Thursday 24 August 2017

Discipline costs dearly - Five things we learned as Lions are comfortably beaten

British and Irish Lions' Johnny Sexton leaves the field
British and Irish Lions' Johnny Sexton leaves the field

Jack Austin and Samuel Lovett

The Lions were beaten 30-15 by the All Blacks in their first Test of the 2017 tour of New Zealand.

Tries courtesy of Codie Taylor and Rieko Ioane (2) powered the home side past the visitors who put up a defiant display but were ultimately outplayed and outclassed.

Sean O'Brien's first-half try offered the Lions hope, with Liam Williams enjoying a particularly stand-out performance that looked to revitalise Warren Gatland's men midway through the match, but it ultimately wasn't to be.

Rhys Webb snatched a late consolation try for the Lions but by that point victory was assured for the hosts.

Here are five things we learned:

Lions must capitalise on their chances

The Lions’ failure to capitalise on their chances has been a recurring theme of the tour. In the games against the Crusaders and Maoris, the tourists squandered multiple opportunities to consolidate their lead. Victory may have been eventually secured but against the All Blacks such profligacy will cost them dearly.

And so it was the case on Saturday night in Auckland. Gatland’s men made a bright start, with Jonathan Davies cutting open the home side’s backline before picking out Conor Murray. But the attack broke down and a scrambled dive over the whitewash was as good as it got, with Elliot Daly’s touch down ruled out by the match officials. Ten minutes before half-time, it was a similar story as the winger attempted to pounce on an Owen Farrell cross-field kick. Despite getting away from his opposite man, the Englishman found himself running into trouble.

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24 June 2017; Conor Murray of the British & Irish Lions makes a break during the First Test match between New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

In the second half, the Lions once again found themselves guilty of falling short at the final hurdle. Although they showcased the means to break through into New Zealand’s final third, with the likes of Davies and Anthony Watson enjoying notable charges forward early on, the tourists were unable to convert. Whether through poor decision-making or a simple slip of the foot, Gatland’s men failed to find their feet.

Lions bare their teeth after moment of magic

To describe the Lions’ first-half try as one of the side’s greatest in recent history would be no exaggeration. With Sean O’Brien crashing over to secure five vital points for the Lions moments before the break, it was a moment of magic that pointed to the desire and world-class ability of this side.

Starting deep from inside his own half, Liam Williams jinked his way past two New Zealand players before pulling off a vital offload. From there, the ball was worked through Davies, to Daly, back to the Welshman before culminating in O’Brien’s touch down. It was a try that had everything: counter-attacking pace, well-timed support-play and, most reassuringly, synergy.

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Sean O'Brien of the British & Irish Lions goes over to score his side's first try

It was an exhilarating testament to how far Gatland’s side have come on this tour and, within the context of this particular game, provided the side with the foundations to push on and take the game to the All Blacks. Although it wasn’t to be, with second Ioane's try taking the wind out of the tourists' sails, but the Lions certainly showcased what they're capable of and must use moments like these as inspiration for the next two Tests.

Gatland's back-three selection justified

One of the big calls in selection was the back three. George North was excluded from the 23 and Leigh Halfpenny made to sit on the bench. For the first 35 minutes it looked like a poor decision. North and Halfpenny offer far more on the back foot in comparison to Williams, Daly and Watson, all of whom struggled defensively against the All Blacks.

But Williams and Daly soon came alive and, in doing so, more than justified their selections with one of the all-time great Lions tries. The Welshman is lethal in one-on-one situations and Daly’s pace is terrifying in support. He launched a number of attacks in the second half, enjoying the game of his life in Auckland. Boring, boring Lions, the Kiwi media called them. Not on this performance and not with Williams at the heart of the back three.

New Zealand offloading sets the standard

This Test exemplified the importance of offloads in the Southern Hemisphere. The All Blacks made countless metres from every tackle with one quick pass or offload that the Lions just couldn’t cope with. They are experts at it. With the danger of conceding penalties for high tackles, the choke tackle is off limits and New Zealand took full advantage of that.

As for the Lions, they need to improve with their offloads to keep momentum going but also learn when not to do it. Tadgh Furlong tossed a risky one away in the first half but Williams showed him how it was done in the build-up to the Lions' first try. Although the tourists went on to enjoy a promising patch, in which their offloading certainly improved, they're still a long way short of the seamless fluidity that characterises the All Blacks' game.

Discipline costs dearly

The Lions knew the importance of not conceding penalties, and not conceding kickable ones either. They’ve suffered on this tour with their discipline but that was how they were punished against the All Blacks in the first half.

Expecting the kick at goal for New Zealand's first try, the Lions were asleep and Aaron Smith saw that. His quick thinking saw Taylor crash over in the corner and the Lions were behind before before they knew it. More ill-discipline would go on to cost Gatland's men dearly. Sloppy mistakes during the run of the game and at the set-piece undermined the Lions' efforts, in spite of their spirited and dogged display.

Jonathan Sexton was notably guilty on this front. Not long after making his way onto the pitch, it was his infringement that handed New Zealand a penalty kick in front of the posts, which Beauden Barrett duly converted to take the score to 23-8, while his hands looked off the mark. If they're to stand any chance in the next Test, the Lions need to tighten up their game.

Independent News Service

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