Thursday 14 December 2017

Neil Francis: Gatland's side will lose the series 3-0 and he has very little chance of getting the job he yearns for

27 June 2017; British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland during the match between Hurricanes and the British & Irish Lions at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
27 June 2017; British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland during the match between Hurricanes and the British & Irish Lions at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

One of the most galling things about last Saturday's Test match was that the All Blacks decided to play 'Warrenball'. They didn't do it to mock us; they did it because they weren't sure how good the Lions were.

They also needed to get into the groove of serious Test match rugby. Terrible, though, that they can play 'Warrenball' better than Warren can. Short passes to your runners going in very direct lines, get around the corner, move it quickly to the outside, use Jamie Roberts, sorry Sonny Bill Williams, to hit it up even further and then see what sort of space you have.

The key here is that the All Blacks can revert to their all-singing, all-dancing, high-tempo game if they so choose. They may wait until the second half of this Saturday's game to present it but it is coming and for the life of me I have no idea how to stop them - nor do I suspect has Gatland.

Where is Baldrick when you really need him? The Lions need a cunning plan for the second Test. I think they have already shown their hand and it is a pretty thankless task to go and instruct the Lions players to 'go out and tackle harder, hit the rucks harder and clear out any tackle zone at a much faster pace' against a team who have already demonstrated that they can beat you everywhere.

Steve Hansen is not exactly as cunning as a fox who has been named Professor of Cunning at Oxford University but he gets to coach the side that have been the best on the planet for the last 100 years. They know how to play rugby, it's in them, it's in their DNA and it was one of the most dispiriting things about the defeat last week - they beat us at the only game we know.

Gatland's portion is that of mounting frustration. The All Blacks job becomes available after they win the World Cup for the third time in a row. There will be plenty of interest but Gatland probably realises at this stage that he has pissed off so many of his own countrymen over the last two months that there will be very little point in throwing in his CV.

They might point to Gatland's success in Europe. Gatland's tactics may work in Europe but it would be a big risk to put him in charge of an All Blacks side that plays rugby in a way that we in Europe still cannot understand.

A horse that can count to ten is a remarkable horse, not a remarkable mathematician and there are many ahead of Gatland now who are far more familiar with how to play the All Blacks way.

Nobody could blame Gatland for being tetchy - his side will lose the series 3-0 and he has very little chance of getting a job that he yearns for.

When you undertake such a difficult tour, the downside that comes with failure can be quite damaging.

Clive Woodward, after winning a World Cup in 2003, took quite a while to recover from the 3-0 series sweep 12 years ago. I'm sure Gatland will recover himself and return to Wales for the next couple of years where he will be able to deal with any fallout.

In the aftermath last weekend, Gatland was encouraged. A lot of the things that went against them were "fixable" - a few defensive lapses here, lack of concentration there, a little bit more effort on focus and drive to win the collisions and Bob's your uncle.

It is the great unquantifiable in sport - pressure. There are all sorts of intangibles at the highest level of any team sport - luck is one, external factors such as the crowd or the referee are another but pressure is a constant. All of those mistakes that Gatland talked about that could be fixed or prevented all came about from pressure. The Lions did not perform to expectation and nobody in their ranks played above themselves.

This surely came down to pressure - whether the pre-match weight of expectation, or maybe the dressing-room just didn't crackle and the buzz left them before they left it, or maybe the All Blacks played such a high-octane game that they simply struggled to live at that pace. It is what the All Blacks do.

From all the times that I played against them they run 1,500 metres at 100-metre pace and you can live with them for about 400 or 500 metres but then they burn you off and you make mistakes and simple chores which you can easily do at lower intensity become difficult. You miss tackles, you don't get there quite as quickly as you think you should and you drop the ball and you throw loose passes and you let in "soft tries".

These mistakes, these deficiencies, are only fixable and preventable if you act and think as fast as the All Blacks. The key to beating them is dictating the pace and the Lions needed to slow the game down, and they were unable to do this; I suspect that Saturday's game will be even quicker, more dynamic, more aggressive than anything any of the Lions will have ever encountered.

Courage is great, self-belief is also necessary and the ability to think on your feet and maintain your discipline in the white-hot heat of a Test match in New Zealand against the All Blacks. Fixable - only if you have the capacity to fix it.

The All Blacks will think that they let in a couple of soft tries - in the All Black eyes to concede a sloppy try after the 80th minute is unforgivable.

For Seán O'Brien's wonder try, there will be an inquest about how even the Lions managed to get out of their own 22. The All Blacks will be thinking those lapses are fixable.

The All Blacks also won't have the handicap of having to reshuffle their deck and will be far more dangerous with Beauden Barrett at out-half rather than full-back for most of the game. I figure they will be far stronger for their win last Saturday.

There is no better team than the All Blacks in terms of measuring out opponents' weaknesses once they have played them and they will measure out their strategy far more clinically than the Lions will.

The time for taking positives or learning from mistakes or fixing fixables are over. Either the Lions gear up for the supreme effort and play far above their own potential or another week of agony awaits them.

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