The Lions continued their tour of New Zealand with their first midweek game against Tana Umaga’s Blues. This was their first match against Super Rugby opposition as they continue to build towards the first Test against the All Blacks in on the 24th.
After a poor showing in their opening game against the Provincial Barbarians, Warren Gatland picked a completely new starting XV, with a number of players who started the opener joining Peter O’Mahony and Liam Williams on the bench. Though they played much better than on Saturday, a late converted try from Ihaia West put the Blues 22-16 ahead and an errant throw from replacement hooker Rory Best at a line-out 7 metres from the Blues try-line denied the Lions a chance of claiming victory with the last play of the game.
As we begin to look towards Saturday’s game against the Crusaders, here are my thoughts on Game 2 of the Tour.
A better performance… but improvements needed
Though the result did not go the way Lions fans will have wanted, this was a much better performance than against the Barbarians. Dan Biggar looked settled until his injury and Johnny Sexton, who came on as his replacement around the 35 minute mark, had a better performance than at the weekend. The back line as a whole appeared much more involved than in the first game, and Rhys Webb provided some zip to the attack. In the pack, the scrum was a formidable weapon and Ken Owen’s decision to kick a 15th minute penalty to the corner – and the subsequent try from CJ Stander – showed that the Lions have real faith in the strength of their pack compared to their opponents. This is certainly an area where the All Blacks will be watching nervously.
However the performance was far from perfect. The attacking from the backs looked very limited, with much of the play just going from side to side without any real penetration. The defence however was cut open far too easily, and appeared to struggle with the host’s offloads. Rhys Webb may have played well on the whole but his box kicks were frequently too long to compete for and merely handed possession back to the Blues. To make matters worse, their discipline was atrocious. Against the Barbarians, the referee had to repeatedly warn the forwards to keep the gap at line-outs, but today I counted 2 free kicks conceded for this offence, along with at least 2 penalties for other – completely avoidable – offences at the line-out (Lawes grabbing the man in the air, Biggar encroaching). Liam Williams gave away a good position on the pitch with a stupid tackle of a player in the air and clearly didn’t learn from this by doing the same thing again mere minutes later, earning him 10 minutes in the sin bin at a crucial point in the game. To beat the other franchises – not to mention the All Blacks – the Lions will need to improve their discipline drastically, or teams will happily kick for territory and points all day long.
Jack Nowell was frequently picked out by the Sky Sports commentators as having a bad day and struggling to deal with Rieko Ioane, but while I agree that he can defend better than he did in this game I feel that he was not helped by the way that the Lions set up to defend so narrow. The Blues were happy to spread the ball from the start and even in the early minutes, I was noticing occasions where there were multiple attackers lined up outside Nowell and Elliot Daly, the Lions wingers. This happened a couple of times even before Ioane got outside Nowell to cross for the opening try. I understand that with players like Sonny Bill Williams in the midfield it is important to stop the opposition from breaking through the middle, but to make it easy for a team to get outside with a simple cross-kick or a few wide passes is madness! I have noticed in the Super Rugby highlights this year how accurate All Blacks fly half Beauden Barrett is with his cross-kicks. If the Lions wish to continue with this defensive tactic, I would not be surprised to see him take full advantage of this in the Tests.
From blue to black
In the same way that the Barbarians side contained a number of players looking to earn a Super Rugby contract, the Blues had a number of players hoping their performance will get them a place in the Test squad. Sonny Bill Williams’ performance gave credence to the phrase ‘form is temporary, class is permanent’. He is still getting back to his best after his injury during the Rio Olympics but put in a vintage performance against the Lions. Right from the early minutes, Williams was putting himself about defensively, ripping the ball out of the hands of no less than CJ Stander and also winning a turnover deep in his 22 to end the Lions’ early dominance. His try on the stroke of half time was opportunistic, but would not have been possible if he had not reacted quicker than everyone around him. For the winning try, his attacking line on the shoulder of Steven Luatua cut the Lions defence apart and his offload to Ihaia West was him at his best. Even more impressive is that, as a devout Muslim, he is currently fasting during the day for Ramadan! It’s no surprise to have seen him named this morning in the All Blacks squad for the Tests and I would be surprised if he does not at least make the bench.
Dan Biggar left the pitch just before half time for a HIA and never returned to the pitch. He has been left out of the match day 23 for this weekend’s game against the Crusaders as he goes through return to play protocols. However, as we have seen with Dane Coles, there is no guarantee of a quick return to training, so with 2 games per week he could miss a considerable number of matches. If this means that Owen Farrell and Sexton are to both feature in each match over the next few weeks, there is a very good chance that they will be burned out by the time the Tests come around. With Scotland playing in Singapore on Saturday, I would not be surprised to see Finn Russell called up to the Lions squad as extra cover in the next few days.
More of the haka
Away from the rugby, I was happy to see on Tuesday that the Blues would be performing a haka before the game, as would each of the other Super Rugby franchises. As the world continues to modernise, I love to see that the Maori culture is still getting time in the public eye. As the announcement was so close to the game and this was the first time the Blues had performed a haka, I was expecting to see a performance of Ka Mate, so I was very happy to see the Blues perform He Toa Takitini (The Strength of Many). If all of the Super Rugby franchises are going to perform different hakas, then I think this will be great for the general public to see and will hopefully get more people interested in looking into the Maori culture.
What were your thoughts on the game? Do you think I missed anything? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge