An Update on Women’s Football

Remember the story from September about the England woman’s football coach being sacked after a string of allegations of racism coming mainly from one person, Nigerian-born Eniola Aluko?

Well, here’s the latest:

After three inquiries, former England manager Mark Sampson was found to have used discriminatory language to two players – Aluko and Drew Spence.

The Football Association has since apologised for its handling of the case, adding there was “much to learn from this episode”.

But England striker Aluko, who has won 102 caps and lost her place in the team after making unproven allegations of bullying in a 2016 FA cultural review, says she has had no communication from her international team-mates, except for those she plays with at Chelsea.

Why, it’s almost as if having a player accusing the coach of racism, pocketing £80,000 in settlement monies, then continuing with the complaint resulting in his sacking is detrimental to team spirit! I yearn for the day when the field of sports psychology is mature enough to properly understand these things.

This is despite the 30-year-old believing England players may “benefit” from improvements to the Football Association’s grievance process resulting from the case.

I’m going to go out on a limb here, but maybe her teammates don’t have grievances, and if they do, they sort them out among themselves.

Aluko has previously criticised the England players for running over to celebrate a goal with Sampson during their World Cup qualifier against Russia, which proved to be the 35-year-old’s last game in charge.

The problem isn’t one troublemaking individual, it’s everyone else.

She believes they need to adopt the policy of other international teams, who have fought equality issues as a “collective voice”.

Players should be forced to show solidarity.

She told BBC Sport: “Would there have been a different response if homophobic statements were made to players? I think there would be.

“Some of this is just a lack of appreciation of what racism is.

That race card is being waved with more enthusiasm than any English flag spotted at a woman’s football match.

A lot of this is, ‘it hasn’t happened to me, I can’t relate to that, so I’m not going to comment’. That, to me, can’t be a team.

“I’ve got to be able to put myself in your shoes and say, ‘even though I can’t understand what it may feel like, I’m going to try and understand and I’m going to support you regardless’. That is a team.

And there was me thinking teamwork was about putting the collective interests before your own petty grievances. Incidentally:

She chose to remain loyal to the English coaches who had given her the opportunity to play international football, but said: “The main thing for me is for people to understand that choosing to play for England doesn’t mean that I don’t support Nigeria. I’m as much Nigerian as I’m British. Of course Nigeria means a lot to me, it’s part of me, but I’ve been brought up by English coaches.”

Presumably the English coaches were easier to manipulate, shake down, and get fired.

Aluko has regrets about things she has said throughout the process, and apologised for criticising the players on Twitter when they ran over to celebrate with Sampson during the game against Russia.

“I think [the celebration] was naive and perhaps wasn’t the best thing to do for the players,” she said. “Some of them may have a special relationship with Mark Sampson and they have every right [to celebrate with him], but I think about the sensitivity at that time, and it wasn’t respectful.

Me me me me me me me! Five seconds later:

“We need to look at other examples and ask why this isn’t happening with a team ranked third in the world. Is the togetherness we keep banging on about actually being put into action or is it just a hashtag on Twitter?


“I’m not encouraging further discord between me and the players, not that I think there is any discord. As far as I’m concerned, last time I was in the team, everything was fine and nobody had any issues.

“So if anybody has any issues, they need to have specific examples, because what I’m not going to have are insinuations or stereotypes or perceptions to almost excuse what I’ve been through, because it doesn’t excuse it.”

Now it’s generally true that footballers aren’t very bright which could explain such a lack of self-awareness, but this woman has ambitions of becoming a lawyer:

She subsequently went to study Law at Brunel University, where she graduated with a First class degree in 2008. In July 2009 it was announced that Aluko would spend the 2009–10 US off-season studying for the New York bar exam before taking a similar exam in England, her aim being to have an entertainment law practice in both England and the United States.

So she’s not stupid, just highly manipulative and prepared to say absolutely anything to further her own interests. The sooner she gets out of football and into the legal profession where she’d be quite at home, the better for everyone.


The Pussyfication of Society, Rugby Edition

From the BBC:

The UK’s chief medical officers (CMOs) are being urged to protect children from the risks of rugby injuries by removing contact from the school game.

