Composure the All Blacks Key Asset: DHL Lions Series First Test

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New Zealand v British & Irish Lions - First Test Match
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JUNE 24: Israel Dagg of the All Blacks makes a break during the Test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park on June 24, 2017 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

With all the preparation and planning, it turns out that Composure was the All Blacks key ssset in the opening DHL Lions Series first test. A type of ‘game awareness’ that breeds familiarity was on show, and while competitive, the British and Irish Lions lacked that one element in Auckland.

Lacked maybe too harsh a word, as in fact the Lions scored one of the more memorable tries of 2017. It had some recalling ‘the try from the end of the world’. An 85 meter blitz that should have reaped more rewards. Unfortunately, they lacked the composure to secure the first win at Eden Park, letting the hosts carry a truly remarkable winning record.

In some ways, there were mixed messages from the visiting side. They were both fixed in defense, yet they had adventure and were ambitious–but only for a period of the game. And to beat the All Blacks, you must play 80 full minutes of rugby union.

Were There Mixed Messages Issued to the Lions?

For 60% of this test match, the British and Irish Lions were entirely in the contest. They were consistent with their intent. Attack! and then offensive defense, and then looking to take the game to the home side again. It was delightful to witness.

But after a bruising scrum 54 minutes into the contest, which resulted in the first of two tries to Rieko Ioane, things changed. After that, were messages injected into the visitors minds which altered their thinking? For Last Word on Rugby, it appeared so.

Up to that point, and after creating a number of opportunities, they could not get the execution right. It hurt their ability to play with adventure. It resulted in a change in attitude, and that seemingly altered the direction of the team. Forwards now had less venom, backs made less distance in their running. It seemed the message, was wrong.

Test Match Intensity Requires Fine Skills Execution

George Kruis must also hold his hand up. On too many occasions, his skill execution let his team down. Fumbles are meant to be taken out of players games with all the repeated trainings and such familiarity with handling the ball. But when he was on the charge, twice he dropped it cold. And those actions infiltrate team mates confidence.

Was the confidence knocked out of the visitors? No, but in a way yes. They were still fighting on the All Blacks 15 meter line, hitting the ‘black wall’ right up til the end but when analyzed, the fight was taken out of the Lions after the three-quarter mark. And in that period, the score stretched from 20-8 up to 30-8. That will have hurt, and even with the consolation try for Rhys Webb, a 30-15 loss will still feel like ‘opportunity lost’.

While the execution let the side down in the end; in the opening attacking play, and in the middle of the second half, this Lions team showed the glimpses that everyone knew they possessed. Quality players, good motivation and combined strength. But with mixed messages issued from the coaches box, it had a counter-intuitive affect.

“Perhaps we need to be a bit more clinical” – Warren Gatland.

Some Positives, So Second Test Still Holds Reward

If this side hope to turn things around, then policy and direction must improve when the DHL Lions Series goes to Wellington. John Kirwan said post match; “The Lions took the momentum into half time. A great try. They came out in the second half, and they blew it”. And the harsh reality for Warren Gatland is, that the truth hurts. His calls to alter the game plan appeared to backfire.

In the post-match press conference, Gatland had to admit that too. “We found ourselves in situations which are fixable. Elliot Daly just found himself out of position. Liam Williams missed a high ball which fell into Rieko Ioanes arms; which is fixable. And we were under penalty advantage in a scrum. All things which are fixable. It’s not like the All Blacks played champagne rugby, and threw the ball around. We’ll learn from this.”

On the other hand, some new stars and old hands each put themselves across the park. Star back Rieko Ioane and the returning leader Kieran Read, who was gladly back ‘doing what leaders do’. Tremendous efforts, which were backed up by Israel Dagg (see main picture) and Brodie Retallick.

Lions Fail to Take Advantage of Battered Home Side

Missing Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty due in injuries in the opening half, after the restart the onus was on good decision making. And Gatland lamented that. The key moment was in the 68th minute. A stolen lineout win was crucial. After a charged kick, then a Lions lineout and a turnover, TJ Perenara put up the perfect box kick.

With perfect execution, Ioane chased hard, grabbed a loose ball and ran 45 meters to score. A huge play, and ultimately, the winning of the game.

As early injuries looked to have depleted the home sides strength, most will say that the All Blacks ‘dodged a bullet’. True, and it would have been interesting if Aaron Cruden had pulled up lame (only cleared fit on Thursday) but he played on, and in-fact made some telling tackles.

Replacements are a big part of the modern game. Supposed to make an impact, and unfortunately Maro Itoje, Sam Warburton and Leigh Halfpenny did not add the ‘venom’ needed to hold the All Blacks down. The death blow was missed; only just, but the World Champions survived a brush with mortality.

Close, but Not Close Enough

So, if this was their chance, the Lions will know that those do not come often against this Steve Hansen coached side.

“If we lost another player, then Ardie [Savea] will have had to be out there”, was the reply from head coach Steve Hansen when asked about injuries. And he will have been as pleased with the ‘gutsy effort’ of the 23 players, to hold off the strong challenge tonight.

“It’s special. We haven’t done anything yet, we’ve gotta win one more to win the series.

“We’ll be happy with tonight, enjoy the moment for what it is and get to work again tomorrow.”

Credit Where Credit is Due

Codie Taylor – in future quiz questions, Taylor will foreve be known as the first try scorer of the 2017 series.

Liam Williams – he made an impact. One meter away from being tackled by Kieran Read, he helped created a memorable 85m long range try in the finest tradition of Lions rugby.

Liam Williams of the Lions makes a break during the first test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park on June 24, 2017 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Rhys Webb – he cemented his name as the next option on the list, as the halfback. If Greig Laidlaw is on the outer, then Webb could try to get a start in Wellington or in the third test.

Barrett’s kicking – Six from six. Is this the same Barrett who messed kicks in 2016? He is now the premier kicking first-five in NZ Rugby. No doubt.

Kieran Read – his fitness will be an asset for the next two tests. 75 minutes; after six weeks out of the game. A superb performance on the road to 100 caps.

And finally, the All Blacks will now lean on their injury cover, with Waisake Naholo and Jordie Barrett likely to be used in place of the concussed Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty’s hamstring strain.

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The DHL Lions Series 2017 continues on Saturday July 1, in Welington with the Second Test.

 

“Main photo credit”

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