After the highs of beating the previously undefeated Crusaders in Christchurch, the British and Irish Lions were brought back down to earth with a bump on Tuesday.
Despite showing some promising signs of attacking cohesion, the Lions failed to exert the same level of control over the Highlanders that they had shown with such aplomb against the Crusaders.
The loss adds further fuel to the fire that this weekend’s clash with the Maori All Blacks, a team packed with so much quality and strategically scheduled a week out from the beginning of the series with New Zealand, has become the unofficial fourth Test of the Lions tour.
It is this game when we will likely get our first real glimpse of Warren Gatland’s Test squad and be able to evaluate how far along they are in the preparations to take on New Zealand. When Gatland’s Lions side in 2013 took on the Waratahs a week before the first Test with Australia, 20 of the 23 players picked went on to feature in the first Test.
With that in mind, we take a look at where the Lions are in their preparations heading into this pivotal tour match, what is working well, where do they need they to improve and a prediction at what the squad may look like when they take to the pitch in Rotorua on Saturday.
The Lions have enjoyed set-piece dominance for much of the tour so far, most notably so in the game against the Crusaders and the first 60 minutes against the Highlanders.
The lineout has been a reliable source of attacking ball – with the exception of the late wobbles against the Blues – and defensively the Lions have been able to steal or at least muddy opposition ball with relative regularity. Courtney Lawes has multiple steals in limited playing time, whilst Peter O’Mahony and Maro Itoje have also put their hands up with their ability to read opposition hookers and lineout callers. O’Mahony’s performance against All Black Sam Whitelock could be a significant ace up his sleeve when it comes to selection.
From an attacking perspective, George Kruis had a lot of success calling that lineout against the Crusaders and it was a rock-solid platform for the team against an all-All Black tight five.
At the scrum, performances have been similarly impressive, aside from the late wobble in Dunedin. Discipline has been an issue for the Lions and something that will be touched on later, but the scrum has been a facet of the game where the Lions have been able to exert pressure on the Kiwi sides and come out on the better side of the penalty count.
Tadhg Furlong has been uncompromising at tighthead, Jamie George and Ken Owens have both stood up at hooker, whilst all three looseheads have compiled solid tour portfolios so far. Kyle Sinckler has displayed his considerable ability in the loose and has singled himself out as one of the Lions’ potentially more devastating impact subs.
In all honesty, the Lions have had some significant defensive lapses in their four games so far, but with the way the Test XV looks to be shaping up, you have to lean heavily on that performance against the Crusaders when trying to evaluate the team, as many of those players will likely start against both the Maori All Blacks and New Zealand.
They restricted the standout side in Super Rugby, who have scored the second most points in the competition this season, to just three points over 80 minutes. That’s the least amount of points the Crusaders have ever been held to in a home Super Rugby match.
Impressive line-speed, great defensive communication and a back three who had their positioning nailed were at the core of this effort.
Defence will almost always click before attack on a tour like this, especially if the conditioning to run an aggressive press for 80 minutes and the leaders able to read the game and organise their teammates around them is there, and this is a great foundation for the Lions to build out from. Defence can set-up and feed into attack from anywhere on the pitch and given the lack of prep time the Lions have together, they will need it to do just that over the coming weeks.
In terms of these “defensive generals” who take on the roles of on-field coaches, Kruis, Owen Farrell, Alun Wyn Jones and Robbie Henshaw have all shone in the opening matches.
It’s an age-old story for northern hemisphere sides travelling south in the summer, but with the exception of the Crusaders game, the Lions have struggled to stay on the right side of referees, particularly at the breakdown.
Taking the Crusaders game out of the equation, the Lions have conceded 36 penalties so far on tour, compared to just 27 from the three other sides they have faced. Admittedly, in the game with the Crusaders they conceded just seven to the Crusaders’ total of ten, so there is an argument that the majority of the probable Test squad are infringing less frequently.
On the other hand, that game was refereed by Frenchman Mathieu Raynal and there was a noticeable northern hemisphere influence to the way he adjudicated the set-piece and breakdown.
With Jérôme Garcès and Romain Poite taking charge of the final two Tests against New Zealand, there is reason for Lions fans to be optimistic about the games being refereed in a fashion that northern hemisphere teams are used to, but it would be dangerous for the Lions to rely on that being the case.
The breakdown has been the source of most of the Lions problems with the law and this should play into the hands of O’Mahony, Lawes and Sean O’Brien, all of whom have been excellent in this area.
This seems to be the area where Lions fans have been most frustrated about the team’s performance.
Going into the game with the Highlