All Blacks’ superior collective skills set to prove decisive
With the same pack on duty, New Zealand set to replicate awesome intensity levels
New Zealand v British & Irish Lions, Westpac Stadium, Wellington, Saturday, 7.35pm local time (8.35am Irish). TV: Live on Sky on Sky Sports.
The Lions are 1-0 down in the series. They have won just six of 39 Tests in New Zealand, and only two Tests here since their only series win in 11 tours back in 1971. The back-to-back World Champions are assuredly going to improve from last week’s 30-15 win, and the odds on the Lions winning here are 5/1, and 18/1 to win the series.
Furthermore, the last time the All Blacks lost on home soil was against South Africa in Hamilton 2009, when the Springboks won 32-29. Their 30-15 win last week in Eden Park was their 47th successive home win since that aforementioned defeat.
Now it really does look like they’re going to need a bigger boat.
Warren Gatland and his assistant coaches have sought to address the manner in which the All Blacks bossed the collisions and breakdown by promoting Maro Itoje and Sam Warburton to the starting line-up, with CJ Stander to add ballast off the bench. But jettisoning Peter O’Mahony and George Kruis from the 23 may diminish their lineout. At any rate, they’ll hardly poach another four throws this time.
The All Blacks have made two enforced changes in their backs, shifting Israel Dagg to full-back, bringing in Waisake Naholo at right-wing and restoring Anton Lienert-Brown at outside centre for the sidelined Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty. The uncapped Ngane Laumape is on the bench, after causing the Lions plenty of grief in last Tuesday’s draw with the Hurricanes.
So with the same pack, and forward replacements, the All Blacks are as well equipped to reach the same intensity in all the contact zones of scrum, maul, tackle and breakdown as last week, and presumably the world’s best lock, Brodie Retallick, will produce another of his towering, all-action 80 minute efforts.
Against that, the six Crusaders’ tight forwards in their make-up won’t still be smarting from their 12-3 beating by the Lions, but one ventures the relatively rusty Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read might have benefitted from the run-out, scarcely conceivable in Read’s case.
A windy, wet ‘front’ is set to hit Wellington, and with the forecast not too flash, as they say hereabouts, Gatland admitted they considered a 6-2 split on the bench at length. But with the weather in mind, this might actually have been the game for Ben Te’o to truck it up and revel in his willingness to stop Sonny Bill Williams in his tracks.
War of attrition
Instead, the return of Johnny Sexton in a new 10-12 axis with Owen Farrell possibly reduces the Lions’ physicality on the gain line, although it does give them two playmakers, ie two highly proficient kickers out of hand as well as well as two good distributors.
Sexton will add value. Within the more rarefied Lions air, and with more game time, he has rediscovered his mojo. He is back on merit
This augments the kicking game of Conor Murray, and the dual left-footed options provided by Jonathan Davies and Elliot Daly. The Lions are well stocked with kickers, and the new-look New Zealand back three possess two inexperienced if brilliant match-winners. Sexton will add value. Within the more rarefied Lions air, and with more game time, he has rediscovered his mojo. He is back on merit.
But it’s liable to be first and foremost a fight, a war of attrition along the gain line. As well as highlighting how the All Blacks had the better of the collisions last Saturday, Gatland has readily and regularly admitted that they also earned big dividends from playing off ‘9’, ie one-off runners from Aaron Smith. Cue a guessing game as to whether they do the same, and how differently the Lions might defend closer in as well as being more competitive at the breakdown.
In analysing this intriguing aspect to a second meeting a week later, Hansen was true to the New Zealand maxim of KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid).
“He [Gatland] is going to second-guess what we do, so are we going to play off nine again? And then we have to second-guess if we play off nine, are they going to shut that door? And if they shut the door, what other door have they just opened because you can’t do everything.
“That’s the beautiful thing about our game – it is all about space. And if you can find it, then you are in business. First of all, you have got to go forward, so there is going to be a tremendous battle there isn’t there? Because they will be a little wounded from last time out and they will want to prove a point. So we have to be on-song ourselves if we are going to win this game.”
In again highlighting the need to “stop the Blacks ’ momentum off nine”, Gatland acknowledged: “But they may come with a different plan. They may look to throw the ball around, they may plan to kick the ball a bit more and we have got to be ready for that.
“Discipline is a key for us, making sure we don’t give away soft, unnecessary penalties. There were two or three last week which changed the momentum of the game. We saw that against the Hurricanes again on Tuesday night. There were a couple of soft penalties which were pretty costly for us in the second half. We have obviously got to be more physical up front and the players are aware of that and we have spoken about that as a group.”
We have worked hard on all three scenarios at how they might come at us and we are prepared
Gatland has also admitted that in dynamically using one-off runners, a variation on Warrenball he ventured, “whatever that is”, this also served to negate the Lions’ line speed in defence. Again though, the All Blacks may take a different approach.
“If you want to stop line speed you can do it in a couple of ways. You can either do it by coming hard off nine which stops your line speed out wide or you attack close up the short side or use a kicking strategy. They have gone about it one way, they may come with a different plan on Saturday and we have got to be prepared for that. We have worked hard on all three scenarios at how they might come at us and we are prepared.”
It may not have the counter-attacking and fluidity of last week. There is liable to be even more kicking, but the Lions look equipped to be competitive again in what could be another full-on, belter of a Test match.
The tourists need close to the performances of their careers. Yet the nagging hunch remains that when it comes to crunch moments, the best collective skills set in world rugby is more liable to seize the moment.
NEW ZEALAND: Israel Dagg (Crusaders), Waisake Naholo (Highlanders), Anton Lienert-Brown (Chiefs), Sonny Bill Williams (Blues), Rieko Ioane (Blues); Beauden Barrett (Hurricanes), Aaron Smith (Highlanders); Joe Moody (Crusaders), Codie Taylor (Crusaders), Owen Franks (Crusaders), Brodie Retallick (Chiefs) Samuel Whitelock (Crusaders), Jerome Kaino (Blues), Sam Cane (Chiefs), Kieran Read (Crusaders, captain). Replacements: Nathan Harris (Chiefs), Wyatt Crockett (Crusaders), Charlie Faumuina (Blues), Scott Barrett (Crusaders), Ardie Savea (Hurricanes), TJ Perenara (Hurricanes), Aaron Cruden (Chiefs) or Lima Sopoaga (Highalnders), Ngane Laumape (Hurricanes).
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales); Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby, England), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets, Wales), Owen Farrell (Saracens, England), Elliot Daly (Wasps, England); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, Ireland), Conor Murray (Munster, Ireland); Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England,) Jamie George (Saracens, England), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster, Ireland), Maro Itoje (Saracens, England), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, Wales), Sam Warburton (Cardiff Blues, Wales, capt), Sean O’Brien (Leinster, Ireland), Taulupe Faletau (Bath Rugby, Wales). Replacements: Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales), Jack McGrath (Leinster, Ireland), Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins, England), Courtney Lawes (Northampton, England), CJ Stander (Munster, Ireland), Rhys Webb (Ospreys, Wales), Ben Te’o (Worcester Warriors, England), Jack Nowell (Exeter, England).
Referee: Jerome Garces (France).
Previous meetings: Played 39, New Zealand 30 wins, 3 draws, Lions 6 wins.
Betting (Paddy Powers): 1/6 New Zealand, 30/1 Draw, 5/1 Lions. Handicap betting (Lions +14 pts) Evens New Zealand, 19/1 Draw, Evens Lions.
Forecast: New Zealand to win.