Forget Lions, Now’s the Time for Firebreathing Dragons
“Shane’s going to come out and hit Floyd in the mouth and Floyd is going to sprout a tail, grow wings, draw fangs and claws and turn into a dragon in the ring, and start spitting fireballs.”
Naazim Richardson, famed boxing trainer to the likes of Bernard Hopkins, Shane Mosley, and Sergio Martinez, made that comment prior to Sugar Shane’s highly anticipated showdown with Floyd Mayweather Jr in May 2010, and in the second round, Mosley twice rocked Mayweather to his core before Richardson’s prediction came eerily true, with Mayweather showing the heart of a champion to recover quickly and totally dominate the rest of the contest. The Lions have been punched in the face now, and after suffering a couple of early setbacks it’s time for them to show that they have the heart of a champion too. The tour schedule is tough and gruelling but one positive element for the Lions is that their chance for redemption comes so quickly. Just two days after Wednesday’s loss, the Lions will traverse Cook Strait and rock up to Christchurch to take on the Crusaders, who’ll bring an altogether different challenge to the Blues.
The Crusaders have had a fantastic season so far in coach Scott Robertson’s freshman year, winning every single Super Rugby match so far – including two matches against the Highlanders, and one against each of the Chiefs, Hurricanes, and Blues – to top the table leading into the international break. They started the year with a number of question marks over their squad after an up-and-down campaign in 2016, and lost a number of key players like Nemani Nadolo, Johnny McNicholl, and Andy Ellis as well as important role players like Robbie Fruean and Kieron Fonotia after losing the likes of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Colin Slade, and Tom Taylor.
Add to that the impact of Kieran Read sitting out the majority of this season with a wrist injury before being side-lined with a fractured thumb shortly after returning and the scale of the Crusaders achievements so far this season come into context. A pack filled with All Blacks and supplemented with talented young forwards together with a gifted set of backs has propelled their ascent this year and unlike seasons past, they have an exciting all-court attacking game to go with their ability to dominate opposition sides physically.
Their success has been, in no small part, down to their clever recruitment. Seta Tamanivalu was bought in from the Chiefs ostensibly to play in the centres but has ended up as one of the form wings in the competition while George Bridge has impressed in every way possible since starting his rookie season as an unknown youngster backing up new import Digby Ioane, and for all the dominance of their forward pack, it has been the back three that have formed the most exciting part of the Crusaders line up this season.
The rugby world is familiar enough with Dagg but the starring turns from Saturday’s outside back combination this year have belonged to Bridge and Tamanivalu. It’s easy to characterise the duo as direct replacements for the departing McNicholl and Nadolo but the truth is that they have been considerable upgrades on the men that they replaced. Tamanivalu has taken to playing on the wing like a duck to water replacing the size mismatch that Nadolo provided but adding more speed too with impressive finishes, deft offloads, and strong carries down the touchline a regular occurrence. While that level of excellence might have been expected from a player who had standout performances for the Chiefs last two year, Bridge’s explosion has been a surprise. Possessing good top-end speed, deceptive power, and a well-rounded defensive game including under the high ball, what turns Bridge supernova is his ability to beat defenders with consummate ease. With the best first step since the emergence of Milner-Skudder, and before him Dagg, Bridge is a devastating finisher who scored back to back hat-tricks in Super Rugby a week, and several thousand miles, apart. George North might be glad not to be starting opposite Rieko Ioane and Liam Williams will be pleased to see the back of Matt Duffie, but they’ll have to be at the top of their games to win their match ups. Williams should be able to use his aerial game – although his confidence in it might be slightly shaken after his yellow card – to gain an advantage over Tamanivalu but North might find himself exposed by Bridge’s pace and agility if the Crusaders get the ball out to him early and often.
David Havili got the chance to play at full back this season with Israel Dagg missing a large chunk of the season with injury after spending most of last year in the centres and responded to the move in devastating fashion. With the Lions coming into view, Havili has reached peak form at exactly the right time and with the Lions game approaching, had a six game spell (including games against the Chiefs and Hurricanes) in which he scored five tries and provided three assists while running for an average of almost 120 metres per game (117.5) to go 2.5 line breaks and over 7 defenders beaten (7.33) per game. With contrasting injury luck meaning that Ryan Crotty misses out for tomorrow’s line up and Israel Dagg now back and fully fit, Havili will have to swap his 15 jersey for the 12 shirt, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Crusaders modify their approach with the different approach that Crotty and Havili bring. The Crusaders would be unwise to remove Havili from their kick return threat and he may very well drop back into coverage with Dagg and George Bridge to provide a counterattacking backfield that would fare well in a comparision with any other the Lions will face on this tour. There will be a big change when the Crusaders do have structured possession though, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see Dagg step in at first or second receiver quite often, to allow Richie Mo’unga the opportunity to vary his game and let Havili come into the attack at depth and with pace. While Havili does provide a different kind but perhaps no less potent of threat to Sonny Bill Williams and is a capable enough defender in his own right, he does not have the same defensive ability as the All Black. With Richie Mo’unga having issues with his defence this season, particularly in the showdown with the Hurricanes where Ngani Laumape ran over him repeatedly to much success (while Laumape tends to run over almost everyone these days, Ben Te’o and Owen Farrell will be more than happy to try their luck with that tactic), Havili will need to help make sure that his fly half doesn’t spend the whole game having to slow down the Lions’ big ball carriers. As with the Blues and Blake Gibson, Matt Todd will do his best to help as much as possible but if Mo’unga starts to struggle, it’ll be down to Havili to stop the bleeding.
