Gordon D’Arcy: Shut down Smith, shut down the All Blacks
Lions’ ability to cut off the supply of quick ball at source laid the foundation to Wellington win
The more I re-watch the second Test, the more I see how vital New Zealand’s scrumhalf is to their attacking template. Aaron Smith dominated the first Test in Eden Park. He dominated the tempo and the direction of play.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see TJ Perenara start the third Test. Nor would I be shocked by Aaron Cruden at 10. Unlikely as those changes are, it might be a route Steve Hansen takes to eradicate clear Lions’ tactics.
Perenara for Smith is unlikely, as it almost admits they are under pressure and because Smith calls the shots and Hansen needs him to keep doing so. He is clearly empowered to overrule any forward, even captain Kieran Read, or Beauden Barrett because his rapid decision making usually has them pouring over the gainline.
The Lions failed to react to this leading up to Codie Taylor’s early try in the 30-15 loss in Auckland. There were multiple forward-moving phases, all directed by Smith’s bullet pass and quick thinking.
The Lions coaches identified this as a starting point to slow the All Blacks momentum and to deny them a try, which was probably the only way to beat them on Saturday.
Smith’s cleverest interplays are with Ryan Crotty and Ben Smith. Now, along with Sonny Bill Williams, these hugely effective weapons, these world class operators are striped from Hansen’s playbook.
On top of that, with their tight five utterly dominant in the first Test, the backrow of Read, Sam Cane and Jerome Kaino were freed up to wreak havoc. They could hold their width, especially Read, and damage the Lions off almost every passage of play.
It made them look invincible. All of a sudden, when the Lions pack showed up in Wellington, Read and Cane were embroiled in the nitty-gritty for a change. Extra men were needed in the ruck. They had to work harder to secure their own ball. That instantly removed the top of the ground version of Read.
The unbelievable offloads didn’t reappear because he wasn’t moving in the same direction with the same fluidity. Simple, basic means of stopping your opposition were employed. Factor in the loss of Kaino after 25 minutes as Hansen felt the All Blacks would be better served by covering the loss of Sonny Bill in midfield with Ngani Laumape.
That proved of enormous benefit for Sean O’Brien - who was outstanding - Taulupe Faletau and Sam Warburton. Tadhg Furlong also benefited at scrum time against a seven man pack.
When your backrow loses 33.3 per cent of its presence it will no longer be able to run riot. The knock-on effect is that your backs are unable to flow like the Golden State Warriors.
In the first Test every pass stuck because there was so much space around Eden Park. Wellington proved a completely different spectacle. The rain and the red card mattered, but so did the shackling of Smith.
Still, we can’t but wonder what New Zealand would have done if Sonny Bill didn’t think he was playing NRL for the Roosters.
Anyway, that offloading option is no longer in their arsenal.
The wonder is how they will react? They have two options. The Lions must improve again this Saturday but New Zealand have a clear choice to make. They could decide to behave in a similar fashion to what we saw in Dublin last November, or they will show the strength of character to win the way they always do.
But they are not the same team without Ben Smith, SBW and Crotty. And they are not the same team when Smith is neutralised.
That O’Brien avoided suspension is a massive factor as well. You only needed to see how he held off three counter-rucking Kiwis to secure quick ball leading up to Faletau’s try. Incredible resilience from Seanie.
That said, the Lions could become more competitive in the last 30 minutes if Warren Gatland embraces his bench. I can’t fathom why CJ Stander, Ken Owens and, slightly less so, Ben Te’o were left to cool their heels. We hear it all the time, but rugby truly is a 23 man game nowadays. The Hurricanes proved that. And Gatland simply can’t make the same non-decisions for a third time if the Lions want to win this series.
Even before Mako Vunipola was sin-binned, the pack were screaming out for someone to re-energise the collective. Stander could have done that as well as any rugby player alive.
The counter argument that Faletau, O’Brien and Warburton were having the games of their lives is there, but that’s another reason to get one of them off ahead of the monumental challenge this coming Saturday.
I don’t get it. Vunipola had three penalties in his ledger before the yellow card. It’s not as if Jack McGrath wasn’t primed to make the strong impact that he eventually did.
The Lions and Gatland were lucky to get away with only using 18 players. Tactical subs are essential in the modern game. Eddie Jones calls them finishers.
This will be reinforced on everyone’s return to Eden Park because a 23-man New Zealand with 15 players on the field won’t run out of petrol this time. But a template for victory now exists for the Lions. In attack it starts with Johnny, who was unbelievably good, and Owen Farrell.
The Lions can win by attacking off every restart they gather, by indentifying where the space exists and by knowing how to get there.
In defence it starts with Smith (or, potentially, TJ Perenara).
Smith is the source of the All Blacks attacking ploys. If he is dancing diagonally forward from ruck to ruck, taking two steps before torpedoing another hard runner into soaking red jerseys then the series is all but gone.
And for the love of hope, halve the 13 penalty count.