Sunday 24 September 2017

Brent Pope: This is how the Lions can beat the All Blacks

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British and Irish Lions players, from left, Sean O'Brien, Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray, Alun Wyn Jones, Owen Farrell and Ben Te'o face the Crusaders haka prior to the match between Crusaders and the British & Irish Lions at AMI Stadium in Christchurch, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
British and Irish Lions players, from left, Sean O'Brien, Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray, Alun Wyn Jones, Owen Farrell and Ben Te'o face the Crusaders haka prior to the match between Crusaders and the British & Irish Lions at AMI Stadium in Christchurch, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Brent Pope

Last Saturday against the Auckland Blues Coach Warren Gatland and his Lions team got it wrong, but this week against the top performing rugby franchise in New Zealand the Lions proved that a few days is a long time in sport.

Not only has it injected some self-belief but the manner of the win, despite no try being scored, will worry All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.

This was old fashioned Test rugby, and it surprised the Crusaders. Suddenly, there was less space than in super rugby, no tries and  much tighter margins. The World Cup winning coach had to be impressed by the way that the Lions shut down any real attacking threat from Canterbury, and the fact that,while they did not finish off many of their own opportunities, the Lions created plenty.

The Lions will not be able to afford to miss such opportunities against the All Blacks ,  but at least they created some. Canterbury did not.

It’s hard to say if the slippery conditions and bucket load of penalties stifled the Crusaders but the runaway leaders of this year’s Super Rugby Series were made to look decidedly average by a pumped up Lions defence that  simply pressed the Crusaders into mistake after mistake.

The Crusaders have always been known for playing a wide game and a continuity of play. But on Saturday Canterbury hardly threw one cut-out pass, and in the end they were forced to play the way the Lions wanted.

The visitors dictated the pace and style of the play. Everybody is saying that the Lions will need to score tries to beat the All Blacks but in my opinion that’s not the case.

The Lions still won comfortably and it proved that if you can stop New Zealand teams playing a loose type of game and frustrate them, as Ireland did in Chicago, they are vulnerable. It seems to me that the way for the Lions to win the first test is to play exactly the same way  – dominate the set piece and defend with organisation and aggression.

 At times on Saturday you could see the expression of frustration on the faces of the Canterbury players especially at scrum time. The Lions defence was immense in Christchurch, vastly improved from the lacklustre effort against the Blues. The Lions defensive screen came up fast and in an organised line and shut down the Crusaders with ease.

There were excellent performances from many players in red, especially the tight five who dominated a potential All Black scrum and lineout in their own backyard, and the combination of Connor Murray, Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell was finally on show.

In replacement fullback Anthony Watson, the Lions have unearthed a diamond in the rough, and with Scotland’s Stuart Hogg out of the tour and Leigh Halfpenny steady without being scintillating,  Watson could come into series contention.

Sexton was back to his best as a replacement for Davies, and his telepathic relationship with players inside and outside him was excellent. With Sexton and Farrell both playing, it gives the Lions a serious option on both sides of the field.

That means that if the Lions have a scum or breakdown in the middle of the field they can easily split the field in half with two quality out-halves who can read the game and who can pass, kick or direct play equally well from anywhere on the pitch. It has serious advantages.

So the Lions at last show some real roar, and for the planeloads of supporters going out for the first test – including myself –  that game now brings real excitement and a new-found confidence.

Tomorrow’s game against my old team, the Otago Highlanders, will show us more about whether the performance against Canterbury was a one-off or if the Lions can continue to grow and learn week by week.  A win in Dunedin and suddenly things look a lot different for Gatland and the Lions – played 4 and lost 1.

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