Wednesday 23 August 2017

Tony Ward: Farrell’s lack of impact means Sexton should start – but it’s still a mammoth task

Jonathan Sexton of the British & Irish Lions following the First Test match at Eden Park in Auckland. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton of the British & Irish Lions following the First Test match at Eden Park in Auckland. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It was without doubt the best performance of the tour, and still the Lions were hammered. I say hammered because while the difference in points was 'only' 15, the gap in quality - individual and collective - between the sides was marked.

Right now, as we see in Super Rugby week on week, the Kiwis are playing a brand of rugby at an intensity and embracing a risk factor from a different planet.

Since the end of the Autumn series the All Blacks had played just one Test, against Samoa last week. They should be undercooked but, on the clear evidence of that game and Saturday's victory, were a World Cup being held next week they would waltz to a third Webb Ellis success on the bounce.

And while the Lion in me wanted the tourists to win - more for the sake of the series than any blind loyalty - the game as a whole is much better served by the All Blacks doing what they did again on Saturday.

Had the Lions taken one or two of the chances that came their way, particularly the one after half-time, it might have made for a much tighter contest, although I'm not sure it would have been enough to win.

Again in the aftermath we had to listen to the tired cliché of the Lions blaming a lack of discipline in the concession of too many penalties.

It is of course true but it's a statement of the bleeding obvious. I repeat for the umpteenth time: penalties come about through relentless pressure, and regurgitating that the beaten side need greater discipline is a cop-out.

Referees may have their quirks (of which every Test team is well aware in advance) but the elite officials are consistent, they are forceful and they are neutral - the main reason why they are officiating at the level they are.

Put simply, Jaco Peyper was so far removed from the root of this Lions defeat that to even hear his name mentioned in post-match analysis smacked of desperation.

Far better for the Lions to concentrate on what they did well, because there were many positives to take from this defeat, particularly their attacking from deep with that little bit of derring-do.

Sean O'Brien's try, sparked by Liam Williams ( who was an outstanding success overall), and embracing Elliot Daly and Jonathan Davies (the stand-out Lions performer) was pure magic. It was right up there with the greatest tries in Lions Test history.

But in the overall scheme, it was an oasis in the desert when measured against the relentless 80-minute intensity of the opposition.

The key to beating the All Blacks is the same as ever: control the breakdown - at least slow the tempo in the contact area - and they can become close to human. Easier said than done I know, but certainly there is a case for bringing in Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes and for the Wellington showdown in five days' time - and maybe Sam Warburton, if the tour captain can show he is back close to peak form, which certainly hasn't been the case so far.

It is a quick turnaround, with the final midweek blowout against the Hurricanes in between.

Barring something exceptional it looks like Lawes, Iain Henderson and CJ Stander (who should have been on the bench in Auckland) are the three players involved who have a hope of forcing their way in to Saturday's 23. Itoje will surely come in for Alun-Wyn Jones, leaving Lawes, Henderson and Stander to compete along with Warburton for the two likely vacancies on the bench.

Kyle Sinckler was the best of the impact replacements on Saturday but he would still be best served in that role, with Tadhg Furlong again starting.

Itoje for Jones would be the one change to the pack, with the big question mark in the backline now surrounding Owen Farrell.

For all his domineering form for Saracens and England, he was virtually anonymous on Saturday, and given his position that is nigh-on impossible.

I do not see any merit in picking both Farrell and Johnny Sexton - with Sonny Bill Williams now back in gear, to have the two out-halves in that same channel would be tantamount to rugby suicide - but I do believe there is now a case for recalling the Irishman in the Englishman's place.

I cannot see where any other change can be made behind the scrum to improve attacking potential, given that Jonathan Joseph appears to have been written off long before the squad departed.

And one final point - just how good was Kieran Read? He was man of the match by a country mile, and the level of finger-tip precision when popping the ball for his scrum-half in the build-up to Rieko Ioane's match-clinching try made it the most brilliant piece of skill I have seen at this level.

The fact that the officials suspected a knock-on at the scrum and went back to the TMO said it all.

It was rugby at the highest level by a very humble man who proved conclusively that good guys can come first.

Irish Independent

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