Talking Tactics: All Blacks v Lions, 1st Test
After 12 years of waiting, the first Test of the 2017 Lions Tour between the All Blacks and British and Irish Lions kicks off at Eden Park, Auckland. Both teams have had morale boosting wins and finally they get to square off at the home of New Zealand rugby.
The British and Irish Lions have come into their own in the last week, and after a convincing display against the Maori All Blacks on Saturday, they managed to stifle the Chiefs earlier in the day en route to a 34–6 victory. With three days to game day, they will be brimming with confidence, having developed much better chemistry and clinical gameplan execution.
As the Lions’ games come thick and fast, the All Blacks have only played the one Test match, last week against Samoa. Samoa had a good opening 15 minutes but it was only a matter of time until the engine warmed up. We didn’t learn much than we already knew but it was interesting to see how quickly some combinations clicked early on.
Robbie Henshaw showed intent with his running, time and again helping the Lions get over the advantage line. I would probably have preferred to see him start this Test match at inside centre. He played alot of minutes and chances are Englishman Ben Te’o gets the nod alongside Welsh maestro, Jonathan Davies. Davies is a solid defender and consistent performer. He provides experience and is the ideal man to have in that midfield to stifle the threat of SBW and Anton Lienert-Brown.
Sonny Bill Williams hadn’t played a Test match all of last year as he was playing for the 7s team and eventually tore his achilles. Anton Lienert-Brown made his debut last year and has looked to keep that 13 jersey to himself. The two played together for the first time against Samoa and the way Lienert-Brown played alongside SBW was flawless… it still is a new partnership and the Lions will definitely be looking to exploit their lack of playing time together should they start. SBW has been in sublime form since helping the Blues beat the Lions and with that MOTM outing, he secured his place in the team. He will attract attention from double teams and that’s where Lienert-Brown finds opportunities to use his speed, footwork and underrated distribution.
Lions Defense and Line Speed
NZ teams exhibit a reluctance to kick to the opposition and time and again the Lions have forced the likes of the Crusaders to play a brand of rugby they are not used to. Behind the defense is good positioning on kick cover by the wingers, fullback and scrumhalf, a feature in their defensive organization. Tommy Semour’s try against the Highlanders being a perfect example of how they turn defense to attack. Over the last two games, they have shown an ability to not just accurately kick for goal, but score tries. This has been off of great defense creating offense, using a quick line speed to pressure opposing backlines and suffocate the attacking spaces. With this pressure they look to get to attackers quickly and hold them up if they do decide to run the ball, creating turnovers. This feature of their play is one they should try to maintain throughout as they face the All Blacks.
It has been very effective, and how the ABs counter it will be interesting. Of all the teams the Lions have faced, obviously none has the firepower and chemistry the ABs possess. Ways in which they can beat the Lions defensive line speed, in my opinion, must start with patience: Not necessarily playing slow, but not forcing it. Keeping it tight, hitting closer to the breakdown to force them back then Aaron Smith can use quick ball to control tempo. Not forcing the offload when it’s not there.
They could also take it wide and create a one-on-one involving the Bus, Julien Savea, and whoever defends him. It will most likely be George North at most times and that’s another matchup to look out for. If this is the gameplan, Waisake Naholo might get the nod ahead of Dagg. Having two big wingers on either side and just creating havoc… but Dagg is much superior under the high ball and that skillset means the Lions can’t just aimlessly kick when Izzy is on the field. SBW’s ability to offload in contact can easily undo their hard work, so you either wrap him up high or command a double team on him. He’s another outlet.
Battle of the Forwards
It is no secret that the Lions’ strength lies in the forwards. Set-pieces have been a talking point from game one. They are always looking to set a solid attacking platform from scrums and lineouts, and in turn disrupt opposition set pieces. Courtney Lawes and Mario Itoje have shown a knack in stealing opposition lineout ball. Most combinations of the tight five has more or less won at least a scrum penalty in each game. They are rarely overpowered, except for that one instance against the Highlanders that may have cost them the game.
The All Blacks have always had forwards that aren’t scared to give the ball some air and play expansive rugby. The current Lions crop definitely has forwards that can move the ball and carry the ball strongly: they just can’t be lured into the trap of trying to match up with the All Blacks forwards in that department. High work rate at the breakdowns, dominating the tackle area and strong ball carrying are aspects of the game the Lions’ forwards can really test the All Blacks in. Those unnecesary offloads that don’t go to hand are what result in broken play and from the Lions’ perspective, they can’t afford to do that. CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahoney and Sean O’Brien are workhorses and will be the difference if the Lions are to hand the Kiwis their first loss at Eden Park since 1994, 38 matches without defeat.
Kieran Read is coming off thumb injury, having not played in 6 weeks. He’ll probably slot right in to the starting XV, alongside Jerome Kaino, who played his first match after missing about 7 weeks too. Major concerns for the All Blacks in that department, especially since they will be required to be at their best to nullify the Lions imposing threat.
I expect 4 of the ABs tight 5 to be Crusaders, and the fifth might be the most crucial one yet. Brodie Retallick is omnipresent on a rugby pitch and from a Lions’ point of view, you can only keep him working for the full 80 and hope he tires out. Sam Cane, Read and Kaino will be required to carry the ball alot into contact and try get over the advantage line to give some momentum to the ABs.
The scrumhalf department has been most constitent for the Lions all Tour long. Conor Murray will most likely start, and his deputy, Rhys Webb, is no slouch either. The battle of the 9s is one of the key matchups of the contest. Aaron Smith v Conor Murray for the title of best 9 in the world.
Today’s defeat of the Chiefs has definitely put Elliot Daly in contention. His energy and footwork poses a different type of challenge compared to either of the back three of Leigh Halfpenny, Anthony Watson and George North. Halfpenny will probably start at fullback and he doesn’t offer much attacking flair, but is a world class goal-kicker. The back three’s collective performance against the Chiefs (Daly, Jack Nowell and Liam Williams) has given the Lions selection team a welcome headache. Owen Farrell seems to have recovered from a quad strain and is in line to start ahead of Sexton. Captain Sam Warburton isn’t fully match fit and might have to settle for a place on the bench.
For the All Blacks, I’d expect a similar team to the one that beat Samoa. Only changes might be the return of Read and Ardie Savea dropping to the bench in Vaea Fifita’s place; and the last spot on the bench. Hansen could go with the force and size of Waisake Naholo, one of the promising but youthful duo of Rieko Ioane and Jordie Barrett, or the uncapped Ngani Laumape. Naholo missed the All Blacks game v Samoa as he was recovering after a MoTM perfomance for the Highlanders against the Lions a few days earlier. I’d expect him to be the one to secure a place on the bench in place of Jordie Barrett.