A New Day or a False Dawn?

Unfortunately, due to work and other commitments, I haven’t been able to do in depth analysis for the Lions’ matches against the Crusaders and Highlanders and a full preview of the Maori All Blacks is highly unlikely too… that said, here are a few thoughts about the most recent two matches, why the Maori All Blacks match means nothing (and everything), the misconceptions developing in some quarters around what it takes to beat the All Blacks, and what might best serve the Lions on Saturday.

 

  • Why were the Crusaders so poor against the Lions when the Blues and Highlanders managed much more impressive showings?

Well we’re not wasting any time with easy questions here but this one has a few threads to it; three in fact. The first being the line-out – a recurring theme that we will come back to a few times – and the other two being the disparity of play from the halfback and the failure of the inside centre to perform.

While a lot of attention prior to kick off last Saturday focussed on the Crusaders All Black tight five, there was a crucial weakness in the pack that ultimately proved fatal to their hopes of beating the Lions and compounded the pressure the rest of the team was under. With Scott Barrett unavailable, Luke Romano came into the game. Romano, while a decent enough line-out defender, is nowhere near the level of jumping option that Barrett is. Usually, with Kieran Read at 8 (or Whetu Douglas earlier this season), this isn’t a problem but ideally they would start with both Barrett and Read, with Pete Samu at 6, providing 3 elite line-out options, and one good support jumper, with Matt Todd as a backup option. Without Read, Barrett, and Samu the Crusaders were left with one great jumper, two weak options in Romano and Bedwell-Curtis, and a non-option in Taufua. Conventional logic would dictate that this would still leave the Crusaders with a world class line-out operator but having one clear standout option allows the opposition to disrupt your ball from the set piece far more regularly. Losing your own line-outs and being unable to disrupt the oppositions will rob you of the initiative as the Crusaders found out to their cost.

Contrast this with the players available from 4-8 to the Highlanders and Blues and you’ll notice that each starting pack had 4 good jumpers and one decent back up option, which prevented their line-outs from being disrupted as often. With extremely effective options available at 4, 5, and 8 they were able to vary their game in ways that the Crusaders were unable to do.

The Crusaders were also unable to vary their attacks due to a very poor performance from their half back and a failure from their inside centre to perform the role that was assigned to him. While Augustine Pulu and Kayne Hammington – doing his very best Aaron Smith impression, right down to the moustache – played very different types of games, they alleviated pressure from their fly half. This didn’t prevent their playmaker from making mistakes but it allowed them to vary their attacks and stop the Lions rush defence from having the impact they would have liked to have. Bryn Hall however, was ineffectual in providing the Crusaders with much variation, and this put even more pressure on Richie Mo’unga who performed poorly too. Mo’unga might have recovered the situation though, if he had an inside centre playing anywhere near as well as Teihorangi Walden or Sonny Bill Williams. David Havili, who has had a fabulous season so far at full back, was unable to provide the playmaking option the Crotty usually gives, and looked very much like an outside back playing at 12. While Williams sucked in defenders with his carries and provided attacking impetus with the threat of the offload and Walden twisted the knife with his attacking kicks, Havili tried to play full back from 12 and failed, denying the players outside him the ball they desperately needed to allow the Crusaders touchline to touchline passing game to succeed (Tamanivalu for instance had 3 carries all game).

The good news for the Maori All Blacks is that they do have a full collection of jumpers, and retaining their own line-out ball with minimum disruption will be vital if they are to let their backline play the game they are capable of. They also have an abrasive, experienced halfback in Tawera Kerr-Barlow, as well as an extremely capable inside centre in Charlie Ngatai to support Damian McKenzie.

 

  • The Maori All Blacks – the game that means nothing… and everything

There is a reasonable argument that going into this match, the Lions should shelve their kicking game, and any tactics they intend to use specifically to counter the All Blacks next weekend. While the Maori All Blacks are a full of talented attacking players, there is a chance to exploit the defence of a team that hasn’t played together before if the Lions try to play an open and expansive attacking game.

Do this and lose, and there isn’t really any downside (unless it’s an All Blacksolute trashing) as it would be easily dismissed as a game where the Lions didn’t use the tactics they will in the tests so it would be pointless to draw conclusions from the game. Play this style and win, and it would fill the players with more confidence in the attacking side of the game, and it might install some doubt in the All Blacks coaches about the style of play the Lions will adopt.

On the other hand, using the kicking game that we expect the Lions to use would be unwise – if it is successful, it will have come against a group of players that won’t be playing in the tests so there is little reward other than getting in-game practice. The opposite scenario would be quite devastating: a match where the kicking game – against a backline that has 5 players from 10-15 with true outside-back speed and elite kick return ability – falters would drain the Lions confidence in one of the foundational pillars of their test strategy. If the Lions head into the first test with fresh memories of having their kicking game being taken apart, they are far more likely to encounter similar difficulties in the tests too.

