Saturday 26 May 2018

Lions must stop looking for excuses and front up for big tests

Lions captain Sam Warburton receives a hongi during the Lions’ Maori Welcome at Waitangi Treaty Grounds. Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images
Lions captain Sam Warburton receives a hongi during the Lions’ Maori Welcome at Waitangi Treaty Grounds. Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Brian Moore

There are genuine reasons that contributed to the poor opening performance of the Lions against New Zealand's Provincial Barbarians. The tour schedule is gruelling, not just in terms of the difficulty of the games, but in having to delay leaving and breaking up their trips to fulfil sponsorship agreements.

Jet lag and the lateness of some of the squad being available has also not helped, but none of this should be expressed openly by anyone connected with the tour party.

In New Zealand you just front up, get on with whatever comes your way and leave your talking for the pitch.

Psychologically you must avoid giving the Kiwis the upper hand by sounding like whingers looking for early excuses for being beaten. More than one domestic newspaper has already mentioned the amount of money being paid to each tourist and in Kiwi terms it is a handsome sum, beyond what some of their Super 15 players earn.

Over-paid, over-hyped and over-here is not the sort of press the Lions need when they are facing the most thorough examination of their rugby lives.

Privately coach Warren Gatland will know that the opening game of any tour is often poor and this one was no different. The die was cast when the Lions failed to get anywhere near the opening kick-off and handed the home side an immediate confidence boost.

For much of the first-half they were, bar a few notable exceptions - Kyle Sinckler, Ross Moriarty and Toby Faletau - off the pace. Their hosts were far from the expected sacrificial lambs, but even accounting for this the Lions laboured.

Gatland highlighted the fact that they were held up over the line several times and wasted at least two other distinct try-scoring chances by poor handling. He knows that in coming weeks those kind of errors must be eliminated.

More than anything, Gatland will be disappointed that the Lions, overall, did not establish any sort of definable style and could not impose any pattern of play for meaningful periods.

In terms of selection, the pairing of Greig Laidlaw and Jonathan Sexton did not work and captain Sam Warburton's return from a long-term injury was unremarkable.

Ben Te'o does what he does every week to good effect; ran at the inside shoulder of his defender and created space for outside runners. The battle for the inside-centre position is going to be fascinating, particularly if Owen Farrell is deemed to be a No 10 and it becomes a straight fight with Robbie Henshaw.

For two Test starters-in-waiting it was less than ideal. Stuart Hogg had a poor first-half, but partially redeemed himself later with some neat footwork. Sexton looked strangely out of sorts and suffered by comparison with his replacement Farrell, who looked sharper and gave the team more direction when he took over.

One area in which the Lions would have expected a decisive advantage against a side of relatively junior players was the set piece. They failed to achieve this and therein lies a wider lesson - one often misunderstood by opponents of New Zealand teams.

They are not obsessed with and do not see lineouts and scrums as penalty opportunities and thus do not make a feature of them.

You do not see Kiwi sides regularly keeping the ball in, shoving until a penalty is gained and then everyone running around high-fiving each other.

This does not mean they are weak in this area, it is just that completing scrums and scoring tries from them is a novel concept. Anyone that thinks they can win a game by dominating a Kiwi side in the set piece is likely to be disappointed.

Tourists

Things did get better when both sides emptied their benches. The Barbarians did not have the same quality, as you would expect, but they made the Lions fight to the very end for the win - something else the tourists had better get used to.

For some of the players the chances of making the Test team narrowed and they will only have one more game in which to impress Gatland.

There are lessons to be learned by the team. Chief among them is this: If you allow any New Zealand side to get beyond the first tackle they are experts at creating ever faster possession from ensuing breakdowns.

Call it going through the gears or whatever you want, they flood into good support positions and commit enough men to make the breakdown ball quicker and defending harder.

The Barbarians team demonstrated this and the Super 15 sides will be better by a considerable margin, especially as the international players have been released for the next two games against the Blues and the Crusaders.

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