The build up was intense and the trash talking was flowing but when it came down to the field of play the All Blacks were streets ahead in the first test. I was blown away by their physical intensity and skills and what struck me also was the smart tactics from coach Steve Hansen. They attacked us precisely were we were not expecting it. Their backs had been talked up all week and we in the B & I Lions camp had asserted confidently that despite their incredible back line our pack would really give the home team a thorough testing. We were wary of their backs but instead of moving the ball wide the All Blacks just went straight up the middle with power carry after power carry, off loading to the support runner who as if by magic was always there. I’m not sure their wingers saw much of the ball unless we kicked it to them. In a sort of role reversal our scintillating backs tore it up whilst their forwards built an incredible platform that put us under pressure and they were able to score tries from loose ball. Sigh. It was not meant to be like this and left me pondering where we can go from here.
However optimistic soul that I am let’s look at the good things. Our pack can and will play better than they did on Saturday. Lest we forget this was the third ‘big’ game in a row for this group. The Crusaders was ‘must win’, the Maori All Blacks a ‘must win’ and then after cavorting up and down New Zealand on and off an airplane and attending numerous sponsors events they faced a fully pumped New Zealand side itching to put the Lions in their place. The All Blacks played some of the best rugby I have seen from them and even their fans admitted that to me afterwards. Can they play to the same level again? I thought we looked off the pace because firstly the AB were incredible and incredible teams put pressure on you and force you to make mistakes. Secondly the Lions pack was definitely feeling some tiredness in the body and legs. Itoje when he came on with all his youthful exuberance, mobility and high energy definitely helped in slowing down that fast ball so having him start this weekend is a real plus. Alun Wyn Jones is an interesting one as he probably has not been at his best but he does do lots of unseen stuff and I am pretty sure Gatts will bring him off just after half time to inject the power and energy of Courtney Lawes.
Our backs played some unbelievable rugby. For backs to shine against such a good team as the AB means they were somehow finding the inches of space you need to operate. Liam Williams was joyous to watch and lifted virtually every Lions fan out of their seat when he set off from his own 22 to launch ‘that’ try. Our half backs were contained pretty well but still managed to release their back line and cause problems. I love the fact Jack Nowell has worked his way onto the Test team bench. You can tell a quality international player if the usually at the next level down look the best player on the pitch. At Exeter everytime he plays he does that and I am pretty sure he will make a contribution when he comes on.
Our line out has functioned well and was the one area we had the upper hand against the AB. It was unfortunate that the first break in play to bring replacement hooker Ken Owens onto the field conincided with a crucial line out throw. The line out throw was then lost and ball turned over losing the Lions field position and a real opportunity. That aside I still believe it is a strength and hope we don’t regret dropping the guru Kruis who makes those calls and reads.
The scrum mostly held its own neither dominating or being dominated. The front row deserve another shot that is for sure as well as the bench players. Dan Cole I thought has really lifted his game and could have been in with a shout but playing the full 80 on Tuesday has ruled that out.
Finally despite the number of tries our defence was excellent again. The AB could not break down our defence in the normal way they do to teams so relied on turnover and scrappy ball. With the skills they have they of course can always turn bad ball into good as demonstrated by their hooker who took a ball thrown at his knee caps, caught it and went on to score a try. In other words with some tweaks to the starting XV and a game plan which has obviously shifted with the choice of both Sexton and Farrell in the mid field I do believe the Lions can still snatch a win. Mentally I hope they stay strong and believe in themselves and whatever the scoreline put in a performance that they themselves are proud of. It is all we can ask of them.