It’s been a huge week for the British & Irish Lions, and now there is a real need for a good effort against the Crusaders on Saturday after the loss to the Blues on Wednesday; it won’t be easy but Lions supporters who fall into the trap of saying the tour is a write-off because they are losing to these Super Rugby franchises are being very short-sighted. The Lions have to have the mindset they are down here for the Test series and whatever they learn and whatever they put together as a team, and it’s win or lose, so long as they are getting better then it will be a completely different story against the All Blacks.
The Super Rugby teams have been together for six months now, played a number of games, and they’ve got really good combinations; remember, too, these are the top five players in each position in New Zealand. It’s not like the Lions are playing amateur or semi-pro teams; they are playing the best we’ve got, who are just split up into the franchises. So it was no surprise the Blues played really well. Sonny Bill Williams and Rieko Inane were outstanding, and Steven Luatua’s offload at the start of Ihaia West’s try was pretty cool.
Sonny Bill Williams Phil Walter/Getty Images
I can’t see the Lions beating the Crusaders or the Highlanders, but I could be proven wrong if they keep improving. And what we saw against the Blues was definitely a huge improvement on what we saw against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians.
The Lions fronted up on Wednesday; they played some good rugby at times and showed they are going to be fairly tough at set-piece. They drove throughout the game really, really well, and that’s something we’re not used to seeing in New Zealand. The South Africans tend to do it a little bit, but the British teams – particularly England — are far more drilled come the lineout drive so that’ll be working for the Lions.
The way it finished, though, with the Lions missing that lineout throw on the Blues line, marked a complete lack of composure. That’s a ‘coach killer’ right there and then. That’s what the Lions should be good at, and the ball not going to hand at the lineout should never be an excuse. They lacked composure, and choked. Had Courtney Lawes or Maro Itoje caught the ball, it was try time.
The British & Irish Lions will focus on improving their discipline and offload prevention as they look to bounce back from their defeat to the Blues on Wednesday evening.
Tour games don’t often live in the memory when one reflects on previous British & Irish Lions campaigns, but Ihaia West’s try that saw the Blues record a famous victory might well be an exception to the rule.
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They just looked like they rushed it. They weren’t battling the clock at that stage; it was the whistle. It was the last play of the game. There was no need to rush anything. It is the whistle that will dictate the end of the game not the clock.
The Lions will have come away from the game with their negatives and positives columns, and I suppose the lineout was definitely a positive for them despite the failure at the end. The scrum, too, although the Blues held them at times. Joe Marler made an impact when he came on.
They held the ball for long periods of play, they showed composure at the breakdown, and they showed their strength. They were caught in compromising positions at times, but they were strong enough to get into positions where they could get the ball back and recycle it. That indicated how strong they are.
I thought their rush defence, and getting up in their opponents’ faces, flustered the Blues and forced some errors, which is a Warren Gatland trademark. But it is something they haven’t quite mastered; the Stephen Perofeta pass that got in behind to give Rieko Inane his try-scoring chance caught them a little bit, and I’m sure Steve Hansen and co. have noticed that one.
Maro Itoje of the Lions wins lineout. Hannah Peters/Getty Images
We all know it is a completely different kettle of fish and a different mindset come a Test match, and these guys are not only trying to put a bit of pride in the Lions jersey by going out and playing well; they are actually playing for Test positions. The competition within the camp will be absolutely massive, but I think the two locks, Itoje and Lawes, and prop Joe Marler, the No. 8 C.J. Stander and definitely Rhys Webb, the halfback, all put their hands up with their performances against the Blues; probably Dan Biggar, as well, before he went off.
I thought they lacked punch in midfield against the Blues. It was all just straight-line running, and Ben Te’o offered more against the Baabaas. You have to be able to break the line. Just playing 15 phases, and muscling without using any imagination at all, is not going to work in New Zealand.
They’ll identify that, but they have to look into the players they’ve got and try and come up with different ideas. If they don’t break the line, it is not hard to number up and defend the attack we’ve seen from them in Whangarei and Auckland.
With the Highlanders, Maori All Blacks and Chiefs to follow the Crusaders, the Lions have a tough couple of weeks ahead.
The magnitude of the task they face can’t be over-stated. On previous tours, they played provincial unions that helped them get into a rhythm; but Super Rugby teams are on a different level. When you look at the New Zealand Super Rugby teams, you would have to say most would beat international sides – let alone an international side that hasn’t quite jelled and clicked. Certainly, I don’t believe they can beat the Crusaders.
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The highlight of my weekend would have been the entrée of the Crusaders against the Highlanders. What an absolutely great finish, and a great spectacle and a great game of rugby.
The Crusaders did it again, didn’t they, with their come-from-behind win? They pulled one out of the bag. That was a phenomenal dropped goal by Mitchell Hunt. That game was a once-in-a-season type of highlight. It was a season’s highlights package in itself; and saying that, I watched the replay of the last five minutes again the next day because it was so cool.
You did have to feel for the Highlanders. They came back into the game and showed some real fight. Waisake Naholo was brilliant, and Malakai Fekitoa was brilliant until that last kick that gave the ball back to the Crusaders when it went out on the full.
If you got that served up every week, you would be a happy fan. That game said to me why the All Blacks are so good: two teams at the top of their game, with the result coming down to a dropped goal at the end of a fixture that had everything — great tries, great open running rugby, tremendous offloads and a really competitive battle up front.
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