Let’s see who’s driving this:

Prof Allyson Pollock, from Newcastle University, is presenting new evidence that banning tackling would reduce concussion, head and neck injuries.

So a woman is trying to ban the fundamental aspects of a sport that boys have enjoyed for generations. At this point I’d say the feminists have pretty much won, wouldn’t you?

A spokesman for World Rugby said it was unaware of any new evidence that would challenge the current position.

Good. Stick to your guns, boys.

Last year, the CMOs rejected a call for a ban on tackling in youth rugby.

Another relentless campaign. Who’s funding this crap? Want to bet it’s the taxpayer?

They said the benefits of learning, training and playing rugby outweighed the risks of injury.

And who’d want to bet that none of those trying to force these changes ever played rugby to any standard?

I hear the same thing is happening with American football across the pond: over-protective mothers and meddling feminists are running around waving scare stories about concussion, causing participation rates to plummet.

Prof Pollock said children who wanted to could still play contact rugby outside school, for clubs, but schools should not be able to enforce contact rugby.

Look, I grew up in Wales where rugby was a near-religion. I couldn’t run, pass, or tackle which meant I could only play prop, but I weighed six stone soaking wet and was skinny as a beanpole so that was out too. (I also knew to come in from the rain, further ruling me out as a prop.) So what did I do? Well, the lads who were decent got put in one group and the rest (like me) were put in another. The first lot did some proper rugby training and we just had a bit of a run about, enough to get us warm(ish), muddy, and out of breath. I don’t remember putting in many tackles, but you could if you wanted. But it was the boys in the first group who really benefited, because they would later go on to play club rugby and one or two even for Wales. If they were relying on clubs to teach them the basics most of them would never have gone, particularly the working class lads. Going to a rugby club relies on having parents who both care and have the time and means to take their kids there on a Saturday morning. Aren’t we forever being told we need to be more inclusive? It didn’t come much more inclusive than school rugby.

She said: “We call on the chief medical officers to act on the evidence and advise the UK government to put the interests of the child before those of corporate professional rugby unions and remove harmful contact from the school game.”

Oh please. Rugby has been a feature in schools since way before the game even turned professional. This woman hasn’t got the first clue what she’s on about.

The authors reported research that girls were found to be three or four times more likely than boys to be affected by symptoms of concussion for 28 days, and they also highlighted the links between head injuries and an increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Wasn’t the argument for girls not playing rugby that they would not be up to it physically? Perhaps we ought to have listened, eh?


The State of Women’s Football

The BBC has been running this story on its front page since last night, possibly assuming more than a dozen people give a shit:

Mark Sampson has been sacked as England women’s manager following evidence of “inappropriate and unacceptable” behaviour with female players in a previous role.

The Football Association says that last week it was made aware of the full details of safeguarding allegations made against Sampson in 2014 relating to his time as Bristol Academy manager.

Mark who? Oh, right. Okay. Women’s football. Sorry, where did I leave my paint-drying specs?

Saying that, I found the article illuminating but probably not in the way the BBC would want me to.

Sampson was also cleared this year of wrongdoing following discrimination allegations made by England [women] players, including Chelsea and England striker Eniola Aluko.

The concerns Eni Aluko raised were about perceived bullying and perceived racism. We have investigated those properly, there have been two separate investigations actually which have broadly concluded there’s no systematic evidence for that.

Top-flight women footballer complains about bullying and racism from her male coach. Subsequent investigation turns up no evidence to support the complaint. We then get a timeline (emphasis mine):

December 2013: Sampson becomes England manager having left Bristol Academy

May 2016: England forward Eniola Aluko is asked to participate in a cultural review of all England teams by the FA’s technical director Dan Ashworth.

December 2016: An independent investigation, led by barrister Katharine Newton, hears Aluko’s claims that during a meeting in 2015, Sampson made a “highly inappropriate remark”.

March 2017: The independent review clears Sampson and his staff of wrongdoing but it is understood that Aluko was paid £80,000 in a confidentiality agreement.

13 September 2017: FA says it received the full safeguarding review panel report on the allegations against Sampson.

14 September 2017: The FA says it could re-open its investigation into racism claims against Sampson after further evidence is submitted.

