After not the best of starts to the 2017 tour of New Zealand – a narrow win against the Provincial Barbarians and a loss to the Blues – the Lions knew that improvement was needed in order to convince pundits and fans that they have a chance in the Test series against the All Blacks. A 3-12 win against the unbeaten Crusaders helped settle the nerves but a 23-22 loss to the Highlanders will not have been what Warren Gatland was hoping for ahead of Saturday’s game against the Maori All Blacks.
I was unable to watch either of these games live due to work commitments (working a full weekend after having 3 in a row off was a shock to the system) however through the wonders of YouTube I’ve now managed to catch up on both games. As it’s been so long since the Crusaders game, I decided that the best way to do this article was to look at the 2 matches together, as some points will be applicable to both games.
The complete performance
I think it’s fair to say that in the first 2 games of the Tour, the Lions won’t have been happy with the way they attacked or defended. In Christchurch on Saturday, the Lions finally seemed to be getting the defence sorted. During the commentary, former All Blacks scrum half Justin Marshall mentioned that the Crusaders had been averaging 5.4 tries per game this season. My calculations based on the Super Rugby standings also suggest that the Crusaders have averaged 37.3 points per game this season. While it must be remembered that the Lions were not up against a full-strength Crusaders team, to have limited them to a single penalty is still highly impressive, especially considering injuries to Jonathan Davies and Stuart Hogg before half time led to the Lions playing much of the game with Owen Farrell and Anthony Watson playing positions (centre and fullback respectively) where they likely hadn’t trained much for the Lions.
Unfortunately, though we saw an improved defence, the attack was still lacking, with the Lions relying on 4 penalties from Owen Farrell – probably 5 if his one just after half time had been referred to the TMO – to earn them victory. Over the first 3 games of the tour, the Lions only scored 2 tries and rarely looked like scoring many more, which may not be such a surprise when you remember that Attack Coach Rob Howley’s Wales squad finished joint 4th with France in tries scored during the 6 Nations with only 8 tries, 2 ahead of Italy!
In Dunedin, the Lions found their way over the try line on 3 occasions but again missed a number of chances in attack, most notably Rhys Webb’s knock-on as he dived over the breakdown on the line and Jared Payne’s drop after a lovely break by Kyle Sinckler. They also didn’t perform as well defensively against the Highlanders, who frequently used grubber kicks and cross kicks to take advantage of the blitz defence and narrow defensive line that I picked up on against the Blues. Most of these kicks resulted in the Lions wingers being caught out of position, leaving Jared Payne or Rhys Webb to sweep up on a number of occasions. The only time I remember the Lions properly dealing with one of these kicks was for Tommy Seymour’s try, which likely would have been a try for the Highlanders had he missed the ball.
Against the World Champions, a successful defence will be important, but you have to imagine that the All Blacks will still be able to score a couple of tries per game, so it is vital that the Lions start scoring more frequently and take the chances they are given in attack.
Sign of things to come
The Lions will not have enjoyed the success that Waisake Naholo had on Tuesday. The Highlanders winger has been having a good season and looked on top form in this game. He gave Tommy Seymour a torrid time all match, repeatedly finding ways to get around or through him. He was also frequently successful at winning the high ball, an area where I’m sure the Lions would have expected to do better so far. His leg drive in the tackle often saw him make extra metres after the initial contact and he was not afraid to come in off his wing to further involve himself in the game. He capped off a great performance with a try and could have easily had another mere minutes into the game were it not for some brave defence from Jared Payne. The Lions will have to find a way to cope with Naholo, or 80 minutes will feel like an eternity in the Tests.
Selecting the Test team
With only 2 more games until the first Test, this is the spot by which Warren Gatland needs a firm idea of who his players are for the Test matches and who will feature in the midweek matches. By my reckoning there are still quite a few positions up for grabs, and that is before injuries are even considered.
Though Jonathan Joseph took his try well and did put in a couple of big hits against the Highlanders, I noticed a couple of occasions where he was little more than a speed bump in defence and was beaten twice in the build-up to Naholo’s try. While he probably came into the tour as the form 13, Jonathan Davies has only played about 30 minutes of rugby on the tour because of his head injury against the Crusaders, which is limiting his chance to prove he deserves the 13 shirt.
At inside centre, Robbie Henshaw has not done enough to impress me in his outings, whereas Ben Te’o has grabbed his chances and has appeared to bring a different dimension to the attack. He may not be a starter for England, but in my opinion he is nailed on for a spot in the Test XV.
Provided Conor Murray is fully fit, the starting scrum half position should come down to the skill set that Warren Gatland fails. Murray is arguably the better 9 defensively and is more reliable controlling the game with he’s kicking, but he still appears to be struggling to shake off the shoulder injury he suffered during the 6 Nations. The All Blacks have the ability to take advantage of any mistake or weakness so if his play will be affected by the injury he should not start. Rhys Webb showed a clear improvement in the quality of his box kicks and his all-round performance was good against the Highlanders. He may not control the game as well as Murray but his ability to take advantage of the smallest gaps gives the Lions an extra way to attack their opponents. If both are fully fit, I see Webb as the perfect player to bring on in the second half once the opposition begin to tire, as this will increase the chances of gaps in the defence.
No disrespect to Dan Biggar, but the battle for the number 10 shirt is between Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell, and in my opinion it’s not even a competition. Sexton had a much better game on Saturday when he came on before half time to replace the injured Jonathan Davies, but I felt that he had much less responsibility in this game courtesy of Murray and Farrell controlling the play and the territorial kicking either side of him. Farrell has not been as reliable off the tee as we have come to expect, but there has been talk that the Adidas ball being used on the tour is a little different to the Gilbert ball we are used to in the Northern Hemisphere. I don’t think the Lions can play a significant period of Test rugby with the Sexton/Farrell combination that so many fans have called for, so in my opinion the more consistent Owen Farrell should be starting with Sexton on the bench.
As it stands, my selection for the first Test, assuming everyone remaining is fit (Stuart Hogg being out after his facial injury), would be:
- Mako Vunipola
- Ken Owens
- Tadhg Furlong
- Maro Itoje
- George Kruis
- Sam Warburton
- Sean O’Brien
- Taulupe Faletau
- Conor Murray
- Owen Farrell
- Elliot Daly
- Ben Te’o
- Jonathan Davies
- George North
- Leigh Halfpenny
- Jamie George
- Jack McGrath
- Kyle Sinckler
- Courtney Lawes
- CJ Stander
- Rhys Webb
- Johnny Sexton
- Liam Williams
What were your thoughts on the game? Do you think I missed anything? What would your squad be for the first Test? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge