Gordon D’Arcy: No variation if everyone plays the same
Rather than quick ball, Lions seek contact, which is tough to resource
Maro Itoje has to feature somewhere at some stage against the All Blacks. Photograph: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images
One of the points of differences between the Lions and New Zealand teams is how they will go about finding space and creating quick possession.
Kiwi boys are raised to evade and offload, while players from Britain and Ireland tend to seek contact, quick rucks and miss-matches.
The All Blacks are the best at what they do, and individuals in the current squad can do it better than any New Zealand side has ever done before. What essentially decided the Blues game at Eden Park was Steven Luatua’s offload for Sonny Bill Williams, helped by SBW’s running line, followed by his offload to Ihaia West, and the timing of West’s run.
The Lions defence on Saturday took a big developmental leap by shutting down the Crusaders whenever their line was breached. The kind of breach that they traditionally convert (as do the All Blacks), but the scramble defence from the Lions showed how much this matters to them. That essentially decided the game in Christchurch.
Still, with significantly less possession (58 to 42 per cent), the Crusaders were able to find space more easily than the tourists. I think this match, more than any that follows before June 24th, is a proxy for how the Lions will play against the All Blacks in the first test.
When nothing seemed to be on, the Crusaders, like the All Blacks, showed they can create rapid go-forward possession. In contrast, a decent amount of Lions carries were into contact, which is hard work, tough to resource and labour intensive.
The couple of times they found soft shoulders, Conor Murray had quick ball leading to profitable inroads. In the opening seconds of the game, Liam Williams gathered a Crusaders handling error. Two quick phases, built by the speed of the previous ruck, created the opportunity for Owen Farrell, Ben T’eo and Jonathan Davies.
Quick ball creates opportunities. The more opportunities, the higher the chance of winning. The main instigators were Toby Faletau and Mako Vunipola, but Jamie George and Seanie O’Brien are equally capable of similar returns. The change up came from Maro Itoje and CJ Stander, who barrelled into contact and let his leg drive carry him over the gainline.
Now it’s about growing on this performance, with the intention of generating quick ball, as that is where the Lions can damage New Zealand.
It is worth pointing out that “quick ball” is not a strategy in itself, it is an end result of a series of co-ordinated actions done extremely well. There is growing evidence that rugby is becoming homogenised, simply because the points of difference are harder to find. It took an Anthony Wanton counter attack, or Ben Te’o carry, to unlock the Crusaders.
For the Crusaders, a lineout move then kicking was their stab at it.
Otherwise, everyone is adopting the forward pack option with the pass or carry to shorten up the defensive line, thereby creating mismatches and, a lá Graham Henry’s mantra, converting the few opportunities that are created (Farrell will be more annoyed than anyone that he passed short to Jonathan Davies on 25 minutes and didn’t go wide where the bodies were waiting).
So, what is the point of difference if everyone is playing increasingly the same? It has to be quick, clean ball over the gainline or an offload as the Lions learned to their cost in Auckland.
Close to unmanageable
People have branded the Maoris as the fourth test. I don’t see how that idea is of any benefit to the Lions. After an 11-month season, do they really need a fourth test against Brand All Blacks? The schedule is already perilously close to unmanageable. Why invent another test match?
The team that faced the Crusaders looks like the bones of the test XV. It would be no harm to rest as many of them, where possible, until Saturday week.
The Maori game should be a chance for others to force Warren Gatland into changing his mind. There are a few areas still undecided, some players haven’t performed yet and others simply haven’t played (the HIA is starting to take its toll). Every coach wants players to make the decisions for him, and there are a few cases to plead yet.
As the tour is unfolding some preordained roles are changing. I’m coming around to the idea that the bench could be more important than those who start. Maro Itoje, for example, has to feature somewhere at some stage against the All Blacks but the performances of others and the impact he made from the bench could make him the ideal last quarter impact sub.
Selection is the main task facing Gatland, as it was in Australia four years ago when he proved how ruthless he is willing to be to win a series.
Speaking of Jonathan Davies, I’d expect to see him start against the Maori, simply because he is ruled out of Tuesday’s Highlanders game due to a failed HIA and he’s one of a couple of players that will need another run. Same goes for Stuart Hogg, who can’t seem to catch a break. As a result, Watson has become a genuine option at fullback while Liam Williams deserves another go in the back three.
We saw plan A and plan B from the Lions on Saturday. A with Farrell and T’eo, and B with Farrell at inside centre and Johnny Sexton at outhalf.
I’m sure we’ll hear Steve Hansen point out the obvious at some stage this week by stating they know what’s coming. Yes they do, but if the Lions get quick ball then it doesn’t matter.
The big question is whether Gatland can get the selection right so they can change up when needed.
So, when we break it down to basics, New Zealand has the offload, the Lions have play makers and short running lines.
If only it was that simple.