Saturday 20 July 2019

Ruaidhri O'Connor: Adding a clinical edge the next step for Lions

Tourists starting to show hand ahead of Test

Jared Payne goes through his stretching routine during the captain’s run yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Jared Payne goes through his stretching routine during the captain’s run yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Amid Warren Gatland's regular squabbles with the local media, the endless travel and seemingly every-day routine of playing or preparing for a game, the Lions have somehow managed to begin building towards the Test series.

Saturday's win over Crusaders saw the last of the 41-man squad start a game and the performance breathed some life into the prospect of the tourists succeeding in their seemingly impossible job.

Ken Owens under the roof at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin. Photo: PA
Ken Owens under the roof at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin. Photo: PA

Gatland has said he isn't willing to show his full hand ahead of the Tests, but he may have been forced into giving a glimpse, when Jon Davies' concussion saw Johnny Sexton line up alongside Owen Farrell.

Keeping some plans on ice is clever, but he can't hold too much back for fear of stunting growth and hampering the momentum the Lions need to generate going into Eden Park on Saturday week.

We have seen them three times and have an idea of how they are going to approach their task. This morning's game against the talented Highlanders will shed further light, but we can see the shape forming.

The foundations

A strong, aggressive defence, highly functioning set-piece, well-executed kicking game and impactful bench are the pillars on which the tourists are building their campaign.

Robbie Henshaw, CJ Stander and Jack McGrath warm up. Photo: Sportsfile
Robbie Henshaw, CJ Stander and Jack McGrath warm up. Photo: Sportsfile

Limiting the Crusaders to three points at home for the first time in their history was a line in the sand for the Test squad, most of whom are likely to be drawn from last weekend's game.

Add in the near-perfect lineout combination of Jamie George and George Kruis, the work of Peter O'Mahony, the accurate kicking of Conor Murray and Owen Farrell and the scrum that has had New Zealand screaming from the rooftops and you have a strong basis from which to start.

"I thought our collision work was great," Andy Farrell said.

"That buys you a little bit of time when teams are playing at breakneck speed, like teams over here want to play. You've got to try to find yourself a bit of time. That's why I was happy with our collision work and what we showed the Crusaders in terms of getting our width back in defence. I thought it was excellent and the most pleasing thing was that it got better throughout the game."

The New Zealanders are already putting pressure on the Test referees after Mathieu Raynal punished their illegality and the Lions were keeping schtum on that topic yesterday.

Room to improve

Murray and Farrell's kicks were well placed, but Gatland complained afterwards that his chasers didn't get off the ground and challenge - perhaps mindful of Liam Williams' yellow card against the Blues.

Given the importance of Murray's kicking, it makes you wonder why some of the Ireland wingers were left behind; but those who are here need to get up and contest the high, hanging efforts that caused Israel Dagg and Co such issues.

The defence was good, but Farrell knows his men can't be slack on the double-tackling to prevent the offload or their line-speed, after being out-flanked in the Blues game.

"It ain't about just sprinting off the line, is it?" he said

"It's about adapting to the situation. If the opposition get an offload then the system has to change. It's about numbers on feet and covering space. I thought our decision-making of which system to use at the right time was very good on Saturday."

The breakdown is another area of growth. Sam Warburton has pointed out the lack of groundhog poaches so far and he wants to bring that element today as he looks to force his way into the team.

The lineout maul has delivered one try, but a pack of this potential can get far more return when they become more used to each other and once they begin to ramp up that threat it should create opportunities outside as the defenders get sucked in.

The finishing touches

Graham Henry warned that the Lions cannot come down to New Zealand and try to play like the All Blacks, but they will need to score tries if they are to beat the world champions.

At the moment they're happy to take their points, but Ireland's win in Chicago was based on an adventurous approach to penalties.

"It's horses for courses, a lot of the penalties we've gone for have been in that kickable zone where it's been hard to turn them down," Rory Best reflected this week.

"Until you get good combinations together and really trust your set-piece it's sometimes easier to keep that scoreboard ticking over.

"Three points can sometimes give you confidence and there was a win at the weekend based on kicking that last penalty to put the game beyond them.

"Those are the big moments, you have to take them.

"Ultimately, we'll have to score a few more points, but having said that we're working really hard to make sure that those combinations are right, so that when we put ourselves in that position we do score the points we need to."

The Lions' attacking shape has been good, but their execution has let them down.

Still, they created try-scoring opportunities in Christchurch and will be pinning their hopes on more time together contributing to their cause.

Thirteen line-breaks give them something to build on.

Farrell's passing game is a key threat and his combination with Sexton was promising.

For all that Ben Te'o can get you over the gain line with his blunt force, the subtlety of the twin-pivot pairing could be the secret weapon up Gatland's sleeve.

Their twin-pod system needs further work and the players are still getting used to it and each other, while their final pass and decision-making should improve.

For all the criticism of Gatland's style of play, there was plenty to like about the attacking game on Saturday, but they have only scored two tries in three games coming in to this morning's outing in Dunedin.

That facet of the game remains under construction, but after initial concerns it is beginning to look promising for the overall structure of the team.

Gatland will hope the progress continues this week because nothing will challenge the team he is building like the All Blacks and the first Test is getting closer and closer.

Irish Independent

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