The idea that rugby is a simple game is oft bandied about.
While many willingly immerse themselves in the technical aspects of the scrum or the nuances of lineout calling, another school of thought has a more prosaic view. The winner of a rugby match is ultimately that team that brings a higher level of intensity. The team that force their will on their opponents and ultimately wear them down through brute force.
And most importantly, rugby is a zero sum game. Teams can’t physically dominate each other concurrently. There is invariably one side which has more on the line, with a more craven appetite for success. One side which boasts the physical capabilities to overpower the opposition and invariably it is they who ascend from the wreckage the victor. Should one ever need specific examples of intensity being so central to on-field fortunes the last two weeks in New Zealand would do nicely.
Test 1: Eden Park, Auckland. A consensus reigns supreme among the knowledgeable and the nobodies, the prophets and pariahs, as to how the game will unfold. The Lions possess the physical power to pummel the All Blacks up front. To bludgeon them with
Eden Park, Auckland. A consensus reigns supreme among the knowledgeable and the nobodies, the prophets and pariahs, as to how the game will unfold. The Lions possess the physical power to pummel the All Blacks up front. To bludgeon them with brawn, bulk and ballast. The supreme physicality wrought by Peter O’ Mahony and friends will overpower the just-back-from-injury Kieren Read and his charges. A Lions triumph awaits.
Final Score: New Zealand 30-15 British and Irish Lions. The best laid plans oft come awry, and for a simple reason. Sheer intensity, indomitable force of will. Where Lions were set to be strongest they were, in fact, weakest and painfully so. It was their technical display from which they earned most credit. A competent scrum and impressive lineout were on show but both ultimately proved folly, for it was in the trenches that this game was decided.
The spine-tingling ferocity of Brodie Retallick. The maddening desire of Sam Whitelock to less cleanout rucks but more eviscerate them and the searing caustic aggression that moved black jerseys forward in each collision. The pre-game assumption that the Lions had the power and panache to win the game up-front had clearly struck a nerve with the All Blacks and Steve Hansen was quick to point that out.
“I always find it amusing when people tell us they are going to beat us up in the tight five,” Hansen told The Guardian.
“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.”
The mere insinuation of superiority was enough to provoke the All Blacks to Herculean levels, which left the Lions vanquished. The Lions pride now wounded, game two was to be more than just a Test match for them. To be physically dominated in consecutive games is anathema to any self-respecting pack of forwards, not least one of the Lions’ pedigree.
New Zealand 21-24 British and Irish Lions. All changed, changed utterly. Where once flogged Lions lay subdued, now they prowled with unrelenting rage. While the points were ultimately scored in the wide channels or by their sprightly scrum-half, this too was a victory forged with forward ferocity.
The much maligned Alun Wyn Jones rejected his critics’ concerns with a performance of brute force only to be surpassed by Maro Itoje’s jaw-dropping display and the myriad of muscular interventions which Seán O’Brien made look commonplace. Just like the previous week, that side which faced the more pointed questions about their inability to front-up did just that.
The obvious questions now are, who shall scale those heights come the third Test? The Lions have earned a measure of respect in New Zealand following their towering performances in Wellington, but are cognisant that such heroics will count for little without a series win. Sam Warburton’s post-game comments to Wales Online were particularly revealing.
“I just thought ‘we are evens now’. They won the first half, we won the second half, we have got one more half to come. I am glad we have taken it to Eden Park next week, but I will genuinely only be happy if we get that Test series win.”
Forward thinking and impressively composed given the result his side had just earned. But hardly wounded. He and his charges have spent the last couple of days enjoying the extreme sports New Zealand is something of a mecca for and one could hardly begrudge them for it as the seek to strike the right balance come Saturday.
The All Blacks have struck a different tone. Sam Whitelock has spoken of a “brutally honest” team de-brief on Monday while backs coach Ian Foster was even more revealing as to their intentions for Saturday on the subject of the impending physical battle.
In the two Tests it’s been quite noticeable,” Foster said to The Guardian when speaking of the physical contest.
“One we won that battle, and one they won that battle. It shows how important it is… We have to make sure we are totally under control but bring the physicality.”
Quite how brutal the contest will be come Saturday will make for compelling viewing, but one can’t help but feel that it is the All Blacks that are more primed to come out on top.
Colm Egan, Pundit Arena