Monday 11 December 2017

Lions need to find attacking spark as tour steps up again

Israel Dagg catches a ball during a Crusaders training session at Rugby Park in Christchurch. Photo: Getty Images
Israel Dagg catches a ball during a Crusaders training session at Rugby Park in Christchurch. Photo: Getty Images
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

This is arguably the most important game of the Lions tour.

If they can become the first team to beat the Crusaders in 2017 tomorrow morning then Wednesday's defeat to the Blues will be forgotten. Lose and it comes into sharper focus. After tomorrow's game, there are three games before the All Blacks squad named by Steve Hansen yesterday get their teeth into the tourists.

Warren Gatland was insisting yesterday that his first-choice team remains off the agenda, but behind the scenes the starting XV must be formulating in the coaches' heads.

The problem they have is that rather than players putting their hands up and forcing their way into the team, the trend so far is for players to play their way off it.

Ami Park is not a place where you want to play your way into form. Scott Robertson has brought the belief back to this region and their team is a real source of pride.

The coach is an impressive figure making his way in the upper echelons of the game here and his team are playing for him every week.

They have what the Lions want: consistency, skill, poise and a winning mentality.

They will perform a specially--created haka for perhaps the only time in their history before the game and will then set about their task. Everything about this fixture spells danger for the Lions.

So, they need to return to their basics. Gatland has picked a strong side, packed with experience but there hasn't been much on the pitch to represent what's on paper so far.

For Conor Murray, who makes his first start in red since 2013, it is about tightening up on discipline rather than opening up with the ball necessarily.

"It all depends on the conditions," he said.

"The first two games have been bad weather-wise and have limited our attacking options. Having said that, we've still created a few try-scoring opportunities and didn't convert them.

"Wednesday was more about our discipline, it just let us down and we let them off the hook at times. Had we not, we would have been confident we would have stayed in their half, we would have got set-piece in their half and been able to attack a lot more.

"That's the hope and hopefully with a little bit better weather we can express ourselves. I think it's not an area of concern.

"The attacking game plan is there and I just think weather-wise and discipline-wise, it just let us down."

If the Lions are to succeed, then they'll need to score tries and they have amassed two in 160 minutes so far since arriving.

Farrell will improve things after Johnny Sexton's hesitant displays to date, while Gatland will be praying that Jon Davies carries his Scarlets form into the tour and releases those outside him.

Up front, the combination of Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Tadhg Furlong has a Test look about it as they take on the All Black front-row, while George Kruis and Alun Wyn Jones could also take a big step towards the series against Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano.

In the back-row, Seán O'Brien needs to hit the ground running to exploit Sam Warburton's absence, while Peter O'Mahony could do with a big game. Gatland likes his lineout work, but he could do with showing more.

New Zealand is up for this Lions tour and the Blues have shown how the tourists can be beaten, meaning all of their rivals will fancy their chances. As the leading lights of the southern hemisphere club game, the Crusaders will feel they have a duty to perform - and they seem well able to deal with the burden of expectation.

"It's a once in a lifetime opportunity to play the best players in the Northern Hemisphere," said Dagg. "They play a different brand of footy so it is going to be different, physical and the boys and I know what is coming.

"The Lions will be angry boys so it will be like Test match footy.

"You have to mentally be there with attitude. You can't be indecisive or else you will get knocked over. The big boys up front will be pretty sore after this game.

"It does bring a little bit of pressure," Dagg added. "We pride ourselves on our defence, being physical, getting off the line. The Lions are bringing a lot of line speed.

"Hopefully we can match it this weekend and get up and put pressure on them. We pride ourselves on our ability to play the game.

"The boys are going to give it everything, because it doesn't come round very often. I'll be an old man when this happens again. It's going to be awesome."

Verdict: Crusaders

Irish Independent

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