Wednesday 13 December 2017

Lions considering dropping players for indiscipline following high penalty count and hot-headedness

Lions' Mako Vunipola is shown a yellow card yesterday. REUTERS/Anthony Phelps
Lions' Mako Vunipola is shown a yellow card yesterday. REUTERS/Anthony Phelps

Paul Hayward

The Lions are considering dropping players for indiscipline after an historic win over New Zealand was marred by a high penalty count and hot-headedness.

Graham Rowntree, the assistant coach, said there were “potentially” repercussions for selection after the Lions conceded 13 penalties, Mako Vunipola was sent to the sin bin and Sean O’Brien was cited for a swinging arm at the head of Waisake Naholo. “If that’s what it takes. Gats [Warren Gatland, the head coach] has shown he’s not afraid of doing that if that’s what it takes,” Rowntree said. “It’s not as if it’s the same offenders. We’ll just be very frank with the lads. The pictures are undeniable, some of them. That’ll be a big focus this week.”

Kyle Sinckler too was reported to have been verbally aggressive after the game but Rowntree refused to be drawn on that: “I don’t think there’s an issue there. It’s an emotional game. A physical game. Tempers got a bit out of control maybe. That happens. I’ve been there myself. The game was that intense, wasn’t it. I was pitchside. You could feel it. At some point I wish I was on there. But most of the time I don’t. You could feel the emotion.”

Paradoxically he also defended Vunipola: “Mako’s a physical player but he’s not a dirty player. We got on with it. I think we dealt with it quite well when he was off the field.”

The odds are that the worst offenders will escape with a reprimand - but Gatland and his staff know another high penalty count could cost the Lions a series against an All Black side who will be pumped up for revenge. Rowntree predicted a “white hot atmosphere” in Auckland on Saturday.

He said: “We’ve got to sort it out because it’s going to kill us. We show them [the players] every day. We can’t be doing this. In the heat of the battle, it’s all about what you do, under fatigue. You can’t be doing it.

“We have to sit down and look at it in the cold light of day. It’s not the same individuals - but there’s a trait in what we’re doing. We can’t lose a Test series on the back of some stupid penalties. That would be unacceptable. How would you live with that for the rest of your life?”

After a 24-21 victory that brought New Zealand’s first home defeat in 48 Tests, Rowntree also promised an even stronger showing in the decider at Eden Park.

“That was a special game, wasn’t it. What a game,” he said. “A lot of lads were questioned last week, after the first Test, and we got a reaction. We’re delighted. But understanding that, we’ve got to be better. Our game is developing still. And we showed that last night. Showed glimpses. We can play. We’ve got a brilliant group of players. So that drives us on for next week.

“[We need] continual improvement. We’ve got to be better for next week. The All Blacks will be better for next week. They’ll be hurting, as we were going into this game. So we’ve got to push things this week. We’ve got a couple of days down time, because the lads need a rest. Then we get back to Auckland  and back to work. Its going to be a mammoth Test, that third Test.”

Nobody in the Lions camp can explain why discipline fell apart after Sonny Bill Williams was sent off, but there is no hiding the opportunity it gave the All Blacks to win with 14 men.

“We can’t be giving penalties away the way we are at the moment,” Rowntree said. “It’s going to be a big focus this week. Another is sustaining momentum. As I keep saying - we can play.

"A lot was questioned about the selection in midfield. I think we answered that.”

Rowntree also praised the youngsters - especially Jamie George and Maro Itoje, saying: “They had a taste of the big time against the world champions - and they decided they weren’t going to be left behind in that physicality battle. They stepped up. Next week will require another step. That will be a very physical battle, that third Test.

“They need to step up again. Jamie: outstanding performance. Not just his accuracy around the set piece, but what he’s given us with his line breaks. Defence. A lot was questioned about him because he’s not started for his country. He’s played big games for Saracens. He’s a European champion. He’s proven his class. I’m pleased with how they’re going - but they’ve got to go again. This is a huge Test at the weekend and they’ve got to step up again.”

Rowntree emphasised the Lions’ potential for improvement in their final game of the tour: “There’s a series on the line. How many of them have won a series in New Zealand? And what excites the guys is - there’s more in our game. There’s more to come in our game. We’ve got some great rugby players. The best rugby players in the home nations, and they’ve had a taste of it. After the first test they were hurting - they were down. Now - let’s get this done. Let’s raise our game again.”

From the All Blacks, he expects, “a reaction -  a massive reaction. They don’t normally make so many mistakes, do they, and they’ll be hurting from that - as we were from last week. So we’re expecting a reaction at Eden Park. They don’t lose there very often, do they. That will be driving them on. But we’re driven on by our game and our standards and wanting to get this done. We kept ourselves alive with that performance. We’re still in it going into the third game. The decider.”

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