All Blacks must fight fire with fire

11:07 PM BST

It’s been a long time coming, 12 years, but there’s no doubt that every All Blacks fan, and nearly every New Zealander, knows the British & Irish Lions are going to be tough opponents in this series.

The Lions have learned in their time in New Zealand how all-embracing rugby is for Kiwis. Everyone here knows what is about to be contested, and who the Lions are. The All Blacks can go to London and walk down Regent Street and likely no-one will have a clue who they are. But that isn’t the case for the Lions in New Zealand.

Rugby is the country’s religion. We are a pretty friendly and warm bunch towards our visitors but we take our rugby seriously.

We almost want the Lions to improve and give the All Blacks a serious challenge. But the greatest pressure the All Blacks will feel is that from the weight of the public wanting them to go out and show the world just how good they are.

That’s been there for 100 years or more; it’s part of the tradition, and why we put the All Blacks and the jersey up on a pedestal. And the players know they’ll get chopped down pretty quick if they don’t perform.

Anton Lienert-Brown returned to form for the All Blacks. Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

In many ways it is similar to Brazil and soccer, India and Australia and cricket. The difference is that none of those teams, or any other sports teams, have managed the consistency of success the All Blacks have achieved, and professionalism has only seen them improve their percentage ratio of success.

New Zealand rugby is now starting to grasp what professionalism really means. I look back to the time when coaches were being chopped and changed, when it was time to give someone else another go, but now we see consistency not only of players but also of management.

The conveyor belt that keeps bringing new talent through hasn’t needed an overhaul or upgrade; it just keeps on going. Wayne Smith may move on from the All Blacks’ coaching team, but a replacement is coming in and will work with the coaches who have been there to give a degree of continuity that is invaluable. It’s a proven winning formula, and it is not hard to see why New Zealand has stuck to it.

There is an element of nervousness among New Zealanders surrounding the coming Test series, but that is borne out of respect for the Lions. They were criticised for their scrum against the Highlanders, but they have gone away and done some work around that. As I said last week, scrumming is a coachable thing.

The Lions are on track there, and they’ve got plenty of talent to work on it. Their defensive structure is getting better and better with each game they play, and players are buying into it because they know it works.

There is a healthy nervousness in New Zealand.

We know what they are going to do. (Or we think we know what they are going to do.) The Lions likely are going to try to smother the All Blacks, and get in their faces, but I think there are enough game-breakers and x-factor in the New Zealand team to handle them.

On that, I was pleased to see Anton Lienert-Brown step up against Samoa after a relatively quiet Super Rugby season, and I think TJ Perenara coming off the bench provided the style of play the All Blacks need to snipe around the breakdown; I would have him on the field sooner than the 50-minute mark of the game. He’s a big enough guy who can push off some big guys, too.

The key thing for the All Blacks will be their ability to overcome the Lions’ rush defence: With the Lions’ defensive structure, it is very, very hard to play against that. You’ve got no time and no space, and we have seen from the Crusaders and the Maori All Blacks, who have been beaten in their Saturday games, that their wide, wide game plan, where they move the ball, didn’t work. They got shut down because the line speed got in their face.

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They were playing against an admittedly still jetlagged Lions, but the likes of Steven Luatua, Jerome Kaino and Charlie Faumuina took the ball to the line and created go-forward. You have to actually beat up their big guys and get their defence going backwards to create opportunity.

New Zealand will expect the All Blacks to win the first Test at Eden Park in Auckland this weekend, but there is no escaping the fact that the team must first match the Lions up front. They can’t start trying to run around them. They’re going to have to meet fire with fire, and take this defensive line on by running directly at them and make them tackle.

If you can break the door down, the game will open up and you’ll flood that defence no matter how good it is; but you have to have the physicality to shut it down with a strong attack.

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The All Blacks must head also a word of warning if they think a simple cross-kick or chip kick will undo the rush defence: The Lions will be onto it; they will invite the cross-kick. The wings will drop back and won’t be in the rush, they’ll hold back slightly, and there will always be a sweeper for the chip kick — usually the halfback. I know it very well; I played it for years.

The thing about the rush defence is that any team that looks to throw long passes to beat it invites the intercept; if you are going to throw cut-out passes, you have a much greater chance of seeing them intercepted.

Brodie Retallick MICHAEL BRADLEY/AFP/Getty Images

To beat the rush, you have to pass the ball through the hands. And it’s probably more the short pass, or take the tackle and then offload, as Luatua and Sonny Bill Williams did for Ihaia West’s try for the Blues against the Lions, that succeeds; it takes the defender out of player and floods the line in behind.

The key message for the All Blacks is: Expect a physical battle and meet fire with fire by taking the physicality to them!

New Zealand needs our big boys, Jerome Kaino and Brodie Retallick, to stand up; if the big boys can lay the platform down, I have got no doubt the All Blacks have the firepower to put the Lions away — and to finish with some finesse.

So far as the Samoan game last week was concerned, it was a fantastic performance with some great tries; but it really wasn’t what the All Blacks needed. It didn’t help them too much, for the Lions, apart from giving them a bit of a hit out and a run together. They won’t get the time and space they had in that game against the Lions, but they will be well aware of that.

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