Saturday 19 October 2019

Alan Quinlan: All Blacks hell-bent on nullifying the Lions's threat at all costs and not always legally

Kieran Read off-loads to Ryan Crotty during New Zealand’s victory over the Lions. Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images
Kieran Read off-loads to Ryan Crotty during New Zealand’s victory over the Lions. Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

While the whole country was basking in the glory of Ireland's famous win over the All Blacks in Chicago, the soul-searching that was done back in New Zealand was such that they were adamant they wouldn't take their eye off the ball for this Lions series.

The All Blacks didn't take the Lions for granted and they felt the full brunt of that. It was a cracking Test match, although it wasn't pretty rugby. However, when it's played at such speed and accuracy, you'd have to worry about what possibly lies ahead for the Lions.

When New Zealand destroyed Samoa last weekend, I wondered how much value you could put on that, considering it was their first hit-out of the season, but they turned up on Saturday determined to lay down a marker.

We all know how good their skill-set is, but it's the ferocious intensity with which they played was the most impressive aspect of what was a dominant performance.

I was quite surprised with how direct the All Blacks played. They weren't taking any chances in moving the ball across the pitch, instead they were happy to go toe-to-toe with the Lions and pummel them up front.

If you had told Warren Gatland before the game that New Zealand would play in that manner, he would have been content to take the game to them in the tight exchanges but when the opposition play with that much aggression, it is almost impossible to defend against. In saying that, the Lions' scramble defence was outstanding.

The breakdown battle was always going to be crucial and the All Blacks dominated it. The speed at which they were entering rucks was phenomenal - they bullied the Lions.

For a team that has only played one game against a poor Samoan side, to have that level of cohesion and accuracy was seriously impressive. I thought they might be a bit rusty - wishful thinking!

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I questioned whether Kieran Read would be up to Test match intensity after such a long period out injured but it just goes to show, he's not just a world class player, but a great captain and leader as well.

Read set the tempo from the off, and his side defended as if their lives depended on it. It was a big statement of their intent and the worrying thing for the Lions is that the All Blacks will be better again for the second Test this weekend.

The support lines that they run are excellent and it's probably something you may not fully appreciate unless you're at the game watching them closely. Every time a player in a black jersey gets the ball, there is someone running a brilliant line inside and outside them as well.

It's something that teams in the Northern Hemisphere don't do well enough. The anticipation and genuine belief that you will get an opportunity if you run hard with the ball-carrier is what separates New Zealand from the rest. The one time the Lions did it to perfection, they scored a remarkable try from Sean O'Brien. They must look to do that more often in Wellington on Saturday.

The All Blacks' ability to hold onto the ball and build phases stifled the Lions. Aaron Smith had a brilliant game but when the ball presentation is as good as it was, most scum-halves will thrive.

Mind you, the Lions did try and play, which you have to give them credit for but their plan didn't pay off. Everyone expected a forward-dominated performance but they tried to move the ball a bit more.

One of the Lions' perceived threats was their line-speed in defence but that was totally negated by the home side continuing to run hard lines in close. It caught them on the hop.

When the opposition are so accurate and their work-rate is so high, it is always very difficult to counteract it. The problem for the Lions was that they didn't have enough possession in the first half and didn't take their opportunities when they presented themselves.

Elliot Daly was held up over the line early on, that would have been a huge boost had he scored. And then Jonathan Davies and Conor Murray linked up and almost got over. Such small margins, but ultimately you have to take those kind of chances, especially when you're playing against New Zealand.

When the Lions kicked for the corner on 45 minutes after sustained pressure and nearly scoring, the hosts sacked the lineout maul and turned the ball over. It felt like a huge moment at the time and the momentum and the atmosphere inside the stadium really shifted back in the home side's favour.

We saw how the All Blacks reacted to the defeat in Chicago when they arrived in Dublin a couple of weeks later. Some of what they did that night was on the borderline of legality and in Auckland on Saturday, it was the same.

I didn't think Jaco Peyper and his assistants picked up some of the angles that the Kiwis were entering rucks. They go off their feet and enter rucks from the side so often and I'm sure Gatland will be trying to get that point across to Jerome Garces this week.

The problem for referees is that the All Blacks are performing the 'dark arts' at such a lightning speed that it is very difficult to pick up on. Also, the fact that so many of their players do it together, makes it even more so.

They are hell-bent on nullifying the opposition's threat at all costs. Technique often goes out the window and bodies fly in everywhere. Any mere sight of a red jersey was just cleaned out and it wasn't always done so legally.

I spotted a couple of neck rolls and it was blatantly obvious that the All Blacks went after Conor Murray in a similar way that Glasgow did against Munster. It's on the edge of the laws and sometimes crosses the line.

I wouldn't make wholesale changes for the second Test because I thought the Lions players did a lot of things right against a superb team. The biggest focus this week will be on how they go about imposing themselves at the breakdown and matching their opponents physically.

The Lions' problems from Saturday can be fixed, but they have to bring their intensity to a new level if they are to match the All Blacks and level the series.

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