Lions ready for All Blacks’ ‘Hurt Arena’, says Andy Farrell
Defence coach agrees Lions will have to raise their game to withstand New Zealand attack
Lions defence Coach Andy Farrell with Johnny Sexton: “I think we’re going to have to take ourselves to a place that individually we’ve not been to before. But the boys realise that and are excited by that challenge.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
For the Lions to have a chance of beating the All Blacks in their Eden Park fortress in just the first Test, never mind over a three-match series, the tourists will surely have to suffer along the way. No pain, no gain, and all of that.
Four years ago, the Lions defence coach Andy Farrell used the phrase “Hurt Arena”, and, brimful of enthusiasm for the challenges ahead, he was asked if the Lions will have to revisit that place.
“It’s going to be a hell of a game. I know we’ll turn up and we’re a good side brimming for a big challenge. Mentally and physically we’ll be ready. It’ll be interesting to see how the two teams marry together, the chemistry of that, who adapts well on the run. That’s what the All Blacks have been very good at over the last period of time. We’ve got to be aware of that.
“Physically I don’t think we’ve disappointed so far. Will we need to up our game? Certainly we will do. I think we’re going to have to take ourselves to a place that individually we’ve not been to before. But the boys realise that and are excited by that challenge.”
The All Blacks have certainly got better over the last four years and are reigning supreme
It goes without saying that the Lions will have to raise their levels of performance from four years ago, and Farrell wasn’t remotely inclined to disagree.
“I think the game has cranked up. The All Blacks have certainly got better over the last four years and are reigning supreme at this moment in time. We’ve got to get close to that, haven’t we?
“We have to be careful this week of not over-coaching. We’ve got to be careful of making sure that the plan is crystal clear for them, so they can be on point come Saturday, and already it’s been great that we’ve had a few days already to get some basic stuff in them through the week and we’ve got to get that right.
“Come Thursday, Friday it will be over to the players and we’ve got to make sure that their heads are crystal clear on how they’re going to go about this game.”
For an opposing defence, the All Blacks represent the most lethal attacking force at this time or most likely any time in the history of the game. Last Friday’s 12-try, 78-0 win over Samoa was a reminder of that – and after a rusty opening 20 minutes at the end of which they only led 7-0.
Their combination of ball skills, pace, phenomenal lines of running, blur of support players and width – they can flood the tramlines like no one else – were then in full evidence. They are lethal from turnovers, through phases or with strike plays.
A week ago, Farrell had said he was looking for more defensive leaders. So has he found them?
“I think so. More than most have, really. You’ve seen the back rowers be aggressive and making good decisions at the breakdown. You’ve seen them be physical. You’ve seen our front row working at pace, getting us some shape back. You’re seeing from the outside backs some real pressure from out to in, which is great, and I think our back field guys have been pretty good. They still need to be going forward as well.
It’s not just about defence. It’s about the whole game coming together
“We’ve seen with the All Blacks, certainly last weekend, and over the last couple of years, that gain line’s pretty important first-phase wise. We’ve seen them get the time and space, didn’t we, last weekend. And things rolled on from there as well. And our transition defence is pretty important at the same time. We see for the first 20 minutes Samoa playing some great rugby and all of a sudden they break away and score with a turnover ball. It’s what they’ve been outstanding at for years. Our boys know that challenge.”
Over the past two Saturdays, the Lions have conceded only one try, and almost no line breaks, and when asked if it was possible to do that against the All Blacks, Farrell responded bullishly: “Of course it is because it’s not just about defence. It’s about the whole game coming together. At the start of the tour, our discipline was letting the continuity down but we are solving that problem now. Our game is now flowing into one: set piece into attack into breakdown into our kicking game, and on the reverse with the defensive stuff. It’s never about it [defence] in isolation – it’s about the whole game coming together and I think we’re blending nicely.”
As for Hansen and some of the New Zealand media endeavouring to suggest there is a split in the Lions camp, it’s made no impression on Farrell nor, he says, the players. Just background noise.
“The players don’t feel it at all. They think it is irrelevant. I think it is fantastic for everyone on the outside, but players don’t feel it or are aware of it. They train in their own bubble. It ain’t a distraction for us at all – we crack on. We won’t even reference it to the players at all. We don’t care what goes on or what has been said. Some coaches try to cover you with love, say he’s a great guy then boom! It’s all irrelevant and all the coaches know that.”
Farrell helped oversee Ireland’s tumultuous win over the All Blacks in Chicago, when they had to outscore New Zealand by five tries to four, but saw them in vengeful mode at the Aviva Stadium a fortnight later when many felt their physicality crossed the line.
“Fair play to the All Blacks – they found a way to win,” said Farrell. “People questioned their character going into that game, after the Chicago game, and that’s what is great about a three-match series – you don’t know which team are going to turn up on Saturday, in the second Test and the third Test, and we have to be ready for it all.”
Ain’t that the truth.