20 September 2017: Sampson sacked by FA

I’m building up a picture here. Are you?

Last week, the FA announced it was to re-open its investigation into separate discrimination claims against Sampson, first made in 2016.

Sampson was alleged to have asked mixed race England midfielder Drew Spence whether she had been arrested during a tournament in 2015, a claim which he denied.

The horrors!

The claim was first made by Spence’s England and Chelsea team-mate Aluko, and Spence has now submitted written evidence to support it.

In a further separate allegation, Aluko said Sampson told her to make sure her Nigerian relatives did not “bring Ebola” to an England game at Wembley in 2014.

Her background is Nigerian, eh?

Two investigations – one internal FA inquiry and one independent review led by barrister Katharine Newton – cleared Sampson of any wrongdoing.

He’s been cleared by two separate investigations, yet people are still unhappy.

Senior FA executives are set to face a parliamentary inquiry over the investigations after Aluko initially raised a “bullying and harassment” grievance against Sampson in response to an internal cultural review.

Parliamentary inquiries, investigations, grievances, internal cultural reviews? There is an entire sub-industry operating in women’s football it seems. Why, it’s almost as if…

Aluko, who has 102 caps and is a qualified lawyer…

Ah, they beat me to it.

Remember folks, this is a sport we’re constantly being encouraged to take seriously. Frankly, my solution would be to appoint a woman as the next England coach and let them get on with whatever the hell they want. Just don’t keep shoving stories about it under my nose, if I wanted high-drama about a load of women I’d watch Desperate Housewives.


Coming from Behind

I was on holiday without a TV and so missed England’s 4th-test victory over South Africa at Old Trafford, which saw them win the series 3-1. The match was pretty much over when England scored 362 in the first innings and South Africa were 84-2 in reply.

When England got absolutely thumped by Australia in the 2013/14 Ashes, I made this comment about the Australian team:

Despite their success, this team has yet to demonstrate it can follow even a modest first innings total or bat a second innings from behind

One of the great things about test cricket is that a team always has the time to overcome a massive deficit, and one of the defining features of a decent test team is its ability to bat patiently and relentlessly for hour after hour, accumulating runs or eating up overs. In the past, it was common for test batsmen to arrive at the crease some 400+ runs behind and be quite unfazed: the likes of Langer, Lara, Tendulkur, Chanderpaul, Sangakarra, Ponting, Smith, and Kallis understood their job was often to climb mountains when batting second or fourth. Not for nothing was Rahul Dravid called “The Wall”.

Nowadays, most test matches are decided on the first and second days: a side wins the toss and bats first accumulating a modest total of between 350 and 400 runs. The side batting second falls miles short, affected by what is called scoreboard pressure. If the side batting first can’t accumulate a decent total, they’ve pretty much lost the match. The last time I saw a test match where the team batting first scored a very good total (400+) and the other side came out and matched it, the players were very different from those we have today. Also, batting out for a draw seems to be a thing of the past: South Africa were the masters of it, with Faf du Plessis – the current Proteas captain – having taken part in a couple of great escapes himself. However, with the departure of AB de Villiers and the demise of JP Duminy, he lacks the partners to do the same now.

One of the most magnificent cricketing performances I’ve seen was in the first test of the 2010/11 Ashes in Brisbane, when England batted first and scored 260, then Australia replied with 481. Andrew Strauss and Alistair Cook walked out for the second innings staring at a 221 run deficit and the likelihood of a humiliating defeat. Strauss fell first having scored 110 with 188 runs on the board, and then Jonathan Trott came in. He went on to score 135 with Cook scoring 235, declaring on 517 for 1. The match was drawn but that batting performance from England’s top three when faced with such immense scoreboard pressure set the tone for the rest of the series, which England went on to win.

These days that would never happen. No two batsmen in the world today could walk out to a 221 run deficit and bat to 187-0. I don’t know if it’s the influence of T20 and one-day cricket meaning players are not exposed to scoreboard pressure, or if players are picked more on explosive power and all-round abilities rather than patient accumulation and a solid defence, but test teams rarely seem able to come from behind and win or save a match in the modern era. It’s a shame, because this was what made test matches exciting, and differentiated them from the shorter formats. I hope things go back to how they were.


