Friday 28 July 2017

Neil Francis: Two weeks of hell on earth in store for disoriented Lions

 

Sean O’Brien scores the Lions’ first try of the game during yesterday’s first Test defeat to New Zealand at Eden Park in Auckland. Photo: Sportsfile
Sean O’Brien scores the Lions’ first try of the game during yesterday’s first Test defeat to New Zealand at Eden Park in Auckland. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

A painful, predictable and sobering defeat. A scoreline that does not even come close to reflecting the gulf in class. The Lions produced a fitful effort; myopic commentators and apologists will point to the opportunities they squandered in the middle of the game without ever looking at how many the All Blacks passed up.

And so this group must endure the unendurable. The irrevocability of the lost cause. In rugby terms it is as close to death as you can come without actually dying: losing the first Test in New Zealand and knowing you have no realistic chance of winning the series.

The Lions are now stuck on those two islands with the population being polite to you but secretly mocking your second-rate rugby heritage. No escape. This is hell on earth and the Lions will have to live through it for the next two weeks. We think the Lions may improve next week, we know for certain that the All Blacks will, and desperation against the odds in this case is the wrong motivational tool.

The All Blacks were far from perfect but it is their mastery of the basics and their ability to make the complex look easy that sets them apart. Simplicity of thought and honesty of effort are the cornerstones of their success. They played with their usual invention and dexterity without displaying their full potency. Now that they are in the groove this will manifest, and the Lions will really have to up their attitude and aptitude to stay even close to the masters of this game.

The match itself was a live essay in assessing skill. There were three moments that for me perfectly illustrated the gulf in class.

The first one arrived early in the game as the sides were figuring each other out. The All Blacks were working to their game-plan to try to temper the Lions' line-speed, and as the ball came to the irrepressible Beauden Barrett, he instinctively tried to turn the Lions cover. His chip ricocheted off Conor Murray's knees and bounced back 10 metres behind the kicker.

Barrett had to move quickly and think even quicker. His concentration was intense as he eyed the ball, which wasn't sitting up well for him to retrieve it and with Murray, Alun Wyn Jones, George Kruis and Peter O'Mahony bearing down on him Barrett, with nobody behind him, had to reclaim the situation. It is rare that you hear it at a Test match but there was a collective exhalation of breath followed by a chorus of 'oohs' and 'aaahs' as Barrett scooped the ball up on the run into his chest. A sublime moment of skill given the circumstances.

What impressed me, quite apart from his ability to not make a mistake in recovering himself, was that he did not break stride and as soon as the ball was safe in his possession he accelerated out of Murray's attempted tackle. If Murray had caught him, the chasing Lions forwards would have stuffed him, knocked him back and turned him over.

The confidence to produce something like that didn't really show disdain for his opponents, it just seemed like the most natural thing to do in the circumstances. Instinct. None of our players in the northern hemisphere would attempt to produce such a moment.

Twelve minutes later the All Blacks were knocking on the door. As the Lions demonstrated with the 11 penalties that they conceded, they just weren't clever enough slowing or killing ball at ruck time. The All Blacks were doing exactly the same, except they were far smarter in their execution. Jaco Peyper gave the penalty about five metres out.

As players were wandering back to their positions, it was interesting to note who was doing what. Owen Farrell and Jones were back on their line but with their hands on their knees and blowing hard. George Kruis hadn't even retreated back to his goal-line and he was offside and out of the game. Mako Vunipola had his hands on his hips and was looking for the water boy.

Meanwhile, Aaron Smith, with a mind full of possibilities, assessed his options in a nanosecond and the ball was gone and the Lions were three metres off the pace. This close to the line, it's like a penalty in football, and the quality of passing from one side of the pitch to the other was sensational.

It took three seconds - Smith's pass to Barrett, Barrett's 15-metre pass right into the bread basket to Israel Dagg and then Dagg gunned a 17-metre pass out to Codie Taylor in the wide channels. Dagg's left-to-right pass to Taylor dipped in the last metre or so, and the hooker had to catch it below his knees. Taylor did this without any seeming difficulty and scored in the corner as Elliot Daly was outflanked. Once again an All Black took a dipping ball below his knees without breaking his stride to score. Most forwards get white-line fever and drop the ball; most forwards would have found the pace of the pass and its proximity to the ground too much to handle; but not the All Black second-choice hooker, whose skill-set allowed him to motor on and score a try which the Lions would not have scored.

If the Lions had been in the same position Jamie George would have dropped the ball because his skill-set is nowhere near where it should be. The English hooker's darts are as good as those of Bobby George but unfortunately he has the same body shape and it is hard not to notice that he has a Dunlop radial around his midriff. Taylor is ripped, lean, athletic and powerfully built - the comparisons are the difference.

The moment of the match came in the 54th minute. The Lions had a couple of bright moments after the break and the score at this stage was still 13-8. The game was still on. Next came the usual interruption of flow as a gaggle of substitutes was introduced. The All Blacks had a scrum on the right-hand side of the field, half-way between the 10-metre line and the '22'. There seemed to be a natural lull in proceedings at that stage. A Kit Kat moment, everyone take a break. The All Blacks had taken the knife out of the scabbard and were looking to slit throats as the Lions were looking around and binding up for their scrum. Ho hum.

The quality of Taylor's strike is a lost art, and the ball was hooked back to Kieran Read's feet in a nanosecond, which gave him the opportunity to pull back up out of the hooking position and get ready to push.

The propagandists and spin doctors told us that the Lions had a superior scrum. Sean Fitzpatrick reckoned the All Black pack had the better scrum. We found out at that moment as the All Blacks simply destroyed the Lions scrum and pushed it back 12 metres, one metre away from the 22. Peyper's hand was already in the air for the scrum penalty, and as Read controlled the ball at the base, Murray, from an offside position, kicked the ball while it was still inside the scrum. Murray was lucky to not get a yellow. As he attempted to climb all over Read, the No 8's concentration on picking the ball without spilling it - it is easier to knock-on in these situations - was again the difference. The dexterity of his no-look flick to his scrum-half Aaron Smith was sublime. It was almost telepathic in their understanding of where one another would be; a remarkable moment of skill led to Rieko Ioane's try in the corner, and that was the game.

Read, after seven weeks out, put in a sensational performance; he was the best player on the park. His two second-rows are the pillars of this side and in some way their absence in Chicago dilutes Ireland's win.

There is very little you can do against a side that can play at such pace. The Lions can regroup, reassess and reselect but it is not going to make any difference and the next two weeks will be a chastening if not harrowing experience for the Lions.

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