With the first test in Auckland’s Eden Park nearly upon us, Warren Gatland’s Lions team are preparing for the ultimate challenge in sport as they look to overcome a New Zealand side who haven’t lost at Eden Park since 1994. After a tough start to life on tour, the Lions have found their feet in recent weeks and will be confident of causing Steve Hansen’s mean some real problems. So here are just a few of the areas where the Lions can punish the All Blacks….
Target them at the set-piece
One positive aspect of the tour for the Lions has been the strength of their set-piece. Whether it be at scrums or line-outs the Lions have enjoyed much success in these areas and will be hopeful of maintaining that form in the test matches. The Lions pack has been outstanding throughout the tour, and now things are starting to click for the backs, the Lions attack is reaping the rewards of the forward’s efforts. With New Zealand’s first-choice hooker Dane Coles missing through injury, Crusaders hooker Codie Taylor will be tasked with throwing in at line-out time and having struggled against the Lions in Christchurch, Peter O’Mahony and George Kruis will fancy their chances of stealing some opposition ball once again. Whilst scrummaging isn’t a particular weakness of the All Blacks game, they aren’t renowned for it and like to get the ball out as quickly as possible and a Lions pack containing big-hitters such as Tadhg Furlong and Sean O’Brien may fancy their chances of turning the match into a real arm-wrestle up-front. Against a more cohesive-looking backline, the Lions must make sure that the All Blacks forwards do not give their half-backs a strong platform to work from.
Shut down Beauden Barrett
Something much easier said than done, the Lions must not allow the All Blacks No.10 the time and space to dictate the game. In last week’s 78-0 thrashing of Samoa, Barrett was given the freedom of Eden Park by the Samoan defence and consequently run them ragged with his running and passing game. Lions fans who were here in 2005 will hope that this defence has learnt the lessons from watching back then, and not allow Barrett the space that Dan Carter had to show his class and embarrass his opposition. Facing a better defence the Hurricanes fly-half will not have it as easy as last week, but is still capable of moments of magic to unlock this Lions defence. Coach Andy Farrell will have been delighted with the defensive line-speed of his team so far on tour and if the Lions can replicate that intensity in Auckland they can restrict Barrett’s influence.
Stop NZ offloading game at source
Anyone who has watched the warm-up matches on this tour will be able to tell you that New Zealanders are highly-skilled off-loaders. Whether it be forwards or backs the handling skills are mightily impressive and that will be no different on Saturday. Most of the All Blacks team facing the Lions can offload at will, as seen countless times against Samoa last week. However in Brodie Retallick and Sonny Bill Williams they have two of their best attacking weapons. The sheer size and power of the two players makes them hard enough to stop when running at you, but the two players are experts at freeing their hands in the tackle to keep the ball moving to support runners. The arm-span on the two men makes it difficult to stop them offloading the ball but the Lions must be wary of going low and must try at all times to prevent them getting the ball away out of the tackle. That may mean two defenders committing to the tackle at times in the match, but if it stops New Zealand keeping the ball moving it will be worthwhile.
Play a smart kicking game
A bold selection is what many called it when Warren Gatland announced his team for the first test. Elliot Daly and Liam Williams had been highly impressive in attack against the Chiefs but most fans still expected him to go with two of the stars of the 2013 series, Leigh Halfpenny and George North in the back three. The decision to pick Daly and Williams after such convincing displays in attack suggests that the Lions will not be afraid to throw the ball around and run from deep against the All Blacks. However whilst a back three containing Daly, Williams and Anthony Watson suit this style of running rugby, the Lions must be sensible in terms of when to run and when not to run. You would expect New Zealand to dominate at spells during the match, which makes the Lions kicking game all the more important. In half-backs Connor Murray and Owen Farrell they have two of the best tactical kickers in the game and both players will be expected to relieve the pressure and put their team in the right areas of the field with their kicking game. With runners like Israel Dagg and Ben Smith any loose kicks will be punished so the Lions must kick to the space and not give away cheap possession to the All Blacks attack. The Lions must look to play the territory game, and with their back three all being good footballers there will be times when it is safer to go against instincts and put boot to ball.
Replacements must provide impact
One of the All Blacks great strengths is their ability to make changes during matches without losing momentum. If anything the strength and experience of their bench often sees them pull away from their opponents in the final quarter of matches. In last year’s first test against Wales in Auckland, the visitors led after an hour only for the hosts to respond with 21 unanswered points in the final quarter to secure a 39-21 triumph. A week later in the second test and it was a similar story as Wales went in level at half-time only for four tries in quick succession to take the game away from them in the second half, in a match they eventually lost 36-22. If the Lions are to avoid the same outcome at Eden Park on Saturday, their replacements must provide real impetus when they come off the bench. All of those sitting on the Lions bench in Auckland are good enough to play at this level and many will count themselves unlucky to miss out on starting the match. In players such as Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje and Rhys Webb, Gatland has a number of exciting options to bring off the bench with the energy of Sinckler and Itoje in particular sure to test the All Blacks. To stay in a match against such world-class opposition, the starting XV will have to play at the highest intensity and fully empty the tanks whilst the replacements must match that to ensure there is no drop-off to allow the All Blacks to pull away on the scoreboard.