Super Rugby descends into farce

Last year I wrote about the parlous state of sport in Australia, including rugby union:

Australia is also going through a low point in Rugby Union, which I don’t think is a mere blip.  Following a strong showing in the 2015 RWC (where they avoided South Africa and rarely worried the Kiwis in the final), their Super XV franchises did spectacularly badly the following season

Were it not for the wildcard system that ensures the playoffs are not dominated by the Kiwis, the Brumbies – Australia’s best side – would have finished joint 7th on points and miles adrift of 5 of the 6 New Zealand sides.  The Brumbies got dumped out of the knockout stages in the first round, and that was the Australian effort over for 2016.

Things are even worse this year, and this is the table as it stands today:

Once again the Brumbies are Australia’s best side, languishing ninth in the overall table standings, but thanks to the “conference” system they now enjoy a home quarter-final against the Hurricanes! Meanwhile, the Auckland Blues are eliminated. There has been some considerable grumbling about this on Twitter, particularly from South Africans.

The four best sides in the competition by a mile and a half are the Crusaders, Hurricanes, Chiefs, and Highlanders – all from New Zealand. The South African Lions finished top of the combined tablebecause they’re in a weak conference with only 3 other teams, whereas the Kiwis had to play proper opposition most weeks, i.e. each other. This season has seen the Kiwis see off most foreign opponents with ease, and usually only tasting defeat against one of their own teams (which makes the British & Irish Lions fighting them to a standstill all the more impressive). The conference system is supposedly designed to keep the competition interesting and all nations involved until the end, but what they mean is they don’t want four Kiwi teams contesting the finals every year with the Australians sulking on the sidelines. I have long suspected that much of the IRB’s efforts – including some decisions in matches, e.g. the penalty against Scotland in the last WC – are expended towards keeping Australia winning, thus ensuring interest in the sport Down Under. Australians are notoriously fickle when it comes to sport, and if their teams aren’t winning they’ll pretend they don’t exist (see their TV coverage of the Ashes when things aren’t going their way, for example). Australian rugby falling by the wayside will be a disaster for the international sport, which even now lacks top-tier sides that can make for proper international contests.

From what I am reading on Twitter, there are murmurings that the South Africans may leave the Southern Hemisphere setup and join the French Top 14 competition. This would makes sense for two reasons: the South African franchises are being stripped of talent by players leaving for the better money on offer in France, and it’s on a similar time zone (unlike NZ and Australia).

The Super Rugby organisers are trying to do something about this by reducing the number of teams and making the competition more sensible, but it might be too late. In a few years we might see the premier rugby competition in the Southern Hemisphere consist of five good NZ teams and two Australian ones.


Holidays and Sport

Tomorrow I’m off to visit some friends in Baden-Baden until Friday, so no blogging next week I’m afraid.

I was going to write a post on the Lions v New Zealand, but what’s there to say? The Lions played well but didn’t take two golden chances when they ran right up to the line, which you can’t afford to do against the All Blacks. The pack played well but so did that of the Kiwis, cancelling each other out. There was little penetration by the Lions for whole periods of the game, but the breaks by Liam Williams and Jonathan Davies were very good indeed and justified their selection. Nobody played badly for the Lions, in fact everyone played well, only the Kiwis played better.

It’s hard to know what to do for the second test. Perhaps play Itoje instead of Kruis? As I said, nobody played badly. The worrying thing is the All Blacks generally put in their weakest performance in the first test and get progressively stronger thereafter. Gulp.


Gatland’s Lions

This is a good line, from an article on Warren Gatland and the Lions:

But sport is about guff and myth-making: it’s why Manchester United are criticised for not playing attacking football even as they grimly gather up trophies, like body collectors trudging through a medieval village.

And this:

Gatland has seen all this before. Dropping Brian O’Driscoll for the final test in 2013 was transformed from a tough but logical selection decision into a rugby version of the killing of Bambi’s mother.

Mostly this was because of the embarrassing Irish reaction, the dangerous mix of Liveline and sporting controversy once again leaving us in an irrational heap; but there was also some blather about the essence of the Lions being disrespected by treating a former captain so callously.

