Highlanders highlight how to pick holes in Lions’ defence

Battle for place-kicking duties in the Test series against All-Blacks still up for grabs

The Lions provided something of a template for their defence on this tour against the Crusaders last Saturday.

But the intriguing, and slightly unnerving, aspect of this was the response of the Highlanders, who found space in behind the Lions wingers with their richly inventive array of cross-kicks, kick passes and, most of all, deft grubbers. The All Blacks Think Tank assuredly took note.

To keep a team which had averaged 37 points per game try-less, and to just three points, was an impressive effort and was founded to a large degree on the Lions ultra-fast line speed in defence.

But if Lima Sopoaga, Malakai Fekitoa and Tei Walden can find green grass in behind the Lions wingers, then one can be sure Beauden Barrett and his buddies will be able to do so as well.

The Highlanders kicked the ball 37 times in open play, more often than not to good effect, and there were few more intrigued onlookers than Lions' kicking coach Neil Jenkins.

“It’s good preparation, isn’t it, very good preparation,” said Jenkins in reference to the Highlanders’ kicking game being a warning shot for the Test series. “Not just Sopoaga, they were shifting it out one and the ‘12’ put them through as well and constantly Fekitoa is looking for them as well.”

“He’s used it quite a bit in the Super Rugby as well so I think it’s a tactic of theirs across the board but they certainly brought an extra level with it last night. They were constantly looking for it behind our wingers, trying to find gaps in between our frontline and our fullback. I think that’s pretty good practice for what’s coming a week Saturday, there’s no doubting it.”

Twelve years ago the Lions were not especially good on the pitch but, with Clive Woodward’s adherence to Vince Lombardi time, they were at least punctual.

These Lions have been notoriously tardy in their media commitments, presumably due to their need to cram so much preparation into their manically demanding and intense itinerary, as well as an understandable sense of priority. Training time comes before media obligations.

However, on the day before the Blues game, this afforded the media a unique vantage point at the QBE Stadium in Auckland as Owen Farrell, Johnny Sexton, Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny all went through an extended kicking practice under the watchful eye of Jenkins.

Good kicker

Four years ago, Halfpenny was chosen as the place-kicker for the Tests, seemingly much to the chagrin of Sexton. Warren Gatland has intimated that this decision rested with Jenkins four years ago, and will do so again on this tour, although the former Welsh and Lions goal-kicker suggested otherwise.

“I don’t think it’ll be just mine,” said Jenkins in reference to this decision.

“It’ll be between us; there’s no doubting us. Obviously [Andy] Faz is a pretty good kicker himself so he’s got a good insight into that as well. There’ll be a discussion between all the coaches so whoever we feel, if there is more than one playing in the team, someone’s probably going to be disappointed.”

“There was four years ago with Johnny as Leigh was kicking and it’s not an easy conversation. We certainly had that four years ago but that’s life and I like to think he [Halfpenny] fronted up four years ago and did the job. Leigh had a pretty good series so I have no doubt that whoever kicks this series will be very strong. So we’ll have a very good kicker.”

Halfpenny is likely to be the place-kicker this Saturday against the Maori All Blacks, and hence could yet assume that role again in this series.

Farrell had seemed the favourite to fulfil this crucial role, but missed a penalty to push the Lions two scores clear against the Crusaders last Saturday, when adamant that his penalty had been inside the line of the right upright, and again when he had the opportunity to open up a five-point lead against the Highlanders with ten minutes remaining last Tuesday with his first touch after replacing Dan Biggar.

That was a costly miss, although Jenkins is in agreement with Farrell regarding the overruled kick against the Crusaders which cleared the height of the uprights.

“It was over. It was,” said Jenkins, laughing.

“We were in behind it and it was over. Look, it’s incredibly hard to be a referee and a linesman. If you’re standing underneath the posts you can’t tell me if that’s gone over or if it’s just crept in or not. It’s quite difficult to see if you’re standing quite literally looking straight up, so you know, the ref has to take control there as well and if he’s unsure then maybe you do go to the TMO. But both me and Owen felt the kick was certainly over. It just crept in but, you know, the decision’s made and that’s how it is, you’ve just got to get on with it.”

Elliot Daly’s late penalty against the Highlanders having been moved back a few metres, which Jenkins admitted was the right call, the Lions kicking coach says they know the range of each of their kickers, although there are countless variables at play.

“Pretty much, we’ll have a guideline. For most of them, from the halfway line I’m not saying they would be comfortable, but they wouldn’t be far off. It just depends on the day but you’ve also got to play the conditions in New Zealand.”

“There can be a little bit of a freeze in Auckland. Hamilton is the same – we’ve been there quite a few times with Wales and it can be quite tough – and Wellington can be very tricky.

“So there are different scenarios which might mean the kickers’ range is up to 55m, or down to 40 or 45m. It depends on the conditions. We will adapt to that when the time comes.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times