Monday 23 September 2019

Ruaidhri O'Connor: Lions have made All Blacks look human as series goes to the wire

Tadhg Furlong is lifted off his feet as he is tackled by New Zealand’s Jerome Kaino during the Second Test in Wellington. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Tadhg Furlong is lifted off his feet as he is tackled by New Zealand’s Jerome Kaino during the Second Test in Wellington. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Perhaps, just perhaps, the All Blacks' humanity is revealing itself.

It is the kind of statement that can easily be made to look silly in five days' time when the Lions go for the series win in Auckland, but the world champions' aura of invincibility has been eroded in their last seven games.

The importance of Ireland's win in Chicago to this Lions squad cannot be overstated. On the eve of the second Test, Sam Warburton spoke of his frustration at never having achieved a victory over the men in black; but as he looked around the huddle on Saturday he could make eye contact with five of his match-day 23 who had come out on the right side of a tight finish at Soldier Field.

Take the hammerings of Samoa and Italy out of the equation and since the finish of an underwhelming 2016 Rugby Championship Steve Hansen's side have been in four close battles; two with Ireland, one with France and two with the Lions.

But for the crazy ill-discipline of Sonny Bill Williams and the profligacy of Beauden Barrett, they could already have the series in the bag, but the hallmark of Richie McCaw's All Blacks was their ruthless efficiency.

The team that won the 2011 and 2015 World Cups showed little interest in giving suckers even breaks, but on Saturday the current crop showed uncharacteristic charity.


Suddenly, the retirement of McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Keven Mealamu looks like it left a huge hole. Throw in the absence through injury of Dane Coles and Ben Smith and Hansen and his coaches have been stripped of a large amount of experience.

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They have groomed men like Sam Cane and Kieran Read to fill the vacuum, but Williams' dismissal left them short of caps outside Beauden Barrett, who himself has amassed the vast majority of his appearances as an impact sub playing in a variety of positions.

Suddenly, when asked to fill Carter's boots on the ground where he gave his virtuoso performance in defeating the 2005 Lions, the 26-year-old came up short.

Hansen criticised his team's decision-making and inability to play for territory in the critical stages of the second half and that comes down to Barrett and TJ Perenara who didn't have his normal impact off the bench.

Outside Barrett, the exciting combination of 22-year-old Anton Lienert-Brown and new cap Ngane Laumape have huge potential but limited experience of the white heat of Test rugby, while for all of their talent wings Rieko Ioane and Waisake Naholo are not the men you want in the trenches on a wet night in Wellington.

So when the forwards, reduced to seven by Hansen's desire to keep a full complement in the backs, were unable to dominate the physical exchanges, the normally superior team were made to look decidedly human.

Neither Smith nor Coles will be back for the final Test decider, while Williams is banned. Julian Savea can come on to the wing, but 'The Bus' is out of form and is vulnerable to the Lions' kicking game.

Hansen can call on the control and place-kicking capacity of the more experienced Aaron Cruden, but given his impending departure for France and the likelihood that Barrett is the out-half set to lead his side through to the 2019 World Cup, a switch at No 10 seems unlikely.

So, the challenge is to learn and adapt in order to win the series and keep their place on top of the world.

"Sometimes we brush over the cracks that are there," Hansen said yesterday.

"When you lose, the cracks get exposed because that is why you have lost. The crack that got exposed last night was that we didn't know how to take that space that was downfield towards the end. How we do learn from that and go there?

"The difference in Chicago is that it was an attitudinal problem. While we had a couple of the big boys out and won 18 on the row, we got to Chicago, (breathed) a big sigh of relief after getting the record - as you saw with England - and we may well have been starting to get comfortable.

"The (Chicago) Cubs had won the World Series for the first time in however many years it was and we'd started to become tourists rather than a team on tour.

"Last night was total different. It wasn't an attitudinal problem.

"I just think we were one short and we were playing a good side. What we have to learn from last night is how to play a little smarter in those situations.

"So that if happens again, primarily with a yellow card, how do we deal with it and how do we make sure we come out the right side?

"We'll look at tape, from game one to two to three, and see where can we make improvements, tactically, and how can we hurt them from a space point of view. They will do the same thing."

His team remain the best in world rugby by some distance, but their sheen of invincibility has faded.

They remain odds-on to win the series by winning at Eden Park on Saturday, but the Lions will be filled with belief that they can achieve what many believed was impossible when they arrived in the city almost six weeks ago.

There are enough World Cup winners in the brains trust and in the team not to get carried away, while the public have been sated by the recent success and won't be rushing to extreme judgement just yet.

"Our fans are a little bit more accepting of when things don't go right, I believe they are well educated in the art of the game and they understand that they saw their team give it everything they had," Hansen said.

"It's when you lose and you feel like people haven't turned up is when people get frustrated. Our guys turned up, they just didn't get the job done.


"Everyone will be excited next week. It will be great. Rugby has been needing something like this for a while. Everyone will be a bit nervy about that because it could go either way and how exciting is that?"

He's been involved with this team for more than a decade and over that period they have responded to every challenge that has been put in front of them.

This is a new group working their way out of the shadow of giants and it all seemed to be going smoothly.

Now they face scrutiny and adversity in equal measure, the scale of their response and the Lions' capacity to deal with it will be fascinating.

"Losing sharpens the mind," Hansen concluded. "It sharpens the attitude and you look at things probably a little deeper than you normally do.

"We try to learn when we win, but in this case we had a side that beat us because on the day they were a little better than us.

"We have to acknowledge that and then go, 'OK how can we be better than them?' And we'll do that through the week, do our best to stay 15 on 15 and then see if we can get some strategies going."

Those strategies normally kick into gear and they get on just fine. Saturday will reveal plenty.

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