Saturday 19 August 2017

Neil Francis: Lions rely on asphyxiation rather than inspiration to sow seeds of doubt in Hansen's mind

Conor Murray had a performance somewhere between a masterclass and a tour de force. Photo: Stephen McCarthy. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Conor Murray had a performance somewhere between a masterclass and a tour de force. Photo: Stephen McCarthy. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I stuck a 50 on the Crusaders to win by 11 points or more at odds of 7/1. I thought that was a good bet. What do I know? I have admired the Canterbury Crusaders from afar. They play rugby the way that it is supposed to be played. I have watched them play 10 times this year and they are on fire, but that fire went out yesterday.

My lawyers are currently working on getting my €50 back on the basis that I waged the bet on a game of rugby as opposed to a game of kick-chase. The Lions, though, were very good; if they do go on to be realistic contenders and competitive in the Test series it will be more down to asphyxiation rather than inspiration.

The Cure song Lullaby gives us an idea of what it was like to be a Crusader player yesterday: "On candy-striped legs the spiderman comes, softly through the shadows of the evening sun, stealing past the windows of the blissfully dead, looking for the victim shivering in bed. Searching out fear in the gathering gloom and suddenly a movement in the corner of the room, and there is nothing I can do when I realise with fright that the spiderman is having me for dinner tonight."

The Crusaders were like a beautiful butterfly caught in a web, powerless and slowly digested by a resolute Lions side that simply had to win yesterday.

Peter O’Mahony rises to win a lineout during yesterday’s match between the Crusaders and the Lions at AMI Stadium in Christchurch. Photo: Kai Schwoerer. Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images
Peter O’Mahony rises to win a lineout during yesterday’s match between the Crusaders and the Lions at AMI Stadium in Christchurch. Photo: Kai Schwoerer. Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

Everyone was picking a different man of the match after yesterday's 12-3 win but a man who has effectively been missing since the Ireland-Wales game really was the star of the show. Conor Murray had a performance somewhere between a masterclass and a tour de force. And 17 box-kicks in 80 minutes by the maestro tells you what the Lions are going to do in this series.

As the TV people were playing highlights, one told you about the nature of this game. In the 65th minute the Crusaders managed to latch on to a loose ball and hack it down the field. The Lions, showing admirable composure, scrambled and recovered. Murray box-kicked from the ruck and George Bridge, a winger of some potential who has scored a couple of hat-tricks over the last couple of weeks, again showed how uncomfortable he was when the ball dropped into the landing zone. The Lions won the kick-chase, and immediately sensing that Israel Dagg and Bridge were caught up in the trenches, Murray repeated the dose and suddenly the Crusaders were back in their '22' as the ball rolled into touch in the undefended section of the field.

That was the sort of game it was: any spike for territorial gain always seemed to be short-lived for both sides as defences ruled throughout the 80 minutes.

Bridge was eventually hauled off as the Crusaders had to deal with the type of pressure that they rarely encounter in Super 18 rugby. Rare that in a highlight reel involving a Super 18 franchise that there is no sensational off-load to a trailing support player or a long cut-out pass to a flying winger. This is the way the Test series will go. It has already been decreed.

The Lions were able to dictate their opponents' movements; their press was good and aggressive, and they won most of the kicking duels because they had clever players playing to a basic formula. The purists might say that it is the corruption of the game where the aerial aspects of it dominate but others might say it is a culmination of rugby's baser points.

The Crusaders badly underperformed. The occasion seemed to get to them, which is surprising. They messed up their initial kick-off reception, could never really get effective exit strategies worked on a consistent basis and they were pretty loose with their passing. There was more ball on the floor than I've seen from them in a whole season. Playing rugby in an elevator probably has that effect on you - no space, unfamiliar walls, no windows, no door and they struggled to deal with it.

Conor Murray in action against the Crusaders. Photo: Martin England/via Reuters
Conor Murray in action against the Crusaders. Photo: Martin England/via Reuters

The oppressive line-speed of the Lions' defensive effort caught them cold as they tried to play their traditional game close to the gain-line. There were try-scoring opportunities for both but none converted. Like a game of chess without a checkmate.

I suspect the Kiwis will not be too happy with Mathieu Raynal's performance. The Frenchman was in charge in Chicago when Ireland beat the All Blacks and Ireland played him well then. Yesterday there was frustration, particularly at scrum time. I felt that the Crusaders had a far stronger scrum yet they conceded four scrum penalties, one for encroaching/slow engagement, which got the hackles of the home crowd up.

Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano - a starter and reserve second-row for the All Blacks - had average games, and the Crusaders pack never really gave their undoubted talent in the three-quarters any decent ball going forward.

All of Ireland's performers did well, and will all be in contention for a Test spot. However, it was the British and Irish Lions' Kiwis and Islanders contingent who were the most influential. Mako Vunipola had a highly industrious game, leading the tackle count with 11. His brother Billy, who will still be sorely missed, had the perfect replacement in Taulupe Faletau. The Welsh No 8 has been injured for most of the season and is now fresh, dynamic and in the form of his life.

Ben Te'o also had a productive game. As a fully signed-up member of the Warrenball game-plan his ability to make five metres and hang on to the ball at first centre is the prime building block of Gatland's ideology.

Steve Hansen was quite verbose last week, piling the pressure on Wazza, but I believe these warm-up matches are always highly relevant for the Lions, particularly in New Zealand.

Jack Goodhue of the Crusaders slips the tackle of Conor Murray. Photo: Martin England/via Reuters
Jack Goodhue of the Crusaders slips the tackle of Conor Murray. Photo: Martin England/via Reuters

The nip and tuck of psychological advantage is now with Gatland. Hansen watched the strength of what is likely to be a Lions Test pack, plus kickers of the quality of Murray, Farrell and Sexton, and this will have coloured his perspective on who he selects in the battle up front.

In the back three Hansen, out of sheer complacency, chose Julian Savea and Waisake Naholo on the wing for the Ireland game in Chicago. After watching the talented Bridge, Seta Tamanivalu and Israel Dagg suffer under a torrent of beautifully placed and weighted box-kicks, does Hansen now change his mind?

Does he stick with what should be his two most potent attacking threats with the ball in hand or should he go with players who will undoubtedly deal better with the aerial bombardment that is most certainly coming their way? Dagg, a superior player but without much match-time this season, did not help his cause yesterday and now it seems Hansen will have to make some hard calls. It will be the crucial area in the Test series.

He will also be aware that his superstar pivot Beauden Barrett, who has been fizzing all year, has been closed down recently by teams who have studied his modus operandi. Once the out-half's natural running and passing game has been shut off, it could be down to who deals best in a game of kick-chase.

The Lions have really laid down a marker. I suspect Hansen will be an awful lot less audible or visible this week.

There are no extra points for artistic merit and the Lions probably don't care that much that they didn't score more points. The lifeblood of a touring side is winning and the self-belief that brings. The Highlanders game under the roof on Tuesday against a Lions midweek side will be even tougher than yesterday's disappointing match.

As for Wazza, the margarine is still in the fridge.

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