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.