The last couple of weeks have all been building up for this: the 3-match Test series between the Lions and New Zealand. After a mixed bag of results in the warm-up matches, Warren Gatland picked what he felt was his best 23 to face a New Zealand side missing star hooker Dane Coles but buoyed by the return of captain Kieran Read.
Despite a couple of early injuries to Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty, the All Blacks dominated the tourists on the way to a 30-15 victory, a score that was made to look better for the Lions courtesy of a try from replacement Rhys Webb with the final play of the game.
There is just 1 game against the Hurricanes, last season’s Super Rugby Champions, left before Gatland has to pick the squad for what is now the most important game of the tour: the second Test that the Lions must win in order to avoid losing the series.
With this in mind, here are my thoughts on the first Test:
Writing these posts about each game of the tour has often left me feeling like a broken record. I feel like pretty much every time I’ve discussed the latest game there has been some mention of the Lions not being accurate enough in taking their chances when attacking. Unfortunately the Lions have not learned their lesson in the warm-up games and again left too many chances on the field. By my count, the Lions created 4/5 good try-scoring chances, but only scored a try from 2 of these. Jonathan Davies made a great break in the early minutes, but though Conor Murray was there in support he did not have the pace to make it to the line and the ball was too slow at the breakdown, allowing Israel Dagg the time to position himself to stop Elliot Daly scoring. Early in the second half, following another break from Davies, the ball came out to Ben Te’o just inside the All Blacks 22 with 2 men wide outside him. Rather than play the ball out, he instead decided to take advantage of the drifting defence to run inside Brodie Retallick, only to slip as he stepped back inside. The decision to go himself may have been wrong but watching it back there does appear to be a gap opening between Retallick and Anton Lienert-Brown, while there is no guarantee that Jerome Kaino and Sonny Bill Williams would not have denied the Lions had he spread it. Mere minutes later, Anthony Watson made a fantastic break only to panic and fling an offload at unsuspecting Conor Murray. They also allowed themselves to be turned over at an attacking line out on the All Blacks 5m line in between these last 2 breaks. 4 great chances to score a try… 0 points scored.
By contrast, I only remember New Zealand creating 3 clear-cut chances in the entire game, all 3 of which resulted in tries. Beauden Barrett was also 100% from the tee. The All Blacks are so clinical, they will generally put up 20-30 points per game against even the best defences. The Lions need to make sure that the points are going on the scoreboard rather than being left on the field.
When Israel Dagg was left out of New Zealand’s 2015 World Cup squad following a couple of injury-hit seasons, I thought we may be seeing the end of his All Blacks career. However, since then he has pushed hard and, though he has been unable to gain the 15 shirt back from Ben Smith, he has made a new home for himself on the right wing.
Against the Lions, he struggled a bit competing against Elliot Daly for the high ball, but the rest of his game was almost flawless. He gave the All Blacks options in attack and even swapped wings with Reiko Ioane for a period in the first half. On top of this, he was also used as an extra safety blanket when the All Blacks needed to clear their lines. If Ben Smith is unavailable for the second Test due to the head injury he suffered, I would not be surprised to see Dagg moved to 15 due to his experience as opposed to bringing in Jordie Barrett or Damian McKenzie, especially considering how good Waisake Naholo looked when the Highlanders beat the Lions.
When Warren Gatland named his 23 for the first Test, there were a few surprise selections in there. On the whole, these players performed well and justified being selected. The entire back 3 looked dangerous in attack and Elliot Daly especially also caused a number of problems for Ben Smith and Israel Dagg under the high ball. Daly and Watson were both caught narrow for New Zealand’s first and second tries respectively, though in both cases they weren’t helped by the men inside being caught out, first by the quick tap penalty and second by the decimated scrum. Probably the biggest surprise of the back line selections, Liam Williams had a very good game in attack, especially countering from kicks downfield. His willingness to run from his own 5 metre line – and his step of Kieran Read – helped to set up a stunning try from Sean O’Brien, which has possibly beaten out Jack Nowell for try of the tour. Williams was also often solid in defence, but did struggle multiple times under the high ball when there was pressure on him, which proved costly for Ioane’s match-winning second try. Halfpenny may be a more reliable player, but I think there was enough from each of the 3 starters for them to justify selection for the second Test.
In the forwards, I felt that there seemed a better balance to the pack with Peter O’Mahony on the pitch and I expect him to retain the captaincy for the next game, however I expect Alun Wyn Jones to lose his starting spot to Maro Itoje. I have been a fan of Jones for a number of years but have often felt that he has looked off form against New Zealand. In the first half he looked continually off the pace of the game and I was not surprised to see Itoje – who impressed while on the pitch – come on early in the second half. If Courtney Lawes or Iain Henderson can put in a big performance against the ‘Canes, it wouldn’t surprise me if one of them was promoted to the bench for the weekend.
Another selection that has been suggested a number of times before and during the tour was the 12/12 partnership of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell. Saturday showed why this would not work against the All Blacks. Te’o and Davies caused or made a number of line breaks but after Farrell was moved to centre the attack looked so much more predictable – even more so than it had beforehand – while in defence Sonny Bill Williams started having much more success making it beyond the gain line. As Eddie Jones has generally started with a Ford/Farrell 10/12 combination for England, I hope he was taking note.
I don’t expect many changes for the second Test, so as it stands I would expect Warren Gatland to select the following 23 for Saturday:
- Mako Vunipola
- Jamie George
- Tadhg Furlong
- Maro Itoje
- George Kruis
- Peter O’Mahony
- Sean O’Brien
- Taulupe Faletau
- Conor Murray
- Owen Farrell
- Elliot Daly
- Ben Te’o
- Jonathan Davies
- Anthony Watson
- Liam Williams
- Ken Owens
- Jack McGrath
- Kyle Sinckler
- Alun Wyn Jones
- Sam Warburton
- Rhys Webb
- Johnny Sexton
- Jonathan Joseph
What were your thoughts on the first Test? What would your squad be for the first Test? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge