Wednesday 22 November 2017

How did the Lions lose to the Blues and how do they recover from this blow?

British and Irish Lions players stand dejected after the tour match at Eden Park,
British and Irish Lions players stand dejected after the tour match at Eden Park,

Julian Bennetts

The British and Irish Lions have lost 22-16 against the Blues in Auckland. Here's what we learned from the absorbing encounter.

How did the Lions fall to their first defeat of the tour?

The simple answer is due to an outstanding try that ripped through the heart of the Lions' defence thanks to two glorious offloads and some superb running lines.

When the late try came it was completely unexpected because the Lions seemed to have weathered the storm and hauled themselves back into the game thanks to excellent impacts from the bench by the likes of Joe Marler and Kyle Sinckler.

But the reality of the situation was that the Blues' try exposed the paucity of the Lions' attack. There was so little imagination in the attacking game, and precisely nothing that will scare the All Blacks.

True, the set piece and the driving maul worked brilliantly, but it was almost a cliche of how the southern hemisphere sees the northern game - built on grunt, and lacking in glory.

True, there is still time to improve, and the fact they came so close to victory is testament to the side's character and options up front.

But the 'X-Factor' Warren Gatland talked about beforehand was sorely absent. This was a big step up from Saturday's awful performance, but the Lions will hope there is a lot left in the locker - and that they are able to find it before they face the All Blacks.

Was this Warrenball or rugby chaos?

For sections of the first half it was far more chaos than 'Warrenball', with some long periods of unstructured rugby. The issue for the Lions is that they were enjoying more success when they kept it tight, with the forwards - particularly the tight five - enjoying the upper hand pretty much throughout.

Robbie Henshaw was the man supposedly picked as a 'battering ram' inside-centre but he showed moments of genuine subtlety and class alongside the more physical element of the game.

What the Lions needed was more slight of hand when chances presented themselves, as well as a more ruthless edge to make the most of their dominance - and a traditional form of 'Warrenball' (no matter how much the coach detests the phrase) may have provided it. One try having dominated possession and territory in the first half was not enough.

The Lions came back thanks to traditional strengths in the tight, but the one moment of genius in the game came from the Blues - and it was enough.

With chances limited some missed their opportunity to impress

It was hard not to feel sorry for Jack Nowell when he knocked on a simple pass 10 minutes after half-time. With the Lions tour so condensed the players know they will not have many chances to impress, and Nowell was sadly one who fluffed their opportunity completely.

The Exeter Chief is a fine player coming in to the tour off the back of a fine season, but he was caught out of position for Reiko Ioane's try, was unfortunate to knock the ball back for Sonny Bill Williams' score and then missed his man as the Blues nearly scored a third.

Nowell was not alone, with Jared Payne not at his best before he went off injured, while Dan Biggar having a mixed bag of a game and Rory Best's final lineout throw was the stuff of nightmares.

As the clock ticked down desperation seemed to take over for some, and they will be in new territory here - desperate to make the most of brief time on the pitch but knowing selfishness will see their Test chances evaporated. It is unfair to judge them on, say, an hour of rugby, but on a Lions tour some may not get much more than that.

Man of the Match

Rieko Ioane (Blues)

What a talent. Ioane is just 20 years old but plays with real maturity which, allied to superb skill levels and pace to burn, adds up to a potent combination. Jack Nowell will never want to see him again, with Ioane smiling as he raced past the Exeter man for his score.

He beat Nowell twice more, with only a trailing foot denying him another try after a brilliant pick-up, while he shrugged off three tacklers to touch down before realising the whistle had been blown. A statement performance from a hugely dangerous player. 

What do the Lions need to do next?

Work on their attacking game. The set piece is strong, and the tight five can be very happy with their work overall. But behind the scrum there was precisely nothing to shout about. Sam Warburton set a target of four tries per game, but on this evidence there is precisely no chance of that happening.

Gatland and Rob Howley will have a lot of work to do over the next few weeks . It gets no easier, with the Crusaders expected to be much tougher opponents on Saturday.

What will New Zealand have learnt?

It was mixed news from the All Black point of view. Steve Hansen will have been pleased to see Sonny Bill Williams looking some way back to his threatening best, making a couple of crucial turnovers and scoring a try on the stroke of half-time.

On the flip side Charlie Faumuina came off distinctly second best to Jack McGrath at scrum time, ruefully shaking his head as the penalty count rose. The man who impressed above all though was Reiko Ioane. The Lions won't relish seeing him again in the Test series.

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