Saturday 25 November 2017

Gatland: Where is your pride?

New Zealand 30 Lions 15

Israel Dagg and Elliot Daly challenge for the ball during New Zealand’s victory. Photo: David Gray/Reuters
Israel Dagg and Elliot Daly challenge for the ball during New Zealand’s victory. Photo: David Gray/Reuters

Ruadhri O'Connor

Warren Gatland has laid the blame for Saturday's opening Test defeat to New Zealand firmly at his players' door after launching a withering assessment of their commitment levels in the face of All Black aggression at Eden Park.

By questioning his players' pride, the Lions coach is looking for a response, but he is likely to shake things up for the second Test just in case, with Peter O'Mahony set to be dropped in favour of Sam Warburton.

Maro Itoje is also in line to come into the team at the expense of either Alun-Wyn Jones or George Kruis, both of whom performed poorly as the tight five were bullied by the world champions.

After the game, Steve Hansen spoke about his side's ability to get "down and dirty" when they wanted to, having switched tactics to take on the Lions up front by playing off scrum-half Aaron Smith and sending big men down the close channels. It worked a treat as the All Black forwards won collision after collision en route to a comprehensive win.

Rieko Ioane goes over to score a try despite the efforts of Ben Te’o and Liam Williams. Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images
Rieko Ioane goes over to score a try despite the efforts of Ben Te’o and Liam Williams. Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

They removed the Lions' supposed pillars of strength from beneath them, negating their line-speed, demeaning their scrum and beating them up in the contact zone. It was demoralising stuff.

Gatland was clinging to the try-scoring opportunities his side created but didn't take, but he knows his side cannot win a Test match here with that sort of insipid approach to the physical side of the game.

"If I was playing on Saturday night and I felt that I was physically dominated, I'd be a little bit disappointed in myself and I'd be doing everything I could physically do the following week to make sure I fixed that area of the game," he said.

"If I felt my pride was hurt a little bit, I'd be wanting to fix that.

"They're aware that we weren't as strong in that contact area as we can be and we have to improve. If you've played at the top level you know when that area hasn't been right and sometimes it's mindset. You do whatever it takes for the following week to make sure you change that.

"I'm sure that's what these players will be focused on this week, and as coaches we'll be focused on it as well.

Sean O’Brien goes over to score his side’s first try. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Sean O’Brien goes over to score his side’s first try. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

"Sometimes it's an attitude thing, getting off the line and winning collisions. It's just a mental thing. In fairness to (New Zealand), they were pretty aggressive at the breakdown; came hard and won the collisions.

"It's disappointing, sometimes that's a pride factor. We need to make sure that we're a lot more physical in the contact area in both attack and defence.

"If we get that right the transfer from that area to other parts of the game will be huge.

"It's not (being) mentally right, it's just that they've been a bit more aggressive at the breakdown area.

"I'm not saying it was for the entire 80 minutes - there were times when we were excellent, times when the defence was good and times when we carried well. But overall they got the better of us in that area and we need to improve in that aspect."

Speaking in Wellington after naming his team to face the Hurricanes last night, Gatland signalled at least two changes to his pack as he looks to improve on the performance in the hope of saving the series.

New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick towers over Alun-Wyn Jones Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick towers over Alun-Wyn Jones Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

He never once used O'Mahony's name in the briefing, but did hail Warburton's influence off the bench and pointed out the need to slow the world champions' ball down at breakdown time, which is the Welsh back-row's strength.

However, Warburton has been way off the pace on this tour and despite Gatland's public utterance to the contrary, there was little evidence on Saturday that he is about to hit form.

There is no doubt that Itoje should come into the team after the dreadful showing from both locks. It would be no surprise to see Courtney Lawes promoted as well, with Iain Henderson on the bench, presuming both come through tomorrow's game unscathed.

"We might have to shake it up a little bit," Gatland said. "Maro made an impact coming off the bench and was very physical. Sam was excellent at the breakdown when he came on.

"There's the guys on Tuesday night who get a real chance to make an impact in that area as well. Sometimes at the top level, it's not about playing pretty rugby and we've seen the All Blacks be prepared to be pretty physical in the past.

"They were pretty brutal in that breakdown area and we need to match fire with fire."

It's unlikely, but Owen Farrell should also be in the firing line after a poor display, but the England out-half appears untouchable on this tour and Johnny Sexton may have to bide his time.

Gatland was also unhappy with the softness of the tries his team conceded.

Elliot Daly was caught napping by Aaron Smith for Codie Taylor's score, while the first of Rieko Ioane's double came from a piece of Kieran Read brilliance after a dominant scrum but also saw Jon Davies miss a tackle on Sonny Bill Williams and Anthony Watson get sucked in to leave room on the edge.

Ioane's second was a catastrophe from Liam Williams, but he had earlier contributed to the brilliant Lions score from deep inside his own '22' during an epic first half.

The quality of the game has drawn huge praise from New Zealanders who know their stuff, and Hansen rated the performance as one of his side's best.

"I thought they were reasonably non-abrasive at the breakdown, they allowed us to get the ball we needed to get by not putting numbers in because they wanted to have line-speed, they wanted people on their feet in their defensive line," he said.

"Maybe they'll look at changing that, maybe they'll be more aggressive at the breakdown but that comes with challenges too. That might give us more space to attack.

"I think we caught them completely by surprise by playing off No 9 and not 10 which we do a lot of, they'll look at that.

"They had genuine success moving the ball from the back - you don't score tries like the one they did without having people capable of hurting you.

"So, maybe there'll be a bit more of that. We'll have to sharpen up."

That frightening thought combined with Gatland's public rebuke should focus the Lions' minds as the second Test approaches.

New Zealand - B Smith (A Cruden 28 HIA); I Dagg, R Crotty (A Lienert-Brown 32), SB Williams, R Ioane; B Barrett, A Smith (TJ Perenara 58); J Moody (W Crockett 54), C Taylor (N Harris 67), O Franks (C Faumuina 54); B Retallick, S Whitelock; J Kaino (A Savea 46), S Cane, K Read (capt) (S Barrett 77).

Lions - L Williams (L Halfpenny 72); A Watson, J Davies, B Te'o (J Sexton 58), E Daly; O Farrell, C Murray (R Webb 68); M Vunipola (J McGrath 52), J George (K Owens 68), T Furlong (K Sinckler 59); AW Jones (M Itoje 48), G Kruis; P O'Mahony (capt, S Warburton 54), S O'Brien, T Faletau.

Ref -J Peyper (South Africa)

Irish Independent

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