Width is key for Lions in stopping unfamiliar All Blacks style

Touring players far from used to the southern hemisphere attacking style they will face

Sonny Bill Williams of the Blues offloads the ball to Ihaia West to set up the match winning try at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

Sonny Bill Williams of the Blues offloads the ball to Ihaia West to set up the match winning try at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

 

When Ian McGeechan coached the Lions in New Zealand in 1993 his policy with the media was simple: say nothing in a polite way. He knew, even at a time when the Lions were a rugby entity rather than the commercial juggernaut they have become, that a difficult tour would become onerous if the tourists generated negative headlines through a word or two out of place.

Have a quiet word with him afterwards, as you were able to in those days, and you were given something more sustaining than gruel, but on top table, in front of New Zealand journalists, he would be like Geoffrey Boycott, dropping his bat to loaded questions and returning them gently to his inquisitors.

McGeechan was circumspect in Australia and South Africa, not wanting to incite a media agenda, but especially so in New Zealand where questions tended to be more technical and rugby-oriented. As a Kiwi, Warren Gatland knew what to expect on this tour, but even he was surprised at the persistent questions this week, before the defeat to the Blues, about the physical, confrontational gameplan he has employed with Wales this decade, caught on recording devices making a whispered aside at the end of one media conference.

The subject became live after Saturday’s opener against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians, where an expected comfortable victory turned into one where the Lions were grateful to kick the ball into touch at the end, and a disdainful comment made by the New Zealand head coach, Steve Hansen, about Gatland’s favoured style of play in his long coaching career.

By the end of the win over the Barbarians. the Lions were grateful to kick for touch. Photo: Michael Bradley/Getty Images
By the end of the win over the Barbarians. the Lions were grateful to kick for touch. Photo: Michael Bradley/Getty Images

Never mind that the Lions hardly rolled Warrenball in Whangarei where they played in the first half as they should in the second and vice versa, taking liberties before the game was won. They sought space rather than contact but a number of factors, not least untried combinations, skilful opponents, unforced errors and a rusty scrum-half undermined them. It was only when they went back to basics that they pulled ahead.

Hansen’s remarks were more complimentary than insulting and clearly self-serving. The underlying message seemed to be that he would rather the Lions try to take on the All Blacks at their own game, which is regarded as throwing the ball around and taking risks, than have them play for territory and drive through the forwards, exposing his players to a game they are not familiar with.

Not that New Zealand leave too much to chance. The Lions attack coach, Rob Howley, who had been kept away from the media since the announcement of the squad until Tuesday, talked about how in training they are trying to produce rugby chaos, uninhibited and unstructured play, but that is not the All Blacks, who combine deliberation with skill, pace and precision.

New Zealand sides tend to score their tries from set pieces, taking advantage of the 20-metre gap between backs at the lineout and 10 at the scrum to create space out wide by passing with alacrity, off-loading, kicking and turnovers. And a few interceptions. They do not see much reward in multi-phase moves, and the Lions’ travails in Auckland, when they failed to turn possession into tries, showed why.

A productive tactic of Gatland’s Wales earlier this decade was to get ball from the top of the lineout quickly into the hands of Jamie Roberts for the centre to smash his way over the gainline, take out any number of defenders and set up quick ruck ball.

Successful teams now, like New Zealand and Saracens, see the lineout as a licence to score tries by exploiting space rather than sending a juggernaut on a rumble. The Wales way, as it was with the scrum, witness the 2013 Six Nations decider against England, was to use it first as a means of gaining a penalty.

The ploy was devised at a time when the pace of the game was slower and attacking teams were given less latitude at the breakdown by referees. For all their battering of England in 2013, Wales only scored two tries, both in the final quarter, but more are needed now. When the Lions captain, Sam Warburton, said this week that his side would need to score at least 20 points to beat the All Blacks, he was out of date: that amount would have been enough to defeat them only seven times in 94 Tests this decade; 30 points would only have been enough 45 per cent of the time.

The Blues’ ball-handling skills were impressive in their win. Photo: Peter Meecham/Inpho
The Blues’ ball-handling skills were impressive in their win. Photo: Peter Meecham/Inpho

For all the talk this week about Warrenball and boshing, the Test series will be defined at least as much by how the Lions cope in defence against an attacking style seen infrequently in Europe, and almost never in the Six Nations. Organised chaos is one way of putting it with the chaotic usually referring to the defence, again as the Lions found five minutes from the end in Auckland when they conceded a try out of the Super Rugby playbook.

The Barbarians gave the Lions a taste in Whangarei, so quick to detect opportunity, but they lacked the pedigree of the teams that were to follow, starting with the Blues, the runt of the Super Rugby litter, the New Zealand equivalent of the Premiership’s Gloucester or the Pro12’s own Blues, Cardiff.

It was a clash of styles: the set-piece superiority of the Lions against the ball-handling skills and opportunism of the Blues. The Lions were more coordinated than they had been on Saturday and they tried to play with continuity, but they were exposed to a game that is foreign to the Six Nations and not prevalent in any of the major leagues in Europe: the skill of the Blues, who had three tries ruled out on review, trumped power.

Why did Joe Schmidt, a New Zealander, all but outlaw the offload after taking charge of Ireland? Why did Gatland, another Kiwi, adopt a rigid gameplan with Wales having lamented, like Graham Henry before him, that innate talent was not complemented by basic skills such as passing? Because they recognised that players in Europe were generally less skilful and intuitive than in New Zealand and so they played to the strength of their charges. Eddie Jones has spent most of his time in charge of England talking about the need for players to take more decisions, appreciating that unless they are able to produce plays such as the one that won the match for the Blues, they will struggle to wrest the World Cup off the All Blacks.

Attacks on Warrenball are misdirected: it is the game as a whole in Europe, starting with the complacent Six Nations which bills itself as the greatest tournament in the world, which it will only have a chance of becoming if countries start finding tickets hard to sell, that is being questioned.

A common excuse for conservatism in the Six Nations in the opening rounds is the weather. It rained in Auckland, but the adventure of the home side was not dampened. It is what New Zealand know now, but in 1971 it was the Lions who attacked with aplomb and the All Blacks who were direct and predictable.

At least the Lions will be well prepared for the All Blacks, but they are taking aim at a moving target. They repaired faults after the opening game, clearing out harder at the breakdown to secure quicker ball and reading kicks quicker, but new ones were exposed.

It is the New Zealand way, constantly exposing faultlines, but the opening Test is not a lost cause. The Lions have a foundation in the set pieces and goal-kicking, but it is wider out, in attack and defence, where there needs to be a difference. With a tilt to McGeechan, they need to say nothing, no matter how many words it takes: torque, not talk.

(Guardian service)

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