We now know the test squad that the British and Irish Lions will take to Eden Park this Saturday for the 1st test against New Zealand. There are some surprises there – particularly in the back 3, but the key to the game will be in the forwards.
On the tour so far, the Lions first string pack has performed well and they hold the key to achieving success this weekend. By contrast, the backs have struggled to provide much impetus off set play but have shown that they can cut free when they play a looser, more spontaneous game.
Don’t expect the Lions to turn the test series in to an open game of rugby. Gatland will stick to what he knows well, which is a highly structured game built around kicking, putting pressure on the opposition and accumulating points through penalties.
Here are the 5 key areas that the Lions should look to exploit if they want to win.
(1) Attacking mauls
The Lions forwards coach Steve Borthwick knows how to coach an effective attacking maul, and he hasn’t disappointed on this tour.
As an example, if we look at the Chiefs’ game (see clip below) it’s Justin Tipuric who takes the lineout, with Iain Henderson stepping in front of him to provide protection – illegal, but usually ignored by referees. As the ball is transferred to the back, the Lions pack drive through the right hand side of the right, where Henderson and Haskell have positioned themselves.
The Chiefs illegally bring down the maul and a penalty try is awarded.
This time it’s the Blues on the receiving end of the Lions forward power. Itoje takes the catch from an Owens’ throw and after readjusting the maul, it is Stander who crosses the line.
In every game, the attacking maul has been a strong weapon. Expect to see a lot of it on Saturday, particularly if the weather is wet, as is being forecast.
Kick and press
The scrum half or outside half, kick and press is a favourite of Gatland’s. The target used to be to try and compete in the air and win the ball back, but there is a sense that with the defending player having the “rights” in the air, it is better to wait for the catcher to land and then then tackle him.
We saw the consequences of mistimed tackles in the air with Liam Williams earlier in the tour, when he was shown a yellow card.
Conor Murray has been chosen for his game management and primarily his ability to execute perfectly the box kick. The example below is from the Maori game where Murray’s inch perfect kick results in a penalty from which Halfpenny kicks 3 points.
Interestingly, the Maori dropping this ball is Rieko Ioane, who has been chosen in the All Blacks team for Saturday. Ioane, at just 20, is a superb talent with the ball but there are still question marks over his ability to handle the more structured kicking game that the Lions will try and play.
Expect a barrage of kicks on the New Zealand wingers and a fast pressing Lions line to try and turn the ball over, win the penalty or force the All Blacks to kick back.
Not that long ago Mako Vunipola was known as a great carrier but an appalling scrummager – which is a pretty important skill for a test level prop! His improvement has been stark to the point that a scrum with Mako at loose head is a potentially dominant weapon against the All Blacks.
In the Maori game, the test front row (Mako, George and Furlong) were dominant with referee Peyper rewarding them with a penalty try:
The good news for the Lions is that Jaco Peyper is the referee for the first test!
This clip shows that not only is he willing to penalise the weaker scrum, he is also happy to award a penalty try, which is vitally important against All Black teams who can be very cynical when defending their try line.
Later in the game Peyper was again comfortable to penalise the Maori scrum, this time for wheeling.
Not only does the Lions scrum have the potential to provide a stable platform for the half backs, it could be a potent weapon.
Midfield blitz defence and attack the breakdown
One noticeable aspect of the Lions – Crusaders game was the speed and strength of the Lions’ midfield blitz defence. Super Rugby teams tend not to compete too much at the breakdown; being happy to give the ball away and reform the defensive line as a priority, rather than lose bodies in the breakdown.
In the north the breakdown is a fierce area of competition and in turn the midfield defence tends to push quickly on the opposition, closing down their time on the ball. Both these aspects were evident in the Crusaders game, meaning the New Zealand team had poor quality ball to play with and little space when they did receive it.
The Lions were then able to convert this defensive pressure in to points and territory.
Te’o has been chosen for his ball carrying but also his defensive qualities, and alongside Farrell and Davies they have an important role in Gatland’s team.
If we look at the alignment of the Chiefs backs defence off first phase ball, we see the centres are deeper than the players inside, meaning there isn’t a strong pressing line facing the Lions.
Contrast this with the Lions hard press against the Crusaders (below) with not only 10, 12 and 13 forming a flat line with very small spacing, but Murray also works across to take the ball carrier.
Expect the All Blacks to use small diagonal kicks behind the Lions midfield to try and negate this rush defence.
Perhaps the best example of attacking the breakdown was England’s performance against New Zealand back in 2012. In that game, England’s intensity at each tackle and breakdown was quite outstanding and it was that pressure which finally caused New Zealand to crack.
They are a team that are at their best when they have time and space to run; cut that option out of their game and you stand a chance.
The Lions have a number of very strong ball carriers who are crucial to the success of the team. We have seen how Eddie Jones has built his game plan around the forward breaking the line to make space for their pacey backs – the Lions need to use similar tactics if they are to get the best out of Daly, Watson and Williams.
The front row can all carry, Itoje is excellent, Sean O’Brien and Faletau can also make the hard yards; these are the crucial players who along with Te’o must get the Lions over the gain line.
In this clip against the Highlanders, it’s initially Iain Henderson who makes the hole against a well formed but passive defence, and Sam Warburton takes the ball for the secondary thrust.
This footage below, comes from the Ireland New Zealand game in 2016. Although Furlong doesn’t carry the ball too far towards the All Black line, it’s his ability to bump off the opposition that would provide a real lift to his team mates.
This is another area where the Lions have a distinct advantage. The bench will also be important here with the Lions opting for perhaps more athletic and mobile forwards to close down the space as bodies tire and the All Black attacks increase in intensity.
Sinckler, Owens and Itoje are also able to carry so expect the Lions’ forward barrage to continue for the full 80 minutes.
Can the Lions win?
The key to the game will be in the forwards battle. Do New Zealand have the strength there to negate the Lions set piece dominance and break down specialists? If they do then the Lions may have to look for a plan B, which we know Gatland coached teams are often missing.
The second consideration is can the Lions dictate the pace of the game to a speed they are comfortable playing week in and week out in the domestic leagues? If so, they stand a chance of snuffing out the All Blacks’ attacking runners. It’s expected that Sonny Bill will run in to contact and look for an offload, we know Smith is happy countering from deep – stopping them is another issue though.
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