John Robbie said a British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand is like climbing Mount Everest. Well, I think the Lions are about to run out of oxygen before they reach the summit.
It is now do-or-die for Warren Gatland’s team. Everything hinges on what happens in the second Test, in Wellington on Saturday.
Looking back on the tour, it’s an uncredibly difficult task and I think, in a way, Gatland was damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t in terms of selections and playing style, however, the one thing that is paramount with a Lions tour is to win the test series, nothing more, nothing less.
For me, the one real blot on his card was the decision to bring in the no-name Welshmen. That really soured the tour and I wonder whether the drop-off in talent isn’t part of the reason their second-stringers struggled like they have.
The match against the Hurricanes was telling because it took place at the same ground where the second Test will be played. It’s an intimidating place with a volatile crowd that will be buoyed by the Hurricanes having held the Lions to a draw in a game they should have run away with.
There were encouraging signs from the Lions against the Highlanders, and even more so against the New Zealand Maoris. But in the first Test, Gatland’s team came out trying to play New Zealand rugby against the All Blacks.
Surprisingly, they did so even after Steve Hansen showed his intention to try and counter the Lions kicking game by picking Israel Dagg and Rieko Ioane instead of the two monsters wingers.
This week, Dagg has been shifted to fullback as the scale of the backline has increased with Waisake Naholo rolled onto the right wing and powerful rookie Ngani Laumape set to make his debut in the second half.
It would be criminal of Gatland to instruct the Lions to run at this brick wall instead of turning these big-bodied defenders with kicks.
What’s really important to remember about the kicking game is that it’s not just about hoofing the ball to the other team. It’s all about managing that middle third of the field, and that’s what the All Blacks are past masters of.
Everybody can manage what they do with the ball in their own 22 and in the opposing 22, but how do you decide when to run and kick in the middle third of the field?
Knowing when the best return on investment will come from making a kick is absolutely critical in a series like this.
When you kick the ball, you want one of three returns. You’re either playing for pure territory, by kicking the ball into the cheap seats. Or you want to kick it long downtown where you can chase, force the opposing team to kick it out, and get a net gain. Or you want to kick a contestable to regain possession.
The aim is to do it to put yourself in a better position and part of what goes into making those decisions is based on how the opposition have lined up.
If they’ve only got two players back then it makes sense to kick and attempt to hit grass and exert maximum pressure on them with an intense chase; if they don’t, and they’ve loaded the backfield with receivers, then you want to hold onto the ball, bend the line on the outside, bring them up into the defensive line and then kick to the space.
The Lions didn’t exploit these tactics to the fullest and they quickly found out that the All Blacks are happy to defend for 20 phases, turn you over and hurt you on the counter-attack.
Having said that, you have to execute the kicking game with pinpoint accuracy against New Zealand teams. If you don’t, then a good plan will be turned into a bad one, because you’ll have given them good ball and they’ll counter-attack against you.
Kiwis traditionally are not outstanding at managing contestable kicks, as we saw when the Lions played the Crusaders, and that’s why I think contestable kicks are probably the way to go in Wellington on Saturday. The Lions will need to execute a very good kicking game to put the All Blacks under pressure and maximise the number of entries to the All Blacks 22.
And they won’t get there often so they’ll have to make those visits count.
For the Lions to win the second Test, they’re also going to have to lift their defence to deal with New Zealand’s offloads. It brings a new dimension because you need your adjusting defender to be wide awake and alert to the fact that the tackle alone won’t suffice, as they also need to close off the offload once that tackle is made.
The Lions didn’t defend badly in the first Test, but they didn’t handle the offloading game well.
Let’s see whether the tourists can get their expedition back on track!