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.