Saturday 21 April 2018

Neil Francis: Improving tourists have given Hansen plenty of food for thought

New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

This is a time for sober reflection. We know that the New Zealand All Blacks have not lost a Test match in Eden Park since 1994. There is a reason for that. We don't know what the sell-by date is on invincibility but, whatever way you look at it, the Lions do have a good chance of winning the first Test.

The win yesterday against a witless Maori side is relevant. It is relevant because there is so much quality in that Maori side yet their structure and process was a million miles away from what their opponents possessed.

I have no doubt, despite Steve Hansen's trash talk and posturing, that the All Blacks will at the very least pay the Lions the respect of actually taking them seriously. When is a 78-0 thrashing unimpressive in anyone's language?

That Samoan side that played against New Zealand had no idea what to do defensively and their line speed and their ability to cover inside and know naturally who to tackle and when to tackle was a long way off Test standard, and the All Blacks cut them apart with a display of prescience and space awareness.

You do get a nagging sense that there will be no space next week in Auckland and this is where the first match could be won and lost. It was marvellously illustrated throughout yesterday's game but no more so than when the match was three-quarters gone and the result a foregone conclusion.

Damian McKenzie, normally a full-back for the Chiefs, was thrown into the front-line and called upon as a pivot. He must have felt like he was playing in a telephone box. In the 59th minute, Taulupe Faletau won a ball at the back of a lineout, it was turned over and the Maoris nicked it as the Lions were attempting to work something off their possession.

The Maoris got around the corner twice and the speed of recycle was reasonable, and McKenzie took possession literally in the middle of the field but eight metres back from the tackle scene. He looked to pass outside him where he had Rob Thompson waiting for the ball.

In the space of time it took him to check you could see his body language saying, 'Bloody hell, what's the point?' Conor Murray inside and Johnny Sexton outside had come up so quickly there was no option or space to pass the ball. Thompson threw his hands in the air and McKenzie got emptied by Murray.

The ruck ended up as a muscular steal by Seán O'Brien and suddenly the Lions were off again.

Beauden Barrett was sensational against Samoa. It is his pace that does the damage all the time and he undoubtedly will take the ball a lot closer to the gain line than any outhalf on this tour has. The Lions too will also have to be wary, not just for Barrett and his bag of tricks, but Sonny Bill Williams and his offloads and his interpretation of how to get in behind. Nobody has yet been exposed by the dink in behind the three-quarter line which should soften the Lions' line speed.

Nehe Milner-Skudder made profit out of one yesterday but they are few and far between. And so the squeeze, the ability to neutralise and the speed of the Lions outside-to-in defensive machination is the key to this Test series.

If you look at all the major Test matches that New Zealand have lost over the last 10 years - Ireland in Chicago, England in Twickenham, South Africa in Johannesburg and France in Cardiff - they are all based on huge defensive performances and the ability to restrict space. It is amazing how human they look when they face a continued barrage of clever and eager tacklers.

The other element in all of those losses would be meeting a pack that is able to subdue the flow and rhythm of a New Zealand eight that would not be as cohesive and well organised as they will be by the third Test.

All of the key performance indicators for the Lions are going in the right direction. They only missed eight tackles all day against the Maoris. They only conceded four penalties and their territorial game was phenomenal yesterday, which led to mounting frustration in the Maori ranks - it's hard to play volleyball so deep in your own territory. The Lions are far from slick and they are not scoring too many tries through their out-field backs but I don't think Wazza ever promised that they were there to entertain. By next week there should be enough cohesion, ease of effort at tight and the ability to think their way through where they need to attack on a sustained basis.

It looks like Hansen will pick Israel Dagg and Ben Smith (two full-backs) in their back three in due deference to the expected aerial bombing campaign that will be coming their way. Of all the Maori failings yesterday, the ability to deal with the high ball was their most pronounced failing. Hansen simply cannot ignore that.

In effect, a Saracens front five and an Irish mid-five should be good enough to more than trouble a New Zealand side irrespective of the venue. Hansen may just realise that he will have a significant challenge on his hands next week and his previous arrogance might just be checked.

The weather will play a huge part in the outcome but the Lions have a serious chance - just don't expect anything pretty.

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