After the Lions gave up a late 14-point lead to draw 31-31 with the Hurricanes, there are a number of questions surrounding Warren Gatand’s side.
From key men not playing well to other talented players seemingly unfancied by the selectors, there are issues that have to be resolved. And with the second Test fast approaching, the Lions don’t have a lot of time to find answers.
We discuss five questions as the tour reaches a crucial tipping point before the Wellington Test.
1. Are the Lions exhausted?
The All Blacks scored 17 points in the second half of the first Test match while the Lions could only manage a consolation converted try to Rhys Webb and did not score any points between the 36th and the 81st minutes.
In the Hurricanes game, the Lions were held scoreless after the 55th minute try by Tommy Seymour and the second half possession and territory both finished a lopsided 59% to 41% to the Hurricanes. Is this a sign that the Lions have a poor bench or that they are exhausted? Or that the All Blacks and Hurricanes have got better as matches have progressed?
The answer probably a mix of all three. It is concerning that some of the potential bench players Gatland selects for the crucial second Test, like Courtney Lawes and possibly Iain Henderson, will be backing up from the energy-sapping game against the Hurricanes on Tuesday in which Gatland refused to use his replacements.
In the second half of Test matches, and especially in the first ten minutes when players on the field begin to tire and bench players are fresh to the field, the All Blacks traditionally lift the pace and intensity of their play.
Their bench is packed with pacy, highly skilled athletes like Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara and Anton Lienert-Brown. The Lions will need to match those players and or they will be blown away on Saturday.
2. Why are in-form Dan Biggar and Tommy Seymour not being seriously considered for the Test side?
Dan Biggar has had a high workload on this tour, starting in four out the eight games. While he has not been electrifying, his form has been on the whole more compelling than that of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell.
He has been more of a running threat, shown more variety in his kicking game and been generally defensively sound, despite a few missed tackles on the likes of Ngani Laumape (he was not alone in that regard).
His place kicking was also excellent against the Hurricanes, with only one miss from seven attempts at the same venue for the second Test.
Tommy Seymour is the leading try scorer on the tour with three, and has shown a real poacher’s knack of reading plays expertly to either intercept or be on the shoulder of a player making a break out. In his first game on tour, he made eight runs for 55 metres and no tries against the Barbarians.
In the Highlanders game, it was a similar story with six runs, 58 metres run and one try. Finally on Tuesday against the Hurricanes in just seven runs he gained 64 metres, beat three defenders and scored two tries. Can anyone else spot the upward form trajectory? Surely this type of impact should be considered for a bench position at the least?
3. When will the Lions recognise that Owen Farrell is out of form?
Against the All Blacks, Owen Farrell made eight runs for a grand total of seven metres gained. In his only other full game on the tour against the Crusaders, Farrell made 11 runs for 17 metres gained.
While it is recognised that the fly-half role can be one in which distribution rather than running is the focus, 19 runs for 25 metres with one defender beaten isn’t exactly electrifying, and his lack of running threat allows the All Black defenders to concentrate on those outside him in the Lions backline.
Farrell’s defence has also been leaky in his two games so far, missing five tackles in total. When Farrell is in form, he has a strut and a look that ‘I’m running the show.’ That dominating presence was nowhere to be seen last Saturday and the abiding memory of Farrell’s first Test performance was him lying on the ground after being hit hard by All Black captain Kieran Read.
How far does Warren Gatland’s loyalty stretch?
4. Why is Henderson less likely to be selected for the second Test than Lawes?
Courtney Lawes was very good but Iain Henderson was world class against the Hurricanes.
Brodie Retallick had a huge game against the Lions in the first Test with his abrasive all-round game. Ian Henderson showed very similar qualities for the Lions in Tuesday’s game, with storming runs, soft handed offloads and in-your-face tackling.
Admittedly one of those tackles landed him in the sin-bin and ultimately cost the Lions the win, but it should not detract from an eye-catching performance which should give him a starting jersey for Saturday.
The Lions desperately missed forwards who could drive forward beyond the gain-line. Courtney Lawes has a huge work-rate but does not have the same running game as Henderson. In fact, Henderson showed more attacking menace against the Hurricanes than the other three leading Lions locks Itoje, Kruis and Wyn Jones.
Tying up the opposition will not do – Gatland needs to attack the All Blacks and Henderson could be a real weapon – if he is deployed.
5.What strategy will Warren Gatland employ on Saturday in the second Test?
There have been calls from some commentators for the Lions to focus on ball retention and suffocating phase play to starve the All Blacks of possession.
This may be part of the solution but I would argue that Gatland should re-watch Ireland’s victory over the All Blacks in Chicago. The Irish that day did put together strong and consistent phase play but also mixed in unpredictable, high-paced attacks and tested the All Blacks’ nerves by kicking for territory and pressuring the lineouts and kick-offs.
The one-off charges up the middle will only work for so long, and will actually tire the players as they come up against the brutal All Black defenders.
The Lions therefore need to add long punts and chip kicks to their kicking game, and not just the Conor Murray box-kick.
Is it too late for the puzzle pieces to come together?
Kaal Kaczmarek, Pundit Arena