After a feverish build-up amongst supporters and the media, the British and Irish Lions test series against world champions New Zealand began with a bang in Auckland. In one of the most compelling test matches in recent Lions history, the All Blacks produced a commanding performance in running out 30-15 winners against Warren Gatland’s tourists. In a game full of attacking rugby the All Blacks outscored the Lions three tries to two thanks to a brace from young wing sensation Rieko Ioane and another score from hooker Codie Taylor. Tries late in each half from Sean O’Brien and Rhys Webb were just rewards for a commendable attacking performance from the Lions but the tourists were well beaten as New Zealand extended their unbeaten record at Eden Park.
Power of the pack
If it was one area where the Lions hoped to have the upper hand on their illustrious hosts, it was up-front. The Lions pack had enjoyed a strong tour going into the test series with a number of dominating performances. In particular, victories over the Crusaders and Maori All Blacks saw the Lions’ forwards enjoy clear domination at set-piece time. With four of New Zealand’s starting front-five having played in that Crusaders game the hope was that history would repeat itself for Gatland’s men in order to give them a strong platform from which to attack the All Blacks. However the match turned into a nightmare with the New Zealand forwards quickly gaining a stranglehold on the match. In Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane and returning captain Kieran Read, the All Blacks had the three outstanding players in the match and coupled with a strong effort from the rest of the pack, the Lions struggled to get any front-foot ball. Man-of-the-match Read produced a colossal performance for his side with 18 carries and 8 tackles made as well as two line-out wins – made all the more remarkable considering he was returning after nearly two months out with injury. In the battle at the breakdown New Zealand open-side flanker Cane was also instrumental with 9 tackles and two turnovers made and he was helped by team-mate Retallick who also won two turnovers. In contrast despite their best efforts the Lions back-row of O’Mahony, O’Brien and Faletau struggled to influence proceedings, often being slower than their opposite numbers to the breakdown. The scrum and line-outs went well for the Lions with the line-outs in particular being a success with just one line-out lost in comparison to New Zealand’s five. However having targeted the set-piece as an area to attack New Zealand the ease with which the All Blacks shoved the Lions back at times will be a concern and whilst the New Zealand front-five were busy in the loose carrying and making tackles, the Lions front-five were much quieter and with 11 penalties conceded indiscipline was also an issue for the tourists.
Attack the best form of defence
If the pack struggled for the Lions, the same could not have been said of their backline. Having been criticised for much of the tour for not showing enough spark and imagination in attack, the Lions backs displayed some much-needed improvement with their running game. Right from the start of the match the Lions attack were making inroads with Jonathan Davies making a clean break within the first two minutes, a move which nearly resulted in a try for winger Elliot Daly. The back three of Liam Williams, Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly caused the All Blacks a number of problems and it was full-back Williams who instigated the move that led to a try that many are calling one of the greatest in Lions history. Taking the ball deep in his own 22, full-back Williams shaped to kick before dummying Kieran Read and weaving his way past two New Zealand defenders. With clear space to run he reached halfway before giving the pass to centre Davies who in turn gave the pass out wide to winger Daly. Working their way into New Zealand’s 22 and still with much work to do, Daly fixed his marker with some clever footwork before returning the pass to Davies who after being tackled offloaded the ball to the supporting Sean O’Brien to touch down for a memorable score. With the try coming shortly before half-time Gatland’s side now had the momentum and returning for the second-half trailing New Zealand by just five points, the Lions started from where they left off with Welshman Davies making yet another clean break although this time the move eventually came to nothing for the tourists. By now the All Blacks looked on the ropes and good work from Williams and wing Watson almost saw the Lions in again, but once again the move fizzled out and New Zealand eventually regained control with Ioane running in two tries before Rhys Webb grabbed a consolation at the end. The Lions may well have shown promise in attack but the moments of class in the match often came from the hosts. In collecting a pass out wide near enough off his bootlaces to run in for a try, New Zealand hooker Codie Taylor produced a moment of skill that many within the Lions squad – backs included – would fail to replicate, and Kieran Read’s incredible offload whilst falling down in a scrum started a move which saw Rieko Ioane score New Zealand’s second try and give the hosts some breathing space on the score-board.
On to Wellington
Moving on to the second test in Wellington there are clearly a number of areas that Gatland and his coaching staff will have to assess. The Lions must show greater intensity and aggression both at the breakdown and at the rucks, areas where they allowed New Zealand to gain control far too easily at Eden Park. At set-piece time, the pack must show greater power in pushing the All Blacks back and giving their half-backs more of a platform to work from, with Conor Murray and Owen Farrell given little time and space to dictate the pace of the match in the first test. In attack there must be a cutting down of handling errors throughout the team, whilst despite creating plenty of chances in attack a lack of finishing undone the Lions in Auckland so a more clinical edge is also required for the Wellington test. Despite the Lions being comfortably beaten there is no need for wide-scale changes from Gatland, although changes in the pack may be necessary. Having lost the battle at the breakdown, the athleticism and guile of Maro Itoje and Sam Warburton may see both players come into the starting XV, and there may be changes on the bench in the wake of the Hurricanes game but expect most of the players to be given a chance to atone for their performances in the first test.