Tuesday 25 July 2017

How Conor Murray and Owen Farrell's 'washing machine' masterclass put Crusaders in a spin

Conor Murray of the British & Irish Lions following the match against Crusaders
Conor Murray of the British & Irish Lions following the match against Crusaders

Gavin Mairs

Scott Robertson, the Crusaders head coach, knew it was coming. He had prepared his players accordingly during the week and even had a nickname for it – “washing machine” rugby.

Yet, ultimately, his outstanding Super Rugby side, currently top of league with 14 successive victories at a remarkable average of 37 points per game, could do nothing to stop the British and Irish Lions’ ruthless and relentless kicking game.

It may have attracted criticism here in New Zealand – one taxi driver likened it on Sunday to rugby from the 1950s – but to watch Conor Murray’s vice-like control in this hugely impressive victory, which firmly planted the Lions flag in the turf of New Zealand’s strongest franchise side, was utterly compelling.

Time and again, the Ireland scrum-half was able to launch a high ball with pin-point accuracy to put maximum pressure on the Crusaders back three and he had a willing accomplice in Owen Farrell, whose control and game management were once again immaculate.

And even though the Lions’ kick-chase lacked a degree of aggression and commitment – no doubt a reaction to Liam Williams’ yellow card for two reckless challenges in the air in the defeat by the Blues – the Crusaders were completely suffocated by the tactic.

“We thought they would play that way,” conceded Robertson. “I call it the washing machine. They go back and go forward and go back and go forward.

“Owen is world class. He just sees the game and sees the space and he exploited us pretty quickly. His execution of his kicks was fantastic.

“Murray too was superb. He was just hanging it up there perfectly and we just didn't deal with that.

“It's not what we're used to here in Super Rugby. There are usually a few tries. But they found a way to win. Good luck to them.”

The Lions victory was, of course, not just about the execution of Murray and Farrell. The tourists' scrum, apart from one notable exception, was dominant against an All Black front five, while the Crusaders struggled to cope with the line-speed of the Lions defence.

The ability of George Kruis and Peter O'Mahony to dominate the line-out intensified the pressure, while the powerful carrying impact of the Lions bench – spearheaded by Maro Itoje and CJ Stander – was critical in closing the game out in the final quarter, when the Crusaders desperately attempted to run themselves free.

Jonathan Sexton, the replacement for Davies, also produced his best game of the tour; his play-making axis with Farrell will provide more food for thought for Gatland.

Murray admitted the pack played a key role with their edge in the collisions up front to give him the platform to kick, in relative terms, without any pressure.

“You are kicking on your own terms,” said Murray, whose kicking game was central to Ireland’s historic victory over the All Blacks last November. “People go after your breakdown when you are trying to kick and they made that solid.

I don’t think we got shoved off a ball, in terms of counter-rucking, all night. I could kick with relatively little pressure. Fantastic. The lads that came on added impact as well, gave us front-foot ball.

“The other big thing is discipline from the first two games. I think it was 29 penalties in two games. You can’t win games like that. That was a point we needed to improve on.

“We played in the right areas, I thought we defended really well. Their stats are really impressive – they average 30 or so points – so, to keep them down was impressive.”

Yet, for all the steps taken forward on Saturday, the Lions know their game is not yet ready for the Test series. Most critically of all remains their inability to convert pressure into tries. Their three games so far have yielded just two. To beat the All Blacks, they will almost certainly have to score at least three per Test match.

While Anthony Watson’s switch to full-back after Jonathan Davies had joined Stuart Hogg in failing a head injury assessments proved a revelation – the England wing made 76 metres with the ball, more than any other player – he and the Lions lacked the killer instinct, despite creating over half a dozen try-scoring opportunities.

“It’s something we’ll look to improve on, but the fact that we are making line-breaks and busting teams and we counter-attacked well off a few kick receipts is really pleasing and then it’s probably the easier stuff – easier than making the line-breaks is finishing them off,” Murray added.

“If we weren’t making line-breaks, you’d be more worried. But it is something that is progressing. The night, the slippery ball, the slippery surface dictates the way you play a bit. I thought we managed it quite well. Hopefully we’ll start finishing a few. But that's another step in the right direction.”

Time is running out for the Lions to rid themselves of their profligacy, starting with Tuesday’s game against the Highlanders in Dunedin, before the first Test in Auckland on June 24.

But the big question there is whether their high pressure game – heralded by line speed and aerial attack to put the opposition back three under tremendous pressure – will be enough to really trouble the All Blacks.

On this point, Robertson has his doubts.  “We thought they were going to play that way and he (All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen) knows they will,” he added.

He'll have done a lot of homework and he'll have the All Blacks ready to turn them around a little bit better than what we did.”

A valid counter-argument is that the Lions have yet to reveal the full extent of their attacking game. They have finally earned some respect in New Zealand with this result, if not praise for its manner. With a little bit more accuracy and ruthless finishing, however, the margin of victory could have been much more extensive.

“Now we’ve won, people will probably be bigging you up. But we won’t fool ourselves," Murray added. "We know there is stuff we can work on.  There is stuff we did tonight, a few slip-ups or turnovers that the All Blacks would finish off. Because we won, doesn’t take the pressure off. We’re going back at it again on Tuesday.”

The business end approaches.

Telegraph.co.uk

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