Tuesday 24 October 2017

Neil Francis: Momentum shift gives All Blacks boss Steve Hansen a bloodied nose

Mind games come back to haunt All Blacks coach but indiscipline remains a huge concern for tourists

Taulupe Faletau scores the Lions’ first try during the second Test against New Zealand at Westpac Stadium in Wellington yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Taulupe Faletau scores the Lions’ first try during the second Test against New Zealand at Westpac Stadium in Wellington yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The great attraction and compelling nature of international sport is its continual propensity to astound and amaze. In our adventures against the southern hemisphere we expect nothing - but live frugally on surprise. One arrived yesterday, an unlikely victory but one that will cleanse the soul of predictable torpor where it was unquestionably going. Neither the Lions nor the All Blacks have produced their best - we wait for one or other to combust and in a match of low quality the Lions prevailed because in every contest the underdog has a puncher's chance.

The All Blacks are undoubtedly the superior team but that does not necessarily mean that they will win the series. They have far greater ring craft, beautiful feet, the ability to bob and weave, box clever, and put the gloves up to the face and defend when necessary.

They can pick up points all the way through the fight. All of this can be undone when a right hook lands - at 24 minutes into the game that is exactly what happened. As Mike Tyson said, "Everybody has a plan until you get punched in the face." Last week the All Blacks had to shuffle the deck due to injury. Yesterday they had to shuffle the deck because one of their best players was deservedly sent to the line.

The All Blacks, playing with 14 men for the remaining 55 minutes, looked like they were still going to think their way through this game and cope defensively with what was thrown at them. But they were unconvincing when it mattered most and the guys they expect leadership from did not surface when the heat came on and the better team won on the day. This turnaround merely muddies the water even more.

Mentally, where are the All Blacks? It is true to say at international level that if you get a man sent to the bin you can expect to concede seven or eight points in his absence. It is quite a disadvantage to play with 14 men yet you figured that the All Blacks would manage it.

They lacked their usual zip and focus and they were a long way off being the dynamic entity they usually are in adversity. Maybe their coach had a big part to play in this. They say that Bill Clinton's biggest mistake was not getting Ted Kennedy to drive Monica Lewinsky home and in the lead-up to the big contest yesterday did Hansen make a big mistake by turning up the gas on Warren Gatland?

Was Hansen guilty of gratuitously fanning the flames which had been lit by the New Zealand media? What effect did that have on his team? What effect would that have had on the Lions? I certainly think it galvanised them. All this clowning around does have an impact on the players and Hansen really should have stuck to the job and concentrated on winning the game. Now he has a different task ahead of him in the next week and I doubt you will hear a peep from him.

The result yesterday will create indecision, self-doubt and uncertainty in the All Blacks' ranks and that might just elicit the correct response from them because they have not performed to par just yet.

If you 'roll it back there Colette' and take out Sonny Bill Williams' dangerous tackle on Anthony Watson and the All Blacks' star player had stayed on the field, then this would have been a professional if not comprehensive dispatch of the Lions side that were still a long way short of the supreme effort required to beat New Zealand.

The Lions were imperfect throughout but still good enough to score when it mattered and to think through what they had to do at vital moments in the game. That was the encouraging thing about the northern hemisphere composite - you cannot test courage cautiously. They were brave yesterday!

The red card was fully merited but the question here is not how but why. I have written about Sonny Bill in glowing terms - he has as many detractors as he has fans. His footballing and athletic genius are unquestioned, his career path is a maze of unpredictable complexity yet for a player of his stature to do what he did was disturbing and erratic.

Yet again we look at the term 'blink reflex' - he had tightened up his shoulder and picked his target metres out and his eyes closed a metre away from impact. The psychologists will tell you that from a metre out it is a deliberate action and how Watson survived and recovered says a lot about his character. We won't see Williams next week and this unsavoury episode will have diminished his standing in many quarters. It cost his team the game.

Apart from the red it was an undistinguished and fitful 60 minutes of rugby which the All Blacks were quite prepared to win ugly. The Lions were still having trouble with their kicking game and Sexton, Daly, Farrell and Murray, all from positions of advantage, kicked straight out or too long. Both fullbacks were very poor in the air but the kick-chase was never precise enough and nobody could take advantage from the knock-ons or unfielded ball.

The continuous indiscipline shown by the Lions is still a worry. Penalties at Test level come about as a result of pressure or stupidity. It is worrying that most of the Lions' concessions have come about from the latter.

Mentally, the Lions had enough clarity from their 9-10-12 axis to work two good tries in the last quarter and take advantage of the All Blacks' personnel deficit. The tries came from the only bit of decent field position the Lions managed to garner in the second half. An attacking lineout and a throw-in by the Lions left Wyatt Crockett and Cody Taylor as the tail-gunners at the back of the lineout. Sam Warburton won the ball at the back of the first pod and Seán O'Brien standing in the outhalf position checked the drift, it meant that Sexton would have time to work a wrap-around in midfield and it also meant that the Lions, if they passed accurately, would get outside Rieko Loane - which they did.

Barrett at fullback and Loane were caught in the ruck as the Lions gain-lined, there would be space coming left and the passing was of a good standard all the way back to Taulupe Faletau. Faletau did brilliantly with a step to the outside and he invited Israel Dagg to tackle his trailing right leg. The Welsh No 8 brought his right hip forward as Dagg accepted the invitation and he got badly bounced as the Lion went over in the corner.

The decisive try will make Hansen think again about his bench. Once again the 34-year-old Wyatt Crockett was caught in open field in unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory as he was fooled by a wonderful delayed pass and a forceful line taken by Jamie George.

Normally the All Blacks scramble well in these situations six or seven metres from the line. Richie McCaw would come in, kill the ball and not even get a yellow card, but the All Blacks only had two men in their back-row and the finishing of this move and eventual try for Conor Murray was an exact replica of the one he scored in Chicago. Murray had a good few metres more to run in Chicago but Ireland had been very clever at the ruck and CJ Stander took out Owen Franks, who was attempting to get set at pillar. Murray read the situation, threw the dummy and was gone and scored 20 metres later.

Yesterday, as Barrett and TJ Perenara made the tackle on the Saracens hooker, Perenara attempted to get back up and out of the ruck and ready for the next phase. Owen Farrell went in and tackled him well outside of the ruck zone around the ankle. The scrumhalf was only ­inconvenienced for two seconds but that is all that you need at this level and as he pushed to get out of Farrell's challenge he went a metre-and-a-half too far out of the pillar position. Murray read the play, saw the gap and finished brilliantly. Farrell, to add insult to injury for his malfeasance, nailed a glorious conversion and the Lions had the momentum to finish off in the last five or six minutes.

Significantly, the Lions did not concede any further penalties and executed the close-out with missionary zeal. Maro Itoje in the van in this regard and some thumping hits on the All Black runners - something they are not used to. The Lions looked much fitter and sharper as they stayed longer than their hosts. Now it is Hansen who has to make the changes as the momentum turns.

The All Blacks are still undoubtedly the favourites to win. Time to temper enthusiasm from both sides and good to see Hansen skulk off into the dark after his post-match interviews. Wazza un-nailed from the cross. Once again he makes the big selection calls and again gets it right. Is he lucky or just good?

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