As for the game itself, the Maori All Blacks have given themselves every chance of being competitive. They have picked their most talented playmaker at fly half and have tried to minimise the effects of essentially being a scratch team by picking club combinations. Chiefs’ players will form the spine of the team in taking the field at 8, 9, 10, 12, and 15. In McKenzie, the Lions will face the fly half most similar to Barrett so far. With a varied kicking game and a willingness to attack along with plenty of inventiveness, McKenzie will be able to cause the Lions problems if Kerr-Barlow can perform more like Augustine Pulu rather than Bryn Hall. The Maori All Blacks are also capable of playing a very structured game too though, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them use their kicking game to put pressure on the Lions. There are four top level kickers of the ball from hand in the Maori backline, so the Maori are, in theory, well placed to win a kicking duel and they are likely to outnumber the Lions in terms of potent kicking options on the field at any given time. The Maori All Blacks are expected to eschew this approach though and adopt a more Australian approach of running the ball from any and all opportunities. This will present chances for the Lions blitz defence, and as talented as McKenzie is, the risks he takes can lead to a high error count too. With a centre as good and as experienced as Charlie Ngatai with him though, McKenzie will be able to lean on him in a way that none of the Kiwi fly halves have been able to so far in the tour, even with the impressive performances from the Blues and Highlanders at inside centre.

It’s easy to focus on the Lions blitz defence in this game but one player who deserves attention in this part of the game is Matt Proctor. Last season’s Super Rugby winning Hurricanes team was very different in the backline to the one that has lined up this season – with Laumape and Julian Savea having being benched, Vince Aso and Milner-Skudder playing reduced roles, and Jordie Barrett waiting to take a Super Rugby contract – but one constant has been the selection of Proctor at outside centre whenever he was available. Proctor is a real attacking threat but came into his own in defence. With a preternatural ability to read attacks, and the speed of a winger, Proctor is a highly effective blitzer who often brings his man down behind the gain-line and is a menace over the ball after making the tackle too. With the likes of Te’o and Davies in the Lions midfield, Proctor will be vital in taking the pressure off the likes of McKenzie, who the Lions will look to target (McKenzie is a very capable defender but the size mismatch increases the risk of an offload getting away).

Much in the way that Colin Cooper has selected a Chiefs spine for the back line, he has tried to take a similar approach for his line-out contingent with Highlanders players forming the core of the attacking and defensive line outs at 2, 4, 5, and 7 – an out of position Eliot Dixon who is a defensive line-out specialist. This familiarity should help the Maori All Blacks to keep their own line-out ticking over, especially with support from two very capable support jumpers in Messam and Akira Ioane.

One fatal flaw the Lions might be able to exploit though is the scrum. With Kane Hames as one of the most heavily penalised (yet ironically one of the players who wins the most penalties too) props in Super Rugby, and Chris Eves playing terribly in the set piece, the Lions could ramp up the pressure on the Maori All Blacks if they can win a couple of penalties early on. Hames is a talented player though, and on his day he can destroy an opposition scrum, and prove extremely handy in the loose too. If Hames, and the human penalty magnet that is Liam Messam can keep themselves out of trouble, the Maori will have a real chance at pulling off a great upset.

 

  • What does all this mean for the All Blacks?

One of the biggest misconceptions around the All Blacks recently has been the “way to beat them” prescribed after Ireland’s win in Chicago. The way that the game has been spoken about would lead anyone to think that Ireland played a defence first kicking game that left the All Blacks confounded but the truth is rather different. Ireland won that day by dominating the line-outs and kick-offs, controlling the game flow, and using an aggressive pick and go based plan together with offloads to keep the ball alive, allowing them to keep the ball out of the All Blacks hands to a large degree, and suck the defenders inwards, allowing for more space out wide. By controlling the game flow and making the All Blacks play from behind after taking an early lead, they compounded the pressure on the Kiwis and ramped it up by keeping the ball away from them. None of this would have been possible without dominating the skies though and there is a glaring but often overlooked factor to this that will be worrying for the Lions. In Chicago that day, both Retallick and Whitelock missed out, leaving the All Blacks with Kaino and Tuipoluto at lock. Both are fine players but are not elite line-out jumpers. In fact, the last time the All Blacks lost with both Retallick and Whitelock in the starting line-up was the 38-21 defeat to England almost 5 years ago. With both in the test line-up injury permitting, Read providing a top class third jumper, and the flankers providing support options, the Kiwis should be in a position to claim their own ball and pressure the Lions at the set piece, and set a platform to control the game from.

The All Blacks will also watch the performance of Matt Proctor with interest, and take note of what Hammington achieved. If Proctor can cause trouble with his speed as a defender at 13, we may say Anton Lienart-Brown deployed in that role for the tests, with the brief of charging out and cutting out the Lions attacks. While this is yet to be tested, what Hammington did is beyond doubt. By using a varied passing game, he slowed the blitz defence down with sharp flat passes. Hammington was excellent but he is far from Aaron Smith, and Smith will have a great opportunity to slow the Lions down if he can use the different options the All Blacks have at first receiver to keep the heat off Barrett. Using a wider passing game from the ruck will also open up the chance for Barrett to wrap back around behind the carrier to look for a mismatch to carry the ball against and this could prove to be a decisive factor come the tests.

With the All Blacks likely to retain their hybrid style which combines the kicking game of the Highlanders, the defensive patterns of the Chiefs, and attacking style of the Blues, what worked against the Crusaders won’t necessarily do well against in the test matches, and if the Lions are to win the series, they will need – much like Ireland did in Chicago – another dimension to their strategy, or something to go badly wrong for the Kiwis.

 

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