Wednesday 26 July 2017

Lions crying out for flight of Keith Earls and Simon Zebo

Gatland faces big calls over his underperforming wingers

A dejected Robbie Henshaw leaves the field. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
A dejected Robbie Henshaw leaves the field. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

We thought we had left the quake zone behind us when we moved south from Christchurch to Dunedin, but it seems the Lions squad has a fault line running right through it.

In every iteration of these four-yearly outings a hierarchy emerges, but last night's loss to the Highlanders exposed the gulf in class between the fast-emerging Test team and the dirt-trackers who are facing into a long few weeks in the margins.

Aside from a few, they have given Warren Gatland (below) little choice but to plough ahead with his front-liners. This defeat was utterly avoidable and the concern for the New Zealander is that he may have to delve beneath his front-liners at some point in the Test series.

For all that the squad has been hailed for its strength in depth, it appears to contain some very average players.

The loss came about because of a lack of discipline. The aggressive defensive line was called up for offside, while the scrum was obliterated by a pack of relative unknowns.

But perhaps the most concerning issue facing the head coach is the performances of his back-three players.

British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland before the tour match at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin. Photo: PA
British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland before the tour match at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin. Photo: PA

While he knows his combinations in most positions, barring a couple of battles, there is no one putting their hands up to play on the wing, while full-back is only marginally better.

Yesterday, the squad said farewell to Scotland's Stuart Hogg whose cheekbone was accidentally fractured by Conor Murray's elbow on Saturday.

As it stands, the Scotland international is not being replaced but given Tommy Seymour and Jack Nowell's struggles last night, as well as Jared Payne's mixed-bag display, Gatland needs to inject something.

Given so much of the game-plan is set to revolve around chasing Conor Murray's kicks, it would make a lot of sense to make a call to Joe Schmidt and relieve him of one or two of his wingers.

Sam Warburton touches down for the Lions’ third try. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Sam Warburton touches down for the Lions’ third try. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Both Simon Zebo and Keith Earls were unlucky to be left out of the initial squad and it is difficult to see how they could do any worse than the wingers who are currently available.

Although he scored a try last night, Seymour was appalling. Nowell was only marginally better and Payne is still playing his way back to fitness.

Compromise

Tokyo is a 10-hour flight away, manageable in New Zealand terms, but Gatland could look closer to home. Wales are in camp up the road in Auckland and Gareth Anscombe, the former Chiefs full-back, may be a compromise solution.

Whatever he does, the coach must be concerned at the lack of ability to take the ball in the air.

Iain Henderson claims possession. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Iain Henderson claims possession. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

He criticised George North and Liam Williams for not getting off the ground in Christchurch, but this time around his players were routinely bullied when chasing contestables. Against the All Blacks that return will be costly.

"There hasn't been a lot of training time for that group with the guys whereas the Crusaders have had a bit of time together," Gatland reflected.

"Every team is different about the way that they play and I thought we probably learned a little bit tonight in terms of how I thought our kicking game was excellent on Saturday and then the Highlanders' kicking strategy stressed us a little bit.

"Some of guys are normally excellent in the air, we didn't retain possession or we would give possession back and they seemed to have a lot more success from their kicking strategy than we did tonight so we need to look at that and we need to change things up and get better and improve from that experience.

"From a game point of view it is another big step up for us and another big learning opportunity. It is about building for a couple of weeks and that first Test match and so we will have got a lot from tonight as well."

The wheel keeps turning; tonight Gatland will name his team for the clash with the Maori All Blacks at the Rotorua International Stadium on Saturday and show his hand to some degree.

Much will be made of his back-row selections, his 10-12-13 combination and the other issues, but if they can't get up in the air then they're in trouble.

The other issue that is quickly emerging is the disparity in refereeing approaches.

Whereas French official Mathieu Raynal favoured the Lions' scrum on Saturday and was happy with their defensive line; Australian ref Angus Gardner was hot on the offsides and oversaw Highlanders' dominance at scrum-time.

"We've got to learn from that and that experience, from the interpretation of the referee at scrum-time and how he handles that," Gatland said.

"It's about adapting on the pitch... It's an area that we've got to keep working hard at, and looking to improve and looking at making sure that we adapt during the game in terms of the way that teams our scrummaging."

They lost the penalty count and the battle in the air, and it cost them dear. Their discipline can be fixed from within, so can the scrum but their personnel may have to be upgraded if they are to rectify their aerial issues.

Hogg's departure creates an opening and Gatland has a chance to make a real fix. It could be a key moment if he takes his opportunity and makes the right call.

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