Of course, he was only trying to win a Test series, which he duly did.

I watched that final test when I was in Melbourne in a pub full of Irishmen. They were moaning from start to finish, and even when I pointed out that O’Driscoll’s replacement, the Welshman Jonathan Davies, had set up a crucial try in their 41-16 drubbing of the Australians they still stuck to the line of “Ah, but he should have kept him in, all the same.” They still complain about it to this day.


The Lions v The Highlanders

Last night I watched the British & Irish Lions lose a closely-fought, scrappy match against a depleted Highlanders side.

It was a completely different Lions side from the one that beat the Crusaders, and they were playing a very different opposition. The Highlanders have always been a side that plays by creating as much chaos as they can and hassling the opposition in defence and at the breakdown. Predictable they are not, and the Lions are probably pleased that scrum half Aaron Smith, who excels at orchestrating the chaos, was not playing.

The loss was not a bad one: 23-22 is a close match, and it was hard-fought on both sides. More importantly, it gave Gatland another look at those players who didn’t play against the Crusaders. Certain questions have been answered, and the outline of the test side is becoming more clear.

Jared Payne cannot play full-back: in the absence of Hogg, who has had to withdraw from the tour through injury, Leigh Halfpenny will surely fill that slot. O’Connor is probably preferred over Webb at scrum half; Webb played well yesterday, but not as well as O’Connor. Biggar had a decent game yesterday, particularly when he delayed his pass to send Joseph in for his try, but I think Farrell will get the No. 10 shirt given his performance against the Crusaders (whose style of play is closer to the All Blacks’ than the Highlanders’ was). Both Joseph and Te’o have played well and look dangerous in attack. Can we play both of them? I don’t know, but I hope so. I’d rather see that than Farrell at centre and Sexton at 10. Sexton isn’t in top form, and I’d prefer to see Biggar on the bench instead of him.

The back row didn’t play especially well: Faletau is better than Stander, and unless Gatland is seeing something I’m not – which he normally does – I’m not sure how he can play Warburton. The second row will cause him the biggest headache: Lawes played well last night and the experience of Alun Wyn-Jones was invaluable, but Kruis impressed against the Crusaders and Itoje is too good to leave out. Marler didn’t impress much yesterday, and the scrum didn’t perform particularly well against a Highlander pack that was a lot weaker than the Crusaders’. They were unable to defend against the lineout drive too, conceding a try. Ability to do so will be vital against the All Blacks.

Two aspects of the Highlanders’ play came as no surprise. Firstly their use of the width of the pitch, bringing Naholo into the game at every opportunity. The Kiwis like to stretch the opposition, and they’ll do that all tour. Secondly, did you see what happened before Naholo’s try? The ball went wide to the Highlanders’ No. 6, Gareth Evans, who was roaming out on the touchline, just as I described here. Joseph went in to tackle him and bounced off, meaning that instead of being bundled into touch as he should have been, he was able to get the ball back inside keeping it in play. A phase or two later and Naholo is running in for a try. The Lions need to make sure these mis-matches out wide are dealt with properly: you don’t want a Lions centre or wing having to tackle Kirean Reid or Ardie Savea and stop him offloading the ball. You can be sure this will be a major part of the All Black’s game, and it is very effective.

The Lions disappointed yesterday but didn’t disgrace themselves by any means. The game, insofar as it showed us who is who in the Lions squad, served its purpose. The match against the New Zealand Maori on Saturday will be as close to a test match as they will come before the real thing. Let’s hope they do well.


The Lions v The Crusaders

Following a lacklustre match against the New Zealand Barbarians and a hard-fought loss against the Blues, the British & Irish Lions responded in style this morning by beating the Canterbury Crusaders 12-3.

This may have been a warm-up match against a franchise side and not a full test, but this was an important victory for several reasons. Firstly, the Crusaders have been the best side in New Zealand – and the entire Super Rugby competition – this season, and were unbeaten until today. Even the Kiwis will have been impressed by a touring side that can beat this Crusaders team on only their third match. Secondly, the team features several All Blacks, particularly in the forwards. The Lions got a good look at Sam Whitelock today and helped themselves to what ought to have been his ball in at least one lineout. Thirdly, even though the Lions didn’t score a try, nor did the Crusaders. This is almost unheard of: the Crusaders normally accumulate cricket scores against their opponents, and I suspect this is their lowest match score for several years.

