Gerry Thornley: All Blacks’ execution has to be seen to be believed
Individual brilliance from Codie Taylor and Beauden Barrett sum up difference in skill
Codie Taylor of the All Blacks dives in to score a try during the first Test match against the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park in Auckland. Photograph: Hannah Peters/Getty Images
Talking to some of the more fair-minded New Zealand journalists covering this tour, and not only are there plenty but it’s seemingly more informative than most of their players’ press conferences, and it’s clear that the Lions rattled the All Blacks cage in Eden Park last Saturday.
Asking one Kiwi reporter how that first Test compared to a Rugby Championship game at home to one of their southern hemisphere rivals, merely drew raised his eyebrows as if to say: “Are you kiddin’ me?”
They reckon that not only the All Blacks, but the Lions too would have put away either Australia or South Africa last Saturday. It was high quality, and until the hour mark had been an epic Test match which still hung in the balance.
To put the game into another perspective, of the All Blacks’ 37 wins in succession at Eden Park going back 23 years, only five have been by a score.
The All Blacks are compulsive viewing, the most watchable team on the planet. They have been for many years now, and certainly over the last eight years or so, during which they’ve become the double world champions and possibly the greatest team of all time.
But it’s not just the northern hemisphere teams they dominate. They have won nine of the last 12 Rugby Championship/Tri Nations. In the five years since the advent of Argentina, they have won all four tournaments conducted on a home-and-away basis. The exception was the truncated version in 2011 due to the World Cup, which they more than atoned for.
If it hadn’t been for Ireland’s win in Chicago, they’d be on an unprecedented run of 23 successive wins. (Of course, if it hadn’t been for Ireland in the Aviva Stadium last March, England would be on the All Blacks’ shirt tails with 21.)
No matter the time on a Saturday morning back home, the All Blacks are always worth watching. But to see them up close and personal, to see them play in the flesh, is another experience again. The Lions’ near length-of-the-pitch, counter-attacking try was a wondrous, jaw-dropping passage of play; collectively the high point of the game. And true to Warren Gatland’s word that the players had a licence to play. So much for Warrenball.
If either team was the more direct, it was the All Blacks. They kicked more out of hand than the Lions – 26 to 19. They also passed more, it is true, but interestingly the Lions’ outhalves, Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton, passed more than Beauden Barrett and Aaron Cruden combined – 33 to 31.
The kicks from scrumhalf were very similar – 10-11 – but the glaring difference was the number of passes from scrumhalf, 126 by Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara to 67 by Conor Murray and Rhys Webb. This serves to highlight how much more possession the All Blacks recycled, but how much more they used one-off runners. Admittedly, this was employed with good footwork, and at times brutally efficient clearing out.
Furthermore, though, the high points in individual skill came from All Blacks’ players. Kieran Read’s one-handed scoop pass off the ground from the base was one of the highlights of the game. Another was Beauden Barrett’s retreating one-handed pick-up and transfer to his left hand while spinning away from Murray in one sweeping movement. That was a game-turning moment after the Lions’ bright start. It drew audible gasps from the crowd, both at the time and following replays. It also told his All Blacks team-mates “Beauden is on it tonight’.
Then there was Codie Taylor’s pick-up from Israel Dagg’s long pass to score the first try. Therein, perhaps, lay the key difference between these All Blacks and their opponents, as has usually been the case for many years; their decision-making and execution. By contrast, the Lions’ locks Alun Wyn Jones and George Kruis compounded undistinguished games with glaring knock-ons in open space.
But the most relevant comparison was the failure of Ben Te’o to shift the ball on from Farrell’s skip pass following the post-interval counter-attack initiated by Liam Williams. He had a mighty game physically, but passing is not his strongest suit, and a gilt-edged opportunity was lost. By contrast, when Dagg was in the same position, he may have slung it a little low at Taylor, but he didn’t hesitate and he did put pace on the ball.
That may seem a bit harsh on Te’o. You’ve got to love his attitude. He took it to the All Blacks physically, and was wrongly penalised for emptying Sonny Bill Williams.
Indeed, as an aside, the officiating remains a concern, as always against the All Blacks. Officials just seem cowed by them. The All Blacks were permitted to dive in off their feet with impunity, with Jaco Peyper’s interpretation more in keeping with the southern hemisphere approach. If it has no material affect, it goes unpunished. Check out Joe Moody propelling himself to the ground after a carry by Read like a swimmer entering the pool, before Kruis is penalised for not rolling away at the ensuing ruck. In the northern hemisphere that’s more likely to be penalised.
It would almost be funny except that it led to the quick tap by Smith which Barrett had the wit and vision to call for on seeing Elliot Daly and co switch off, thereby leaving Taylor unmarked out wide for his Dane Coles-like gather from almost off the ground while scarcely breaking stride.
The Lions have the best three hookers from the four home countries, yet would any of them have been able to replicate that piece of skill? And therein lies the rub.