Lions believe New Zealand tactic is to block runners off the ball
Lions selection for Chiefs game gives strong pointers toward squad for first test
Lions head coach Warren Gatland: “The frustrating thing for us is the amount of blocking that’s going on, the off-the-ball stuff.” Photograph: INPHO/Dan Sheridan
The temperature is rising in the New Zealand winter. Both the All Blacks and the Lions ramped up their performances over the weekend, as did their respective coaches Steve Hansen and Warren Gatland as they exchanged barbs over a non-existent split in the Lions camp.
Now, finally, only a week out from a potentially momentous first test, Gatland has made public what the Lions believes is the New Zealand tactic of blocking runners off the ball.
Gatland cited this tactic in the effectiveness thus far of New Zealand sides spoiling the Lions’s kick-chase game, and also in preventing clean line breaks being converted into tries.
“The frustrating thing for us is the amount of blocking that’s going on, the off-the-ball stuff. It makes it difficult to complete attacking opportunities and situations because there is so much happening off the ball in terms of holding players or subtly holding players. We’ve raised it with the ref already. If you listen to the ref’s mic they were talking about it constantly through the game. They gave a couple of penalties for blocking,” he added in reference to the Lions’s 32-10 win over the Maori All Blacks.
“We’ll keep raising it ‘cos it was picked up on a couple of occasions last night. They stopped doing it as much. That made it a lot easier for us to get up in the air and to compete. In a couple of games we haven’t been able to get up in the air because there has been that interference.”
On one occasion during Saturday’s game the Maori openside Elliot Dixon could be seen clearly taking out Ben Te’o, and Gatland said the Lions had lost a number of try opportunities as a result.
Away from the ball
Although every team in the Northern Hemisphere also does it, Gatland said: “I don’t think it happens to the same extent, but I know how difficult it is to pick up for referees because it tends to happen away from the ball. Someone just changes the line and blocks. We clipped a lot of the situations. We have just got to be aware of it.
“For us it’s being smart and, hopefully, the officials are aware of it. They were aware of it last night because they spoke about it a lot and they picked it up on a couple of occasions where we ended up with penalties. And then a couple of other occasions they spoke about watching certain situations in terms of off-the-ball stuff. I am happy enough that if the referees are aware of it and they pick up teams for that, that would be good.
“If you look back the very first kick-off in Chicago with Ireland-All Blacks, the All Blacks were penalised for interference and blocking and stuff. All I am asking is the officials are aware of it, and look at it, and they did that last night so I was happy with it.”
Asked if he will be meeting the first test referee Jaco Peyper on Friday, Gatland said: “I will do, yeah.”
The Lions selection for the Chiefs game on Tuesday has given strong pointers toward the composition of the starting XV and replacements to face the All Blacks next Saturday. Rory Best succeeds Peter O’Mahony as captain in a team which also features Iain Henderson, CJ Stander, Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne.
Captain of Lions
O’Mahony looks to be the front-runner to captain the Lions in the first test. Sam Warburton’s exclusion suggests he will be in the 23 next Saturday, but it’s hard to see how Sean O’Brien can be left out after his barnstorming 80 minutes against the Maori.
Alun Wyn Jones is on the bench against the Chiefs, and will assuredly double up this week. But Maro Itoje has made a compelling case for his retention in a tight five featuring four Saracens players and Tadhg Furlong.
Even if Jones were chosen alongside Kruis in the second-row, with Itoje on the bench, there would be a compelling argument for retaining O’Mahony as captain.
BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS: Liam Williams, Jack Nowell, Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Elliot Daly, Dan Biggar, Greig Laidlaw; Joe Marler, Rory Best, Dan Cole, Iain Henderson, Courtney Lawes, James Haskell, Justin Tipuric, CJ Stander. Replacements: Kristian Dacy, Allan Dell, Tomas Francis, Cory Hill, Alun Wyn Jones, Gareth Davies, Finn Russell, Tommy Seymour.
CHIEFS: Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, Liam Polwart, Nepo Laulala, Dominic Bird, Michael Allardice, Mitchell Brown, Lachlan Boshier, Tom Sanders, Finlay Christie, Stephen Donald, Solomon Alaimalo, Johnny Faauli, Tim Nanai-Williams, Toni Pulu, Shaun Stevenson. Replacements: Hika Elliot, Aidan Ross, Atu Moli, Liam Messam, Mitchell Karpik, Jonathan Taumateine, Luteru Laulala, Chase Tiatia.