What are the Lions playing at?

Gary Gold

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has the luxury of analysing the British & Irish Lions six times before the first Test. Four matches into the tour, I’m not sure Hansen’s seen anything that will make him worry too much.

The Lions do have gamebreakers, like centre Ben Teo who has opened up New Zealand defences liberally, but I don’t know whether the All Blacks will be panicking about individual threats.

As I said last week, the challenge facing any British & Irish Lions team is no joke.

It’s an unbelievably tough thing to tour successfully with players from four different countries.

However, after the selections and performances in two losses from four matches, I’m not only confused about what the plan is, but I’m beginning to wonder whether there is a plan at all.

The Lions were together for two-and-a-half weeks before they flew over to New Zealand, they’ve played four games and, if you look back at those games, it’s very difficult to see any form of a pattern or trend in terms of what Warren Gatland’s Test team is going to look like or how they’re going to play.

Creating continuity in the group is the most important thing to do on a tour like this. The way it’s been done, traditionally, is that there would be a clear midweek team and a Test team.

Take it back to when the Lions toured South Africa in 2009. They played the Sharks on a Saturday and the Pumas on a Wednesday – the weaker team played the midweek match and the other game was used to mould the Test team.

If Gatland had applied that principle to the first four matches, he would by now have picked alternating combinations in each mini-unit.

That means there would be two sets of starting locks that had played two matches each; the same would be true of the combinations in the front row, back row, halfbacks, centres and back three.

And, at each position from one to 15, he would have, for the most part, selected two players to start so far.

The only units where a clear, first-string combination has alternated in for the “big” games are the front row, halfbacks and centres. And of the 15 jerseys, only 12, 13 and 8 have been used by less than three players.

The tour is teetering on the brink of a mini-disaster because it’s going to be really desperate times if they lose against the New Zealand Maori on Saturday.

With just over one week before the first Test, I’m not sure we’ve seen the game that the Lions are trying to play.

For example, they kicked five up-n-unders against the Crusaders, who dropped all of them and the Lions turned two of those into tries. But then, against the Highlanders, I didn’t see a big kicking game with a monstrous kick-chase.

Ireland scrumhalf Conor Murray kicked the ball 17 times against the Crusaders; Wales No 9 Rhys Webb kicked the ball nine times against the Highlanders. The rewards were much better in the first of those two matches.

So what type of game are they going to play against the All Blacks?

If you’re going to play a strong, territory-based, kicking game, based on the fact that big New Zealand backs don’t like to be turned, then you need a specific set of halfbacks. Webb and Murray are very different.

As things stand, the only thing I see them doing is playing a lot of attacking rugby that originates in their own half, and with very little reward.

The Lions’ running game has not caused New Zealand undue stress. It’s also interesting that in a country where everyone supposedly believes it’s about scoring tries, two of the matches have finished with a total score not exceeding 20 points.

I’m not seeing any continuity in the Lions’ approach from one game to the next and if they think they had it tough against the Highlanders, it’s only going to get tougher against the New Zealand Maori.

I’d love to have insight into Gatland’s thinking because maybe his aim is for the Kiwis to have no idea how the Lions are going to play in the Tests. If that’s the plan, then they’re achieving that magnificently.

The only worry then would be that, if the Lions are going to be playing a different game to the one we’ve seen so far, they won’t get an opportunity to practice it in live situations before the first Test.

- Gary Gold