So two games into the tour and the Lions have suffered their first setback at the hand of the Blues, but was it all bad news for the boys in red? Let’s be honest, there were moments of grubby rugby and the ever-present effect of a team that haven’t fully gelled being played out by the Lions on Wednesday morning, but I do feel that the intensity of the backs has improved. Whereas the Barbarians were met head on by a wrecking ball of heavyweight forwards activity which in part was forced by the lack of line speed out back, this game did have a slightly better tempo to it and the pack could do their job as the backs did start to create space out wide and get around the extremities of the field, and I can see that things are getting better, but they need to get better quickly.
Problems identified in this game? Narrow defence, penalty rate and organisation! We all know that the Kiwis like to play expansive rugby, quick ball, quick feet, brutal accuracy, so what you cannot have is a situation where half of the England team are camped within 20 feet of a ruck whilst the opposition are quietly reorganising their back line to come screaming down the wings, it is asking for trouble, and it presented itself when Rieko Ioane didn’t need asking twice after just 6 minutes, as he hit the gas and went sailing down the side of a badly organised Lions line. In fairness they did tighten up after this and for the best part of the game, you could see them coming away with another tight, crucial win but nothing could have stopped the absolute surgical accuracy of SBW’s offload to Ihaia West in the 73rd which left him just enough space to pin his ears back and go over the wash, straight down the middle. I could depressingly watch that try over and over again, there were elements of witchcraft in how that one played out.
So, what was good? We do have some players that are putting in very good performances, but it is now up to Gatland and Howley to figure out how the leading act get supported by the rest of the players. Faletau had a stonking first half against the Barbarians and looks nailed on to make a test shirt if his running and commitment remain at such a high level. Itoje is as Itoje does, he has brutal line speed defence and physicality, but most importantly at the moment, he is consistent in both areas, and if you wanted a man to be able to chase down a haul down a marauding Kiwi, then you’d definitely have him on your shortlist. Ken Owens had a great game against the Blues and carried ball excellently, I will be more than a little amazed if Gatland hasn’t already stamped his name on a test shirt. I’m waiting to see those little flashes of magic and inspiration from Elliot Daly, but I think he is going to be pivotal going forwards, his ability to play numerous positions his lightning turn of pace and what so far has proven to be a safe pair of hands collecting quick ball, I think he will do well.
The Crusaders are next up on the agenda and it is crucial for the Lions to take everything they have got in terms of grit and determination to grind out a decent win and turn around the “break” situation into a “make” one. It will be interesting to see what dynamic Alun Wyn Jones will bring as captain on Saturday, and with the Crusaders being in-form at the moment, it will be a proper test of tactical ability and agility to quickly assess and adapt to the game that is being bought to them.
There is a way to go, but I can still see this Lions outfit turning everything around before the tests and taking a strong battle to the All Blacks.