Monday 19 February 2018

Tony Ward: It's not pretty but Gatland's game-plan is best for Lions

Coach playing to tourists' strengths to give them fighting chance in next week's first Test

From an Irish perspective, it was an excellent day for Robbie Henshaw despite defeat for the Lions. Photo: GETTY
From an Irish perspective, it was an excellent day for Robbie Henshaw despite defeat for the Lions. Photo: GETTY
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

In the end it represented a second defeat in four and yet it has been a good five days for the Lions ahead of the games of consequence - the Test series. Do I like watching the best of the four home countries play the game in the manner they have been doing so far on this tour? No, but I understand why.

Give me New Zealand provincial rugby and their Super teams every time and yet I cannot but admire the individual and collective ethic of this squad allied to the full court press they are now exerting in every game.

Put it all together and, despite losing in Dunedin, the tourists are playing to their strengths. It is how every coach in every coaching endeavour goes about his business. Assess your strengths, ally them to your weaknesses and develop a strategic plan accordingly.

It ain't pretty but when it comes to the Test series in elements guaranteed to be a lot more testing than under a closed roof, I wouldn't want to be a betting man.

Warren Gatland has his detractors and often times with good reason but when it comes to analysing these games in the run-up to Eden Park and the first Test he is spot on in his assessment of the ongoing benefit to the Lions. Come Saturday week in Auckland they will be battle-hardened and up to match speed to take on the best of the All Blacks on their home patch. If not, then the remaining Tests don't bear thinking about.

In the end yesterday they could have won, perhaps should have won, certainly might have won. It was that close. The benefit going into the Maori game in Rotorua - and effectively the fourth Test - would have been winning momentum and that positivity in terms of squad morale back in the hotel and at the many and varied team and unit meetings in the build-up.

When you are winning on tour the vibe of positivity is tangible. Yesterday's defeat will have represented a big speed bump after Christchurch where they overhauled the best Super rugby franchise on either island. Within the camp there will have been disappointment when named for duty to face the Highlanders. It would be unfair (as in a little early still) to describe yesterday's 23 as the 'dirt trackers' and yet we are beginning to see a divide between the weekend squad and the midweek one. Whatever else, the match-day Lions to take on the Maoris will see the head coach - subsequent performance allowing, of course - declaring his hand to face the All Blacks seven days on. Bar the odd tweak based on injury or form, the squad for Saturday will define the management's thinking at this point in the tour.  

Read more - Analysis: Will Sam Warburton replace Sean O'Brien in the Lions test team after today's performance?

In general terms, the Highlanders played at a tempo the Lions, while expecting, found beyond their control for a full 80 minutes. That said, the tourists had a pretty good go at it. It irritates when we constantly hear the captain (Sam Warburton) and the coach (Gatland) trot out the same line regarding penalty count in post-match interviews. Yes of course it represents indiscipline but equally penalties usually come on the back of pressure when one team is dominating the other at whatever stage or in whatever phase of the game.

I love the risk-taking element to New Zealand rugby. Even when they are under the most intense pressure - the line speed of the Lions was again exemplary and at least the equal of Christchurch where it got its reward - they still innovate. They struggled with the cross-kick (conceding one try in the process) and the attempted chip - where Robbie Henshaw in turning was immense and for me a very definite candidate for man of the match - but in recognising that cul de sac, they innovated through clever use of the flat grubber just in behind the high-speed Lions defence.

From an Irish perspective, Henshaw really came of age as a Lion. Whatever he may lack in finesse he more than compensates through honest-to-God endeavour and a work rate off the ball that is infectious. He has to be in the frame, competing with Ben Te'o and Jonathan Davies for a place against the Maoris. I know there is much talk about a possible Jonathan Sexton/Owen Farrell combination at out-half/centre. It could well materialise but, on the evidence to date, is fraught with danger particularly when measured against the impact of Conor Murray and Farrell at 9 and 10 respectively thus far. It may well change but as of now Farrell is the most complete out-half on tour.

The full-back position is up for grabs, probably between Leigh Halfpenny, Anthony Watson and Jared Payne in that order. Payne's football intellect and positional sense stood out in Dunedin. Beyond that, Iain Henderson had his best game to date and while CJ Stander started slowly, I thought he was again central to turning the tide the Lions' way prior to Marty Banks' decisive penalty. Taulupe Faletau will be No 8 but it will be fascinating to see who will be packing down either side of him and with all six Irish and Welsh back-rowers in the mix.

Despite a much improved second-half performance, including his try, I don't believe Warburton has earned the right to a place on form and certainly not on captaincy alone. Beyond that, Rhys Webb proved conclusively that he is next to Murray in the scrum-half pecking order.

A second defeat yes but still everything to play for. It won't be pretty from here on but did we ever expect it to be anything different?

Irish Independent

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