Monday 11 December 2017

Positivity key if Gatland’s Lions are to succeed - Five things the tourists must get right to topple the All Blacks

Tourists must also set tempo in series decider

Johnny Sexton prepares for action during Lions training in Queenstown. Photo: STEPHEN McCARTHY/SPORTSFILE
Johnny Sexton prepares for action during Lions training in Queenstown. Photo: STEPHEN McCARTHY/SPORTSFILE
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

They trained beneath The Remarkables mountains yesterday and the rest writes itself for a bunch of men on the verge of sporting history.

New Zealand has been left bemused by the Lions' decision to take some rest and relaxation in Queenstown ahead of the final Test and the proof will be in the pudding.

After two days off, they returned to the field yesterday and began drilling for the game of their lives. For once, the venue wasn't closed off and interested fans were able to watch from the hillock behind the goal.

Given the stunning back-drop, it was easy to get distracted but the players are focused on the task at hand. While they were off for 48 hours, there was time taken for video analysis of the second Test and after travelling back to Auckland their focus is now fully back on the task at hand.

Confidence will be coursing through them ahead of this game after they held their nerve and downed the world champions in the final quarter. The extra man helped and they are unlikely to face 14 again this weekend, but they will be counting on momentum to carry them far.

Over the 160-plus minutes of Test match action to date, they have been learning and adapting to what the All Blacks have thrown at them and now they will feel ready to put their best foot forward.

New Zealand's Kieran Read during a training session at The Trust Arena, Henderson. Photo: PA
New Zealand's Kieran Read during a training session at The Trust Arena, Henderson. Photo: PA

Whether it's enough remains to be seen, but they made tactical gains from Tests one to two and will bank on being even better on Saturday.

1. PLAYING AT THEIR OWN PACE

The Lions spoke about meeting New Zealand's ferocious physicality head on, but behind the scenes they clearly resolved to take the sting out of their opponents by playing the game on their own terms.

Before the red card changed the game, Kieran Read complained to referee Jerome Garces that the tourists were doing everything slowly; whether it was setting up a scrum or lineout, taking a kick or even getting in Aaron Smith's way when he wanted to take a quick tap.

The tactic was clear and it continued throughout. After the first Test was played at a furious pace that left the officials short of breath and the visiting side struggling, they were determined not to let the Kiwis get into a rhythm. It worked.

There has even been the suggestion in these parts that the succession of penalties after half-time came as an attempt to alter the flow of the game, with some in the media querying whether the Lions had cynically attempted to step in and deny try-scoring chances by whatever means necessary.

Whether that's true is questionable, but it's a measure of how much the Lions got under the home side's skin that the conspiracy has been floated.

It's unlikely to be any different this week as Gatland's men look to set the terms of engagement. Slowing down the All Blacks is a starting point.

2. WIN COLLISIONS, SLOW BALL

Having been bullied at Eden Park a fortnight ago, the Lions responded by setting the physical tone from the off last week and it allowed them to slow down the service for Smith.

By forcing the big ball-carriers backwards in contact, the men in red invited Sam Warburton into the game and while he wasn't able to win any turnovers he did enough dirty work at ruck time to significantly alter the time between tackle and ball availability, which meant the Lions could reset in defence and go again.

Strong tackles allow defence coach Andy Farrell's line-speed to kick into gear.

For the third successive week, the collision zone will be key and by selecting Ngani Laumape and Julian Savea the All Blacks are banking on making gains in the 10/12 channel.

While the combination of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell is brilliant in attack, they are susceptible to big carriers. The back-row was used to protect them at times but they can't be hidden all game.

Savea is likely to come off his wing a la Waisake Naholo last week, while Laumape will look for them with every contact. If the men in black can consistently win those collisions and get over the gainline, they'll be on the right track.

3. KICKING KINGS

Jordie Barrett is included for his goal-kicking prowess, but his brother Beauden will be tasked with making better decisions with his kicking from hand this week after Hansen suggested the All Blacks had failed to take the correct options with their kicking game at pivotal moments in the second Test.

Gatland was also critical of his side for their wayward kicks, so both teams will be looking to make gains.

Savea is brilliant with ball in hand, but he's vulnerable when turned as Ireland showed in Chicago; Jordie Barrett is good, but inexperienced in these surrounds.

With Conor Murray, Sexton and Farrell, the Lions have a distinct advantage in terms of game-management and tactical kicking.

Beauden Barrett is a superb attacking kicker, but his strategic thinking has been in question.

With conditions likely to be difficult yet again, this area could be crucial.

4. FIND THE MAUL

One surprising element of the Lions's performances so far across the tour has been their inability to get their attacking maul going.

They went off the top at critical junctures of Saturday's game, but if they can produce an effective attacking maul it can open up new avenues to the try-line and further enhance their ability to keep the world champions on the back foot.

The lineout has been the best element of their game, with Jamie George accurate out of touch, and if they can add the maul to their range of options they will further concern their hosts.

5. STAY POSITIVE

As Tadhg Furlong said earlier this week, the key to beating the All Blacks is to keep playing for 80 minutes.

Sitting back and having what you hold is a bad idea. The Lions were at their best in the first and last quarters last weekend when they took the game to the home team and that positive approach must continue if they are to finish the job.

Their creativity has caused Hansen's men problems and they have surprised many locals with their attacking ability - it would be the wrong time to stop.

When the game was on the line, it was the Lions who took the game to their opponents in Wellington and their positivity was rewarded.

They are unlikely to hold the best attack in international rugby try-less again, rain or no rain, so they will need to create and utilise the twin threat of Sexton and Farrell, who have troubled the men in black with their variation and ability to find the right pass.

Winning a series here would be a remarkable achievement, and it's within their grasp if they can stay true to their plan, keep their heads and stay positive.

Irish Independent

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