The End of the Beginning… or the Beginning of the End?

Published on: June 8, 2017

Filled Under: Lions Tour

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With ten minutes to go and a one point advantage, the Lions did well to hold up a Blues ball carry at midfield, before forcing the maul to the ground to win the put in for the ensuing scrum, and then it happened: led by Maro Itoje, some of the Lions players celebrated in a “that’s the game” kind of way. The next time the ball went out of play led to a celebration too, after Ihaia West swerved through to superbly finish what Steven Luatua and Sonny Bill Williams started, and it was impossible not to look back at that maul and see an implicit message: “you celebrate a scrum put-in, we celebrate tries”.

 

The score itself was a thing of pure, unadulterated beauty: a combination of a well worked team move and a fine individual finish. From the moment Michael Collins continued his best Ben Smith impression with a great take under the high ball to the point of West grounding the ball, the Blues were brilliant. First the ball went from the ruck out to the blind-side, where Rieko Ioane attracted a few defenders, no doubt concerned about his earlier rampage, in a hurry before turning back inside slightly to take contact and quickly recycle the ball. With seven defenders now patrolling the blind side, another one stuck at the back of the ruck, and Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams in the backfield, the Blues had 8 players on the open side against 5. The Lions inside defenders begin to come up before hesitating ever so slightly after realising they had over-pursued and left their outside defenders isolated. Luatua takes advantage brilliantly, delaying his pass with a gorgeous pump fake, before releasing Sonny Bill into a foot race with Rory Best. Williams then does fantastically well to continue running away from the chasing defenders, with West still ten metres behind him, before bending his run slightly and stepping towards the weak-side shoulder of Liam Williams tackle, buying him the crucial extra fraction of a second he needed to find West charging up in support. West’s pace running onto the ball beats the first three defenders almost as soon as he catches the pass, before he exposes Sexton’s lack of lateral agility with a subtle step away from and, now nearing top speed, swerving past a static Halfpenny and searing to the line.

 

 

While the lack of quality in the Lions’ performance against the NZ Provincial Barbarians was a surprise, I was reluctant to take much from that game given that this was a very different match-day squad – one that would seem much more likely to contain more starters for the first test – but while the Lions got off to a solid start, building phases and crossing the gain line with regularity, it was their opposition that made the more decisive contributions on attack throughout the game. The cold truth is that line-out drives aside, the Lions only ever looked like scoring from the boot, or in the opening minutes where Perofeta coughed up the ball in the Blues 22 before redeeming himself with a try saving tackle on Jared Payne.

 

Whether you blame the coach or the halfback pairing, the problems were clear. A lack of invention from the halfback positions, hesitancy (or worse still, inability) to get the ball wide, and a failure to break the line or beat defenders one on one. With all the criticism Super Rugby has received over the years for perceptions of weak defence, the tackle stats were illuminating: the Blues completed 90% of their tackles, while the Lions managed an 85% tackle success rate. Obviously, no two tackles are the same and the degree of difficulty to the tackles that the Lions were asked to make were higher than the Blues given the disparity in ability with ball in hand, but perhaps that provides important context to Super Rugby defences overall. With the quality and innovation that Super Rugby sides show in attack, and the higher degree of difficulty that this presents for the defence, it’s only natural for more tackles to be missed but against teams who lack that level of ambition, they’re able to put up the same kind of defensive stats as their more celebrated counterparts.

 

While the Blues played well in spells, and many of their players stood up when it counted most, it would be a lie to say that they had produced their best. Perofeta had the highs and lows you would expect of a young man making his debut, Akira Ioane would have been disappointed with his failure to produce a scoring offload to Matt Duffie with his talent for getting the ball away in contact, James Parsons won’t want to be reminded of his poor line-out throw on the Lions five metre line, and I’m sure that the Blues front row will be thankful that their teammates made sure that indiscretions at the scrum weren’t too costly. As much as the Lions can lament their failure to score with the line-out at the death, or Payne’s foot going into touch before he could ground the ball, the reality is that the pendulum of missed opportunities swings heavily towards the Blues, and the score could easily have been more lopsided had they eliminated mistakes at key moments of the game. That the Blues did manage to overcome their recent failures to win close games and came from behind twice to win, even despite the opportunities that they didn’t take, was a testament to those players bouncing back from their mistakes to play key roles. Perofeta, with a little help from Faumuina, set Rieko Ioane away for the first score, Akira Ioane made telling contributions on defence while doing the hard yards he has been criticised for shying away from, and Parsons threw away his membership of the front row union with a 40 metre dash up field to turn pressure from the Blues to the Lions.

 

Everywhere across the Blues line up, important contributions were made; Ihaia West’s cameo that showed why the Blues have persisted with him for so long, Michael Collins playing the role of the unsung hero again, and Scott Scrafton proved the equal of Maro Itoje on the day, and while their deeds will fill some of the fantastically talented, but largely unknown in Europe, young players who will face the Lions with confidence and further fuel their ambition to showcase their abilities to the world, the real danger to the Lions comes from the performances of the Blues’ star players. Augustine Pulu, Steven Luatua, Sonny Bill Williams and Rieko Ioane all had stellar games and their contributions were crucial in securing a win, and you can rest assured that Steve Hansen will look at what they achieved, and wonder what might be possible with the 23 players of that calibre that he will be able to call on.

