Tuesday 22 August 2017

All Blacks outmuscle Lions to send Gatland back to drawing board

New Zealand 30 British & Irish Lions 15

British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland. Photo: Sportsfile
British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

To beat the best you have to be the best version of yourselves and hope that they have an off day. The Lions scored a wonderful try and played some fine rugby in patches, but you can't win in New Zealand with a pack that goes backwards, and they were bullied by the world champions' least heralded unit.

Warren Gatland was out-coached by Steve Hansen and his team out-finished by a ruthless collection of world-class players.

Sam Whitelock of New Zealand takes possession in a lineout ahead of George Kruis of the British & Irish Lions. Photo: Sportsfile
Sam Whitelock of New Zealand takes possession in a lineout ahead of George Kruis of the British & Irish Lions. Photo: Sportsfile

What will hurt most is that they were out-muscled. The All Blacks are known for their va va voom, but this was all grunt and aggression as they played to the limits of the laws; they dominated the contact zone and they thrived as a result.

The men in black negated every area the Lions thought was a strength. The tourists' pack was bullied, their defence ineffective, their bench made no impact and their kicking game earned little reward. Before the game, they spoke of keeping the penalty count below eight and they lost it 11-6.

There was deep unhappiness with referee Jaco Peyper - Sean O'Brien and Johnny Sexton were heard remonstrating with the South African after the game, with the frustrated replacement out-half saying "you give them everything" - but they kept their counsel in the press conference and know they can't blame the officials.

New Zealand negated the Lions' defensive line-speed by playing off scrum-half Aaron Smith and going around the corner, carrying at the heart of the tourists' area of supposed strength.

Sean O’Brien scores the Lions’ first try of the game during yesterday’s first Test defeat to New Zealand at Eden Park in Auckland. Photo: Sportsfile
Sean O’Brien scores the Lions’ first try of the game during yesterday’s first Test defeat to New Zealand at Eden Park in Auckland. Photo: Sportsfile

Their lineout largely functioned well, but this was not a day to remember for a tight five that came into this series being heralded as world-beaters.

Warren Gatland's decision to pick Alun-Wyn Jones back-fired: the Wales captain brought little to the party. George Kruis was little better. Up against them, Brodie Retallick was magnificent, Sam Whitelock best supporting actor, as ever.

They had the edge in the scrum too, while they dominated the breakdown, with Kieran Read and Sam Cane the prominent forces.

Peter O'Mahony was hauled ashore after 54 minutes, having taken a bang on his shoulder. He didn't want to come off and his replacement Sam Warburton was once again anonymous.

The Lions talked of becoming the world's best pack to win this series, but their talk was shown up as just that and they have much to do in the coming week if they are to have any chance of turning things around.

They contributed to a wonderful first half and put some doubt in the home side's mind just after half-time, but they ultimately failed to take their chances.

O'Brien's try will go down as one of the all-time greats, but if this tour is to be remembered they need to win in Wellington next Saturday. Easier said than done.

The All Blacks are likely to change tack this week and the Lions will need to adapt. They do so having had all of their supposed strengths undermined, the world champions have sowed seeds of doubt in their minds and it will be a long week of introspection.

In finding a way to take Andy Farrell's rush defence out of the equation, New Zealand have changed the dynamic of the series.

"With their rushed defence and their pressure from the outside, if they want to spread out we just try to go through them a bit more," Aaron Smith said.

"You have got to be very abrasive and our ball-carriers did well to do that. They were pretty brave going into their first couple of defenders off the ruck.

"It's an easy area for them to defend, but our forwards went really hard and the backs were coming and mixing it up.

"But their ability to slow it down post the half-breaks . . . it's hard to fathom. It was just a tactic that was called a lot tonight but we should probably have got more pay than we did. It would be nice when we see the review to see how we can learn from it."

Smith's quick thinking unlocked the Lions' defence in the first half as he tapped a kickable penalty and exploited the visiting side's lack of reaction, moving the ball wide for hooker Codie Taylor to pick the ball off his boot-straps to score.

The tourists hit back with their own version of the try from the end of the world, a wonderful length-of-the-field effort that started with Liam Williams in his own '22' and finished with O'Brien taking Jon Davies' off-load to score.

They trailed 13-8 at the break, but despite chances to take the lead, the game turned on an All Black scrum just after O'Mahony went off. The hosts got the shove on and earned advantage, Kieran Read scooped the ball up for Smith and within seconds Rieko Ioane was going over for the first of his two tries.

By the time he scored his second, the writing was already drying on the wall. Rhys Webb's consolation try put some respectability on the scoreboard and according to Steve Hansen gave a fairer reflection on what will be remembered as a cracking Test match.

"We felt that we could hurt them if we could get in there and take away their line-speed, that would let us play some rugby," Hansen said.

"To their credit I thought they were in the game. It wasn't easy, I thought the Lions played magnificently.

"When they can score tries like that first one, you're thinking they should probably do that more often. That's one of the best Test tries I've ever seen."

It wasn't nearly enough. Vast improvement is needed if they are to have a hope of rescuing the series.

Scorers - All Blacks -  Taylor, Ioane 2 tries; Barrett 3 pens, 3 cons  Lions - O’Brien, Webb tries; Farrell pen, con

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