompensed for use of “their asset”, i.e. the players.

Owen Farrell British and Irish Lions Rugby Union 2017

(AAP IMAGE/Adam Binns)

Rowe and other naysayers may be guilty of nothing more than knowing where their bread is buttered, but the thousands of Lions supporters who got to see their team win, and to celebrate their victory afterwards, must be astonished at the prospect of such selfish, calculated commercial considerations taking precedence over an icon of the sport.

The best thing the Lions can do to stave off this threat is to win the series in Auckland next weekend. For their part, the hosts don’t want the Lions to die either, but sure as hell won’t want to become the first All Blacks side to lose a Lions series since 1971.

Expect plenty of irrelevant and inflammatory nonsense to be talked in the press this week, almost all of it best ignored. Also expect both sides to prepare well and leave their talking for Saturday’s decider.

With no high level rugby in Australia this weekend local activity centered around an announcement that assistant coach Nathan Grey was to leave the Waratahs to take up a full-time role with the Wallabies. Not unsurprising in itself, except that the ARU email which lobbed into my inbox, carried the truncated title ‘Nathan Grey to transition’.

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Even in today’s more progressive society, and on a big weekend where Sonny Bill dominated the headlines, now that would really be big news.

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