EDEN PARK, Auckland — We had been told to expect ‘Warrenball’ at Eden Park. We just weren’t prepared to see it adopted by the hosts.
The All Blacks — masters of attacking, expansive rugby — reverted to route-one footy to overpower the British & Irish Lions 30-15 in an at times brutal first Test.
The British & Irish Lions face a gruelling 10-game tour of New Zealand, including three Tests against the All Blacks. ESPN will be there with full, up-to-date coverage every step of the way.
It was so simple it was brilliant. Knowing the Lions would look to shut down the wider channels through their rush defence, as they had done all tour, the All Blacks rolled up the paddock through the middle chunk of the field as the likes of Kieran Read, Brodie Retallick and Jerome Kaino kept the Lions backpedalling.
From set-piece, centre Sonny Bill Williams was used as a midfield battering ram. Time and time again the code-hopper tore into the Lions defensive line but rather than look for his customary offload, the instruction was to take the ball to ground. Build, and build again. And with that, so did the pressure.
For All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, there was more than just a touch of satisfaction.
“I always find it amusing when people tell us they are going to beat us up in the tight five,” Hansen said.
“We can play down and dirty rugby too if we have to. And I mean down and dirty in the most respectful way. I thought our tight-five were very, very good. If the tight five do the job everyone else can play.
“Tonight’s Test was always going to be won in the tight five. We won that battle, but that doesn’t guarantee that will happen next week. We’ve got to be extremely proud of what they did. You don’t become the No. 1 side in the world without having a quality tight five.”
Sonny Bill Williams was used as a battering ram against the Lions. Hannah Peters/Getty Images
While the All Blacks pack dominated their Lions opposites, the scrum battle had largely been even until the hosts introduced Charlie Faumuina and Wyatt Crockett with immediate effect.
The New Zealand front-row produced a powerful shove in the 55th minute, before a miracle Kieran Read flick allowed Aaron Smith to quickly move the ball, and Israel Dagg, Aaron Cruden and Rieko Ioane did the rest.
It was a rare try-scoring opportunity and the All Blacks swallowed it whole. But rather than declare that as the game’s major turning point, Hansen again shifted the attention to the way his side wore down the Lions.
“It was more our ability to play off nine and hurt them, just get in behind them and taking away what they wanted to do to us,” he said. “I think that was more the turning point, once we really looked after the ball and stopped trying to offload and do the stuff that we’re known for; but we built some real pressure from just doing that time after time after time.
“Obviously the scrum was the highlight, as was Rieko’s second try. And I think there had been a lot of question marks about the young fella: was he ready? That second try, not many people would have scored it because the guys chasing him are very good players and very quick, and he was just lucky enough to be a little bit quicker.”
The All Blacks’ triumph was not without its trials, after the world champions lost both centre Ryan Crotty and fullback Ben Smith before halftime.
But in Aaron Cruden and Anton Lienert-Brown, the world champions had two excellent replacements as the Chiefs fly-half combined superbly with Beauden Barrett — who’d shifted to fullback — in a dual playmaker role. The rugged nature of the Test was not lost on Cruden, either.
“It really depends on the Test match, that’s sort of what was needed tonight and I thought the boys were able to do that,” Cruden said when asked whether the All Blacks were disappointed they didn’t get to throw the ball around.
“Obviously New Zealand and the All Black rugby is pretty well known for throwing the ball around and being pretty adventurous. And I think the way that the Lions like to defend, they bring a lot of line speed, and sometimes that isn’t always the best option and you have to roll the sleeves up and get into the nitty-gritty.
“And I thought our boys did really well tonight to do that.”
Did they indeed, and in doing so they have given the Lions plenty to think about over the next week in Wellington.
While flashy rugby makes highlight reels and earns YouTube hits, sometimes the simplest way of doing things is often the best.
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All Blacks park razzle-dazzle for route-one rugby
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