I had predicted that Pulu may need to play the game of his life for the Blues to win, and while he was not quite perfect in his execution, his attitude made up for any shortcomings his performance had. He was magnificent in cleaning up loose balls around the breakdown, kicked with authority, sent Lions crashing back on defence, put the Lions on the back foot with his running game, and threw in a turnover for good measure. In short, he wasn’t the perfect scrum half today, but he was the scrum half that the Blues needed, master and commander, willing to take all of the pressure and responsibility on his shoulders.

 

What Pulu provides in this mood is an infectious attitude to win the game by himself if necessary, and on a day where Rieko Ioane was a thorn in the Lions side all evening – Andy Farrell will be worried at the prospect of him not being a one-and-done on this tour as he will at least suit up for the Maori All Blacks even if he doesn’t make the full test squad – it was almost all the inspiration that the Blues needed. The way that he toyed with experienced test players will inspire his dangerous wing counterparts across New Zealand. Tevita Li and Waisake Naholo will be licking their lips at the prospect of using their blistering speed on the outside, Julian Savea and Seta Tamanivalu will have looked with interest at how Ioane managed to barge his way through several defenders after West erred with a forward pass, and the likes of George Bridge, Nehe Milner-Skudder, and James Lowe will note with interest the success that was had whenever Ioane came in off his wing to try and step his way through. Then again, the All Blacks do always have the option of just picking the young man who tore up the Lions defence instead, although I suspect that Hansen will likely stick with one of his tried and tested back three combinations to start, with a spot on the bench covering 11, 13 and 14 the best that Rieko might realistically hope for.

 

If Pulu found the cracks in the Lions’ wall, and Rieko was the dynamite that turned the cracks into holes, it was Luatua and Sonny Bill Williams (or more accurately Sonny William Williams – I know!!!) who were the wrecking balls that smashed what was left into smithereens. Luatua, who will be lost to the depths of the English Championship next season, led the Blues defensive effort and consistently disrupted the Lions ball at the ruck while doubling as the Blues best line-out option before finally making his telling contribution to set the unfairly maligned Sonny Bill free to set up the decisive score.

 

How important this game was for Sonny Bill Williams’s hopes for starting in the first test is up for debate given that he has been tried and found guilty in the Kiwi Court of Public Opinion many times but has always triumphed in the All Black selectors’ minds, and how much attention a player of such confidence pays to negative opinions in both the media and the stands is questionable but surely even Sonny Bill must have been slightly nervous ahead of the game – since a starring second half cameo in the World Cup Final in 2015, he’d managed to tear his Achilles tendon at the Olympics, and had suffered from a concussion and a knee knock since making his first return from injury a month ago. So far in Super Rugby, he had looked understandably rusty and had only managed flashes of his game at full flight while the likes of Ryan Crotty and Ngani Laumape laid waste to any midfield they laid their eyes on. After being rested for the match against the Reds over the weekend and passing a late fitness test, we had a match-fit, and fully recovered Sonny Bill in a Rugby match for the first time since 2015, and he proved that he hasn’t lost a step. He showcased his old, and oft-ignored, ability to make a tackle in one 5 metre tram-line only to pop up a phase later to make one on the other side, hit ferociously hard on defence and contested at the breakdown like a fourth back rower, and carried the ball with purpose, more often that not finding the softer shoulder of the defender and showing great presence of mind and strength to stay on his feet to maximise his opportunities to offload the ball. By the time the final whistle had blown, legions of fans were revising their predicted All Blacks midfield selections, and Sonny Bill showed the Blues fans just what they’d been missing all season.

This is a dangerous and pivotal time for the Lions on this tour. The celebrations after winning the scrum put-in belied how important victory was to the players, and each poor performance or result will weigh on their shoulders, and begin to drain them of their belief. On Saturday, the Lions travel to Christchurch to take on Super Rugby’s form team. Lose that game and, though an arguably easier game follows – the Highlanders are likely to be without their All Blacks – it’ll bring its own challenges for the midweek team with the game taking place in the perfect conditions provided by Forsyth Barr Stadium’s roof. That’s followed by a must-win dress rehearsal for the first test with a showdown with the Maori All Blacks. If the Lions fail to overcome a scratch team that might feature the considerable talents of Kerr Barlow, Damian McKenzie, the Ioanes, James Lowe, Charlie Ngatai, and Nehe Milner-Skudder, it’d provide a likely fatal blow to their psyche a mere week before they face down the All Blacks for the first time. From now on, every loss will prove a burden: there’s a storm coming, and the first winds have blown the Lions’ doors off the hinges. The question now is whether they can stop their house from being blown down.

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