Photo credit: @lionsofficial
Heartbreak for the Lions on their first test outing
Last Saturday Warren Gatland's men lost out in a 30-15 result to New Zealand in the first of 3 tests. The opposing sides seemed to have agreed to swap tactics for the occasion, with the All Blacks using mostly their one out runners and forward dominance to march up the pitch, utilising outside backs mostly to finish movements. The Lions,meanwhile, preferred scoring methods came from impressive counter attacks. Liam Williams, Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly made up a back three that impressed, notable mention for Jonathan Davies for his line breaks also. One of the all time great Lions tries was scored in this test, starting with Williams getting the best of Kieran Reid. Running from his own 5 metre line, Williams combined with Daly, Davies and Sean O'Brien to finish off possibly the highlight of the tour so far.
The All Blacks used the likes of captain Reid, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitlock and Sam Cane to provide some impressive carrying, showing a level of physicality superior to that of the Lions. Footwork and acceleration a centre would admire also helped the New Zealand runners rumble up the pitch, putting the Lions defenders into weaker tackling positions, allowing for an extra yards or so. The Lions fast press defensive system was on the back foot, leaving the touring side almost constantly back peddling in defence. In comparison to the All Blacks, the Lions physicality in the pack was found wanting. Experienced campaigners Alun-Wyn Jones and captain Peter O'Mahony struggled to impose themselves in the same manner as the convincing wins over the Maori All Blacks and Super Rugby side the Crusaders.
Indiscipline also cost captain O'Mahony's side, running afoul of Jaco Peyper's whistle far more often than the previous week in Rotorua. 2016 world player of the year Beauden Barrett capitalised on such indiscipline by George Kruis, who was penalised for not rolling away in the 17th minute. The Lions were caught unawares as Barrett demanded scrum-half Smith took the quick tap. Barrett then shipped the ball wide, with the move finished by hooker Codie Taylor collecting Israel Dagg's pass from his shoe laces and going over in the corner.
Codie Taylor's try in the 8th minute came from the kind of quick thinking, basic skill execution and clinical finishing that separated the All Blacks from their British and Irish opponents. While the Lions arguably created more try scoring chances than the All Blacks, the hosting side concluded every opportunity with a try, three tries from 3 chances. In comparison, the Lions struggled to regularly find the kind of clinical work that saw O'Brien cross the whitewash.
Looking ahead, possible changes for the second test
Few changes should be introduced for the second test after an impressive performance missing only a shift to a higher gear or two.
One or two changes could be introduced to the forwards, to improve physicality and disrupt New Zealand's ball. Suggestions here could be the inclusion of tour captain Sam Warburton for test match captain O'Mahony. Warburton is the leading breakdown pest in the Lions squad, with many opponents in the past commenting on how much of handful he is to shift off the ball. This in turn would slow down the pace of which the All Blacks were able to send one-out runners, allowing Andy Farrell's defensive rush to have the time required to reset. A raise in the aforementioned levels of physicality could easily be changed via the second row. Neither Kruis or Jones had their best game last weekend. Kruis made uncharacteristic errors and seemed a less imposing force than usual in the tight. Jones, meanwhile, seemed exhausted before half time, this could have been due to playing in the midweek game or a knock he took early on. Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje have been the men singled out to take the game to the world champions, both of whom have showed impressive athletic ability on both sides of the ball as well as the lineout.
However, should both O'Mahony and Kruis find themselves dropped, the Lions will have lost two exceptionally intelligent lineout forwards. This is one of the few areas the Lions showed some ascendancy. While the scrum found parity, the Lions can have few complaints at set piece, except perhaps for the accuracy of the All Blacks at disrupting mauls.
One or two changes at most should be made to the backline, with the addition of a player more adept at finishing scoring opportunities - if such a player exists within the squad. Perhaps changing a Jonathan or two - a Joseph for Davies. Most of Davies's breaks at the weekend came through scything gaps in the defensive line. A role Joseph could easily fill with superior speed and agility. As for out wide, perhaps Jack Nowell for the out of position Elliot Daly? Daly has supreme speed and kicking skills, but is an outside centre by trade and has looked out of position a handful of times. Where as Nowell is adept at both wing and fullback, he may possess the finishing ability the Lions need.
There are negatives and positives to both changes. With the current starters already showing superior form, they perhaps should retain their places. But if the Lions do not show an improved performance at the weekend, too few or too many changes will be met with much hindsight from fans and pundits alike.
Overall the Lions lost the first test to a lack of game line success/physicality, clinical finishing and poor discipline. Gatland's men struggled to deal with New Zealand's physicality and rugby intellect. But the sky is not falling down quite yet, while the All Blacks will undoubtedly improve for the second test, the Lions have the same potential. That much is down to the sides mental strength, honesty and willingness to take their first test performance to the next level.