Saturday 18 January 2020

Lions cry foul as series threatens to slip away

Jonathan Sexton and Ken Owens listen to referee Jaco Peyer. Photo: Getty
Jonathan Sexton and Ken Owens listen to referee Jaco Peyer. Photo: Getty
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

At the end of the epic first-half at Eden Park on Saturday, Conor Murray and Peter O'Mahony approached Jaco Peyper for a mini conference. The ref mic had been turned off but the scrum-half could be clearly seen pointing at his knee.

At the conclusion of the game, Sean O'Brien remonstrated with the South African official and this time the conversation carried. He asked about his perceived inconsistency at the breakdown before Johnny Sexton took over more forcefully, claiming the referee had missed a deliberate knock-on and accusing him of "giving them everything".

Perhaps the history between the Ireland players and Peyper boiled over a little, but as they railed against the injustices the All Blacks quietly celebrated a job well done.

This was nothing on the scale of 2005, but once again the men in red were left fuming at officialdom as the victors enjoyed their spoils.

The Lions lost the penalty count 11-6. Before and after the game, they spoke of keeping their own concessions below eight and accepted that anything more would be hugely problematic.

Penalties and quick ball are the oxygen New Zealand feed off.

Concessions allow them to kick for territory and build a score, rucks that last less than three seconds allow them to dominate defenders. They had both on Saturday.

Twice, Peyper warned the Lions about their chat. Firstly, O'Mahony was told that a number of players were screaming at the referee; while Sexton was later forbidden from waving his arms at the touch judges.

Referees are human and while they're susceptible to pressure, they are also just as easy to get on the wrong side of. It's a fine balance.

Over the course of this series, the man in the middle will rotate but the team of officials will remain the same and as the Lions took to the media to complain about the way the All Blacks threw themselves at Murray after box-kicks, one wonders if sympathy is running low.

Warren Gatland had a point yesterday when he complained about the incidents, the worst of which came when Jerome Kaino launched himself Glasgow-style at the Irish scrum-half's standing leg.

"From my point of view, if someone pushes him afterwards, that's fine but diving at his leg ... I know other teams have used that in the past and I think Joe (Schmidt) has come out and was pretty critical about that being a tactic other teams have used against Conor," he said. "It's just a safety issue for me. I'd hate to see someone dive at his leg and have him blow a knee and then wreck his rugby career."

This was presumably the topic that Murray and O'Mahony were addressing as they headed to the changing rooms.

The scrum-half was a dominant force in the win in Chicago and came in for some heavy treatment in the return game in Dublin when Peyper chose leniency in the face of All Black aggression.

He'll be on the line for the remaining Tests, with Jerome Garces taking over in Wellington and Romain Poite in charge for the concluding Test.

"I think the players were frustrated at the breakdown and frustrated that they felt they had got on the ball at times. I spoke to Sean O'Brien afterwards and he was frustrated," Gatland said.

"He felt they were getting three seconds of opportunity on the ball defensively and felt they were given a lot more chance to clear it.

"I said one of the things that (we wanted to do) was keep the penalty count under ten, and the other is to fix up that contact area which has been pretty good for us, and has got better as the tour has gone on.

"Unfortunately we weren't quite up to scratch on Saturday night against a very, very good All Black team."

The third thing they must work on is converting their chances.

Although it got away from them during the second-half as the physical toll told, they were right in the game until the 55th-minute scrum that led to Rieko Ioane's first try.

Before then, they passed up a succession of chances to score. They created more clear-cut openings than the home team, but weren't able to take them.

Whether it was Elliot Daly's failure to ground the ball in the opening minute, his inability to find Liam Williams after fielding Owen Farrell's cross-kick, Jon Davies's decision not to back himself after a fine break just after half-time, or Ben Te'o's criminal decision to cut inside when he had numbers outside; these were the kind of opportunities the All Blacks don't pass up.

Their ball focus was poor and they couldn't sustain possession, while they went back to the officials for an explanation of how the world champions were allowed to do such a job on their maul; questioning the legality of the sacking technique they employed.

"They took their opportunities. What we can take from that game is a lot of positives," Davies said.

"We created chances, but we didn't finish them. We need to be more clinical against the best team in the world.

"Our discipline and error count in that first 20 minutes gave them a 10-point head-start. We didn't take our chances, and we didn't get any scoreboard pressure on them.

"Everything is fixable. If we are more clinical and we put more pressure on them, who knows? They might start to tighten up, and the pressure comes on them then.

"It is do or die in the series now, with the Test matches."

With Gatland preparing to wield the axe, having heavily criticised his players, the squad's spirit will be tested.

Across town, the All Blacks are buzzing from a win they enjoyed immensely. Locals lapped up the quality and the intensity of the occasion and the win is being cherished.

They will get better and the challenge for the Lions is to raise their game further.

Focusing on the officials will only get them so far, they must find a way of doing it themselves if they are to have any chance of securing a famous win and taking the series to a third Test.

If the All Blacks are pushing the limits of the laws, the tourists must adapt and respond in kind without crossing the line.

Winning a Test series here was always going to be the ultimate challenge and handling the referee is part of that.

The Lions need to find a way of taking the man in the middle out of the equation as much as they can.

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