What were the key failings of the Lions’ performance against the All Blacks on Saturday? Well, there were a few, so let’s go through them.
The most glaring of all and arguably the most important was the All Blacks’ dominance at the breakdown. When this occurs you have the Lions struggling to generate clean, quick ball for Conor Murray to dish out to his backline. This allows more time for the All Blacks defence to set and as a result, a greater chance of successfully defending the next phase from the Lions. Also, a lack of breakdown parity inevitably leads to frustration and an increase in the likelihood of penalties being conceded.
In addition to this, the Lions didn’t win the scrum battle and their lineout maul was largely ineffective – two attacking weapons this Lions side relies heavily on.
Now, Stuart Barnes, writing in his column for The Times, believes that if the Lions continue to play with the same level of “attacking fluency”, I’m not sure if you could say the Lions were fluent in attack throughout the game, then they will continue to be cut open by the All Blacks, leak tries and ultimately lose.
‘If they [Lions] play with as much attacking fluency as they did for much of yesterday’s match they open the way for New Zealand to cut them to pieces.
‘The Lions are doomed if they see that score [Sean O’Brien] as the template for how to win in Wellington.’
What Barnes says here, makes sense to a certain extent, but only when it comes to the Lions coughing up cheap possession and subsequently being vulnerable to the counter attack which as we all know, is where the All Blacks thrive and are ruthless in punishing such moments.
However, look back to the tries which the Lions conceded against the All Blacks at Eden Park and none were a result of the Lions’ “attacking fluency” or coughing up possession as a result of throwing the ball around.
For Codie Taylor’s opener, the Lions were caught napping after George Kruis failed to roll away at the breakdown. They didn’t get their defensive line set and some quick thinking from Aaron Smith produced the try-scoring opportunity.
For Rieko Ioane’s first try, the Lions, again, nodded off when they conceded penalty advantage at the scrum and due to some great skill from Kieran Read on the deck and the inability of the Lions to read the situation, Ioane went over.
Finally, for Ioane’s second try, Liam Williams failed to deal with an easy take and the 20-year-old winger capitalised.
Now, these scores, ultimately won the game for the All Blacks but was it a result of too much “attacking fluency” from the Lions? – I don’t think so.
Ultimately, the Lions’ first try came from being brave in attack, yes, this probably won’t occur again but that was the reason. Rhys Webb’s try at the end of the match is probably the way the Lions want to score their tries. Bully the All Blacks at the breakdown, pile on the pressure through quick, effective carries and wait for the inevitable gaps to present themselves.
For me, if the Lions are to secure a Test victory in Wellington on Saturday, they need to keep the exact same gameplan but just execute it better. We all saw the problems Conor Murray’s box-kicks were causing the All Blacks’ back three, in particular, Ben Smith. This provided an excellent source of possession in the first half.
If the Lions can improve on the most important areas, the set-piece, the breakdown and their discipline, they will have more possession and territory and more opportunities in the ‘red zone’. In combination with this, to still have that bravery to take on an opportunity when it presents itself like Liam Williams did when he received that ball in his own 22, needs to be encouraged and not hindered.
Finally, not to keep harping on about Ireland’s win over the All Blacks in November but what were the characteristics of Ireland’s play that day?
An accurate and dominant set-piece, parity, if not dominance at the breakdown and most importantly, bravery – that’s the blueprint for beating the All Blacks.
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