While that responsibility falls on Havili, this puts a lot more pressure on Jack Goodhue but if this season has proven anything about the young outside centre, it is that he is capable of handling any kind of assignment given to him. Making the All Blacks squad for the tour as injury cover after an impressive debut Super Rugby campaign, Goodhue is powerful when running direct but is just at ease when attacking in the wider channels. In Crotty’s absence, he’ll lead the defensive effort from the backline and his decision making in that role will be crucial, especially in deciding whether to turn in and blitz with Dagg coming up on the outside to cover or to hold and drift, as the Blues did to great effect in the previous game. It’ll be interesting to see how Goodhue and Havili link up in their first game together as a centre pairing, and to what extent it affects the Crusaders fluid passing game. Where the Blues favour a hard running game to open up the offload, the Crusaders opt for a wide passing game, preferring to move the ball across the pitch at speed until they find a mismatch to attack. This approach is vulnerable to a blitz defence and if the Crusaders aren’t careful, they could lose ground behind the gain-line quickly. To this end, it’d help the Crusaders immensely if their centres can push the Lions back with attacking kicks, especially through Havili who has more of a full back’s chip kicking style.
While the Crusaders have a great deal of strength from 12 to 15, and boast an All Black tight five – though I’m not sure why Hansen is persisting with Luke Romano – they do have a couple of key weaknesses that the Lions can attack. While Richie Mo’unga is a talented fly half who can run, pass, and kick at a level that belies his status as a relative newcomer, Bryn Hall offers much more risk. Inconsistent and prone to making bad decisions, Hall is a powerful running scrum half with an often errant pass who would probably be better suited to backing up Drummond from the bench. Hall’s style can be taken advantage of if he is put under pressure, and that will only add to the pressure Mo’unga will be under without Crotty outside him to share the playmaking duties.
The other key area for the Lions to attack will be the Crusaders line-out. With a fully fit squad, the Crusaders would be almost impregnable on their own throw, with Kieran Read, Scott Barrett, and Sam Whitelock high quality targets but they will be without both Read and Barrett, leaving a mountain of pressure on Whitelock. Luke Romano isn’t as consistent an operator as Barrett but should be reliable enough to snare his share of calls but the Lions will be confident that Alun-Wyn Jones, Kruis, and O’Mahony will be able to at least severely disrupt the quality of ball that the Crusaders can generate from their set piece. It will come down to Bedwell-Curtis, covering for Jordan Taufua – who starts at No.8 – on the blindside, to help his second rows and it will go a long way for the Crusaders if he can be a viable line-out option as Taufua is unlikely to provide much. Taufua, who could be dangerous off the back of the scrum with his explosive high speed carries, lacks the height to be a consistent jumper and it’s this more than any other reason that has led to him never being selected for the All Blacks. As good as the Crusaders are defensively, they will rely heavily on the likes of Taufua and Matt Todd knocking the Lions down behind the gain line but the duo will be equally important in attack. Todd, who has had a particularly fine season, is a subtle link player who uses the ball intelligently whereas Taufua is more akin to a tornado with his burst off the mark and aggressive running style.
The Crusaders pack as a whole is formidable even without Read and Barrett, with a genuine All Black front row compared to the paper All Black front row the Blues fielded, of whom only Faumuina will make the Test match-day squads. With a very capable bench backing them up, Owen Franks and Joe Moody will be able to test their scrummaging against the Lions and will be joined by Codie Taylor, the likely All Black starting hooker in Dane Coles absence. Like Coles, Taylor possesses great speed and the ability to cause havoc outside and is menacing in defence but falls short of his compatriot when it comes to the quality of Coles’s running lines and long passing game but he remains an extremely high quality hooker well capable of wrecking the Lions’ hopes of victory. With Sam Whitelock effervescent so far in 2017, Luke Romano will be able to settle into the game and while he lacks the athleticism and sheer talent of the bigger Barrett, Romano will bring hard edged physicality in defence although he can be a liability in attack.
The Crusaders season, while perfect so far, has had its ups and downs. With big comeback wins at the start of the season, it seemed like the Crusaders were a decent team whose character and strength of will was pulling them through the early weeks but that there would be an inevitably be a point where making stunning comebacks week after week would prove unsustainable. They have persevered though, relying on their elite cover defence (to make up for some inconsistent tackling up front), the brutal effectiveness of the forward pack (to combat uncertainty in the halfback partnership), and the sheer talent of their backfield to put them over the top. Now, with wins against the Chiefs, Blues, Hurricanes and Highlanders in the bag, they improved week by week until they became a team worthy of their record and they can be confident that their all court attacking game will be enough to dispose of the Lions.
While there is a hint of a feeling that the Lions have to beat the Crusaders to build some confidence going into the tests, the most important objective for the Lions in this game will be to play well, particularly in attack. The best way to achieve this against the Crusaders will be to mirror their attacking game and pass the ball wide as often as possible and trying to get around the Crusaders before getting behind them. From there, they can put the Crusaders wings on the back foot and start to open gaps through the middle of the defence, effectively “earning the right to go up the middle”. The risk here is that a highly motivated Crusaders team could pick the Lions ball carriers off if the passes are not good enough and, as we saw with the Blues, it seems like the non-All Blacks have reserved good form for these games. How exciting and career fulfilling opportunity it is to play for the Lions has often been discussed but there is another side to that coin – some of the players the Lions are going up against have had this game marked down on the calendars since last season; the Lions travel to New Zealand every 12 years and most of these players will never play them again. With the depth that the Kiwis have, many of them are fighting a losing battle to be selected for the national side but what better way to set themselves apart than by showing up a side of established test stars? On top of that, with comeback win after comeback win, the Crusaders have already proved that when they get knocked down they will spout wings and breathe fire. Now we’ll see if the Lions can.