Sunday 17 December 2017

Defeat highlights extent of Lions' challenge

Gatland playing catch-up but curve will only get steeper

Warren Gatland can’t hide his disappointment. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Warren Gatland can’t hide his disappointment. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Warren Gatland has a theory. He has come to the conclusion that the Super Rugby franchises are almost as good as New Zealand themselves and last night began arguing that experiencing close games against them will ultimately stand his Lions side in good stead.

It is probably wishful thinking, but his team need to evolve quickly if they are to have a chance.

They started at the bottom of the tree yesterday, but when they attempted to climb, the branch broke. The Blues produced the game's magical moment and won it in an instant.

Tana Umaga's team are the worst of this country's Super Rugby teams, but that is a dubious insult. When you count Sonny Bill Williams and Steven Luatua in your cast of characters, there is no doubting you can do damage.

There is no shame in losing to any of these sides. This is arguably the most difficult tour schedule ever put together, and things get more tricky on Saturday when the unbeaten Crusaders host the Lions in Christchurch.

They are every bit as talented as the Blues, but they also have a hard-nosed approach and a winning mentality.

"Look, it's tough. You have to pull a team together in a short amount of time from all of these different countries with different playing styles and then jump off a plane, three days later you play one game; five, six days later you've another one," Umaga said. "It's just pretty relentless.

"The other side of that, they get quality tests in terms of what they want to do when they get into the Test arena. I don't think you can discount that.

"It's a tough tour for them. But I'm sure they've targeted certain games that they really want to focus on, the Tests I'd say, and if they get success in the Tests then I'm sure everyone will forget how they went when we beat them."

It's a quick turnaround for Gatland and his squad who travelled to Christchurch overnight and name their team this morning.

The coach will hand games to the 11 players who have yet to start a match, meaning Conor Murray and Owen Farrell should line out together at half-back, and Sean O'Brien will be in the back-row with Taulupe Faletau, with Tadhg Furlong getting a run at tighthead.

Their preparation-time is limited, but the focus will initiall be on discipline. Assistant coach Andy Farrell addressed the squad in the dressing-room yesterday, stressing that their penalty count of 13 was far too high.

"There were a lot of positives and things to improve on defensively, and the other big message from Andy to the players was the penalty count and penalties that were avoidable," Gatland said.


"In the first two games we have been a bit soft in that area and we have to be hard on ourselves as players and coaches to make sure we definitely tighten up in that because it is causing us a few issues and hopefully we'll see a big improvement on that on Saturday."

Within the dressing-room there is an acknowledgement that this remains a work in progress.

"We're not going to hit the panic button," scrum-half Rhys Webb said. "We're going to stay positive and look forward to the challenge again on Saturday.

"We knew it was going to be tough coming over here. These teams are pretty special and the strength in depth they've got is amazing, so we knew it was going to be a challenge and credit to them on the win today.

"We know what they can do. They can score tries from anywhere. We just need to stay alert for the full 80 minutes."

The Lions will cling to the improvements in their cohesion and their set-piece, but they got little reward at scrum-time in particular, where Jack McGrath had Charlie Faumuina under pressure, but referee Pascal Gauzere was content to play off collapsed scrums which devalued the tourists' advantage.

In defence, they struggled with their spacing, and brilliant youngster Rieko Ioane threatened to cut loose at times. For those of us who have watched the Farrell defence in action with Ireland, the struggles on the edges of the back-line were a familiar sight.

But the greatest challenge for the Lions comes in attack. They have scored two tries in 160 minutes; last night's sole effort was a maul touch-down from CJ Stander, and the home side looked far more dangerous.

For all Rob Howley's talk of "chaos", the Blues were rarely troubled by their visitors with ball in hand, whether Dan Biggar or Johnny Sexton was running the show.

At no point did they look capable of unlocking the defence in the way the locals did for their winning try, a superb score of real quality from Ihaia West that deserved to settle matters.

"We played a lot better tonight," was Gatland's conclusion. "We put ourselves in a position to win the game. You can take a lot of positives from that and you can take a lot of things in your control that you can change and improve.


"Saturday is going to be another tough encounter but those players will have been together and gelled for that little bit longer, so I expect to see an improvement from tonight's performance again.

"There is so much strength in depth in this country, I don't think there is going to be a lot of difference between some of the Super Rugby sides and the All Blacks. These guys have been together for seven months and the All Blacks are coming together cold.

"There is a massive amount of strength in depth and I don't think an awful lot of difference between the teams."

It was a progression for the touring side, but that wasn't enough. Every few days they'll meet another all-singing, all-dancing Super Rugby side and suddenly it will be the two-time world champions in front of them. The schedule is unremitting.

In the face of such an enormous challenge, they need players to seize the moment and create opportunities for each other.

Only then will they have a chance of succeeding.

Irish Independent

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