The Lions started exceptionally well, thanks to Luke Romano fumbling the kick-off. The first ten minutes belonged to the Lions, and the superiority of their pack was already beginning to show. The second of the Lions’ two early penalties came from the Crusaders infringing at the scrum, and at the next scrum the referee had a word with Whitelock to sort it out. This was a massive moment: the Lions pack is easily their most potent weapon, especially at the scrum and lineout, and both worked brilliantly today. Given Warburton didn’t play it is hard to see how he will get his spot back to captain the side. It would be an exaggeration to say that the Lions dominated the scrum – the Crusaders got fired up shortly afterwards and put on an almighty shove to win a penalty of their own – but they certainly got the best of their opponents. George Kruis was superb, and with Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje as options the Lions are extremely well covered in the second row and loose forward positions.

I had written earlier saying how I thought the Crusaders would switch the ball wide one way and then the other, creating huge gaps to exploit as the Blues had done, but this didn’t happen. Why? Well, either Warren Gatland reads this blog or he and his team know a thing or two about rugby instructed his men to deny the Crusaders time and space on the ball. They came up extremely fast in defence and for the first time this season I saw the Crusaders unsettled, if not quite rattled. Both Richie Mo’unga and Luke Romano made unforced errors, something they rarely do in a normal match. The Lions defence, as the score would suggest, was absolutely superb and not only kept the Crusaders out but stopped them playing. This will be important in the tests: there’s no point trying to defend your line against the All Blacks for half and hour, it won’t work. But if you stop them from playing how they want, you get to keep them away from your line.

It wasn’t all good, though. Owen Farrell had a brilliant game, one of the best I’ve seen, and with his kicking it’s hard to see how he can be left out of the side. He is infinitely more mature than he was during his early England days and the last Lions tour and it shows. Ben Te’o was also good as well, and sucked in players.

But a lot of people are also praising Connor Murray and although he did have a good game on some levels, if that had been a test match people would be cursing him. Around the 30 minute mark the Lions were ten or fifteen metres out in a brilliant attacking position with all the momentum, a serious try-scoring opportunity, and his pass went to somebody’s ankles. Thirty seconds later the Crusaders are on the Lions’ line where they are unlucky not to score. The All Blacks would have punished that, and it could well have been the best opportunity for the Lions to score all game.

Unfortunately, this happened several times. Jonathan Davies spilled a ball that a Kiwi probably wouldn’t a few metres out, and when Ben Te’o broke the line brilliantly he flung the ball miles over Liam Williams’ head. Had it gone in front of his chest, Williams would have been in for a try. Anthony Watson made a terrific line break and ran up half the pitch, but timed his pass badly and the ball got dropped a few metres from the tryline. These will be costly, costly mistakes against the All Blacks.

So there is still a lot of work to be done on the basic ball handling, but already it’s a massive improvement from the Lions, the forwards are shaping up to be formidable indeed, and they’ve secured an important win. Let’s hope they can keep this going all the way to the first test.


The Lions v The Blues

Back in March I wrote about the yawning chasm between rugby played by the Kiwis and that by the Six Nations sides:

A Welsh side will be attacking the opponent’s line at the five metre mark and the scrum-half will, from the base of a ruck, fling the ball to the inside centre who has made a charge from miles back and is at full pelt. Only the ball will be either way above the centre’s head or down by his knees, meaning he will have to check his run and reach up or down for it. By the time he’s got going again, he’s tackled. Watch a Kiwi team in the same position and the ball will be taken right on the chest, nine times out of ten. That’s just one example, but it is representative of almost every aspect of the game. The Kiwis have not only mastered the basic skills at age ten, they’ve then gone on to master the secondary skills such as offloading in the tackle, passes out the back of the hand, and all the other little tricks that make for good viewing.

When I saw yesterday morning that the British & Irish Lions had lost 22-16 to the Auckland Blues, I had an inkling how it happened before I’d seen anything other than the score.

Last night I went home and watched the match, and nothing surprised me. The Lions can compete in the forwards at set pieces: they were solid at scrums and lineouts and there are easily enough players in the squad to compete with the All Blacks, let alone the Super Rugby franchises, in these areas. It was wholly unsurprising that the Lions’ solitary try came from a lineout drive: New Zealand teams have never been the best at defending against these, something that the good Australian and South African teams have taken full advantage of in the past. I predict that the areas in which the Lions will do well on this tour is in winning penalties at the scrum and lineout drives close to the line.

The forwards are pretty good in open play too. Both Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje played very well, making plenty of tackles and challenging at the breakdown. I think the Lions forwards can compete in open play on the defensive, at least against the Super Rugby sides.

It is in the backs where the gulf in class really opens up. A tactic the Kiwis love is to shift the play out wide, stretching the defence, and then quickly shift it back the other way leaving a huge gap to be exploited. This is how they scored their first try: a superb kick sent the play out to the righthand touchline and a long, floated pass sent it back to the left where Rieko Ioane left Jack Nowell for dead and ran through empty space to score. The Kiwi teams do this time and time again, and the worrying thing is the Blues are probably the worst at it. The Crusaders absolutely excel at it, as do the Hurricanes, and they will certainly use this tactic against the Lions. Of course, playing like this requires the halfback to be able to kick from the hand with pin-point accuracy and the centres (and everyone else) to fling long, floating passes across half the pitch that go straight to hand. The Kiwis can do this all day long (particularly Beauden Barrett) but, as I said in my piece in March, the Six Nations sides simply lack the skills to do so.

To make matters worse for the Lions, the New Zealanders have taken to leaving a lock or No. 8 roaming out near the wing when on the attack: Kieran Ried and Sam Whitelock seem to spend more time as attacking centres than they do in the pack during some matches. The Hurricanes hooker Dane Coles is another one who likes to loiter on the wing, but he might be injured for this series. What this does is force the defending side to commit one or two players to a proper tackle, leaving space open for the wing running up in support.

This is made possible by the New Zealand forwards being extremely good at offloading in the tackle, so much so they’ve made it a central part of their game. Ihaia West’s try near the end came as a result of a superb offload out the back of the hand by No. 8 Steven Luatua to Sonny Bill Williams, who then did the same for Ihaia West. Of course we all knew SBW can offload, that’s a half his game, but the forwards are now doing the same. Can we expect the Lions forwards to loiter on the wings providing an extra attacking option, or to offload in the tackle to release a centre flying up the inside? Probably not.

I also said this in March:

It wasn’t only the skill, it was the thinking behind it all. One of the things that frustrates me the most when watching Wales is how damned thick they are: there is no imagination, no inventiveness, no sneaky cleverness.

A telling moment came in the first half when Jarod Payne almost scored a try but was forced into touch by the tackler. The Lions back line pressed forward at speed and with quick hands, but they did so in a straight line. When Leigh Halfpenny – who had an excellent game, particularly when he joined the line in attack – got the ball he just ran straight and passed to the man outside in a manner that was wholly predictable. What a Kiwi would have done is move inside slightly, draw the defence in, and delay the pass to open a large gap on the outside (watch Ryan Crotty play). This would have given his winger the extra room to run in and score, and as we saw on the replay inches matter. Such small differences in skill and thinking make all the difference, and the northern hemisphere is someway behind the curve.

Of course, the Lions haven’t been playing together very long and the team is far from settled. I don’t buy the excuse about jet lag, the Kiwi teams routinely fly to South Africa for Super Rugby matches (and vice versa) and they seem to manage. But they are rusty and they didn’t get much rhythm going. I am sure they will improve as the tour goes on and the first team starts to take shape, but I fear the fundamental gaps in skill and class will remain. I think the Crusaders will beat them, and so will the Hurricanes (depending on what side they put out). The Lions ought to beat the Chiefs and the Highlanders, who have been inconsistent this season and might not be able to match the Lions’ pack.

As for the All Blacks? Well, the Lions need to win the first test to avoid a whitewash. History shows the All Blacks perform badly in the first test and are absolutely devastating thereafter. I only hope the Lions play as well as they can and make a decent fist of it.