Gordon D'Arcy: What Lions need to take from early games

Early games will see Warren Gatland’s charges working on their combinations

The British and Irish Lions received a traditional Maori welcome when they arrived at Auckland Airport. They will play ten games during their tour of New Zealand.

 

Imagine the British and Irish Lions tour in reverse. Warren Gatland picks a 30-man squad to be ensconced in the Vale of Glamorgan.

Now leave them there.

Let the All Blacks gather 41 bodies to journey north. Let them sift through the wreckage after playing the French Barbarians first up in Bayonne. Then it’s on to Welford Road and the Leicester Tigers, Leinster at the Aviva, followed by Munster in Thomond Park. Saracens next, billed as the “fourth Test match”, before the Scarlets in Llanelli leads them into the first Test under a closed roof in Cardiff.

Six matches squeezed into 21 days (with the excluded Scots placated by the second Test at Murrayfield!).

It would make for interesting viewing with the commercial success a foregone conclusion. But would it make sense in the modern era?

Back to reality, the Lions have embarked upon an arduous seven-week, 10-game, seven-city tour that seems like absolute madness.

They could have been better served by three weeks in camp with one, maybe two, warm-up games before the first Test in Auckland.

That way there would be less chance of losing the 10 players Gatland predicts will be injured before July. The HIA body count would also be controlled (players who fail the concussion test on a Saturday won’t feature on Tuesday and vice versa, hence the huge touring party).

Anyway, here we go.

Steve Hansen got the mind games going over the weekend when stating just how incapable of change New Zealand’s opponents will be.

“Maybe the best sides do, but a team like the Lions, which is just coming together, doesn’t have enough time to radically change. So what are they going to play? A big forward game and bash up the middle and then use the ball? Or are they going to use the ball right from the word go?

“But to prepare for the first Test, they are going to have to show us which one because they can’t play like that and change...But it is probably easier for us to change because we have played together for a long time.”

Good old Shag, nobody stirs the pot better.

The foundation

All Gatland needs to see on Saturday against the NZ Provincial Barbarians are a few combinations. It’s a chance to blow off the cobwebs. The Lions are hardly showing their hand by playing Johnny Sexton at 10 with Owen Farrell at 12. Shock horror.

For whatever reason the natural assumption is the Lions won’t gel quickly so they need to keep moves hidden to spring a surprise in the Tests. Yet, the better they perform the harder it will be for New Zealand to plan how to defend against them.

Of course they must lay the foundation for how they want to play, be that a kicking strategy, core moves, the lineout, but that doesn’t make them predictable. It gives them scope to add variations to the basic moves we’ll see in Whangarei, and against the Blues in Eden Park and on to Christchurch, Dunedin . . .

Hansen is merely flipping a disadvantage on its head. Every coach and player on tour knows how the All Blacks will play. We saw their weaknesses last year in Chicago, followed swiftly by a viciousness along with their scintillating best during the rematch in Dublin.

There is no dramatic advantage to New Zealand by watching the Lions opening matches. Initially, the game plan is not going to be overly complicated.

What really matters is which team best implements their tactics on June 24th. Dominating at set-piece will matter, along with breaching the gainline.

Rugby isn’t simple but come that first Test it will be physical and basic (see the Springboks opening 10 minutes in 2009).

It could be said that Munster, for all their progress, were unable to do any more than lay a basic tactical foundation during Rassie Erasmus’s entire first season in charge. Erasmus conceded, after Saturday’s “thumping” (his word) by the Scarlets, that there’s a need for them to evolve next season.

The Lions are different to Munster. Gatland and his assistants have coached many of these players for several years. The others are the finest in European rugby. All of them are capable of highly skilled actions under severe pressure and are aware that incremental improvement must follow each performance.

Physically dominant

But the foundations were already laid over the previous two Lions tours. The large Welsh contingent know the score. The six Saracens men go about their business in a ruthless and physically dominant fashion.

Brilliant young players like Maro Itoje and Tadhg Furlong can adapt. Quickly.

The easy assumption, as hinted by Hansen, is ‘Warrenball’ will be the one and only approach. But the Lions XV that starts the first Test, in my mind, won’t be picked to play like Wales.

Either way, the Welsh system is all about regenerating the backline to allow them to strike in space, as George North shows below.

That’s not the worse game plan to aspire to. The worry is how easy New Zealand can negate it but neither of the so-called ‘Warrenball’ carrying Welsh centres made the plane. Ben Te’o could be the reason for that as subtleties are apparent in his play with each passing game.

Let’s say the Lions tip along, winning and losing against Super Rugby teams as the performance keeps building, with everything coming together as they become the first visiting side to win a Test match at Eden Park since 1994.

We now know exactly how the All Blacks respond to defeat. Their violent showing at the Aviva Stadium would be increased in Wellington.

Some night for Jerome Garces. But once bitten twice shy; the Irish Lions will know what’s coming this time. That second Test could be a horses for courses selection, ready made for Te’o with his State of Origin experience. If you want somebody to hit...

Billy Vunipola is an undoubted loss, especially as a ball carrier, but it puts an onus on the Lions to seek space over constant collisions.

Either way, I see a mobile tight five full of ball players, keeping possession like Ireland did in Chicago, moving the All Blacks, exposing weaknesses we know exist, like making Julian Savea turn on his heels or forcing Beauden Barrett to alter his natural game.

All told, like any successful team, the Lions must be player-driven.

People have pigeon-holed Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt as highly controlling coaches but, certainly at Leinster, both were wise enough to allow the senior players take over at key junctures.

Leadership group

Cheika’s methods are dogmatic but after spending two years putting his processes in place, driven by sheer will most of the time, the players took control of their own destiny.

Joe is a more enigmatic figure. He lays out the precise tools required to win a particular game, he shows players how to use these tools and then he gets out of the way.

Crucially, both men knew how to create and sustain a core leadership group (Which, incidentally, Joe will be replenishing on the tour of the USA and Japan).

The less we hear from Gatland the better the Lions are going. This starts with Sexton and Farrell. The pair of them will influence how the Lions go about their business, and where the forwards are situated on the pitch.

So, obviously, I expect to see them running together at 10-12. Rhys Webb and Conor Murray can be included in this core group of generals.

If fit, these are the Test match half backs. How they are used comes down to strategy.

The rest, even Sam Warburton, must be selected on form. Scarlets duo Jonathan Davies and Liam Williams did themselves no harm by avoiding Lions training over the past two weeks. Davies’ performances against Leinster and Munster have inched him to the top of the pile for the 13 jersey.

Several players need to step forward and embody what makes the Lions successful. John Bentley, a pure Rugby League man, springs to mind from the Living with the Lions documentary in 1997. Or Paul Wallace’s surprise dominance of Os du Randt. Itoje could be the one who replicates Jeremy Davidson’s phenomenal impact on that 1997 tour. Brian O’Driscoll in 2001 is the backline’s benchmark.

But on weekend one all I expect to see are combinations. There is no issue with them showing their hand to Hansen or anyone else.

Analysis 101 is going to show the All Blacks how the Lions will play.

Same on the other side. If Beauden Barrett plays 10 they will kick cross field. Ardie Savea in the backrow means he will carry the ball as much as possible and not pass. Who Hansen picks at 12 and 13 is the only head-scratcher at the moment.

Same goes for the Lions midfield. All Saturday really does is get the ball, Warren or not, rolling. Gatland gets to control how much he uses the players he intends to name in the test XV but I expect that side to be clear enough before the Maori game on June 17th.

A tidal wave of rugby is about to break. All that matters, all that will be remembered, is which side wins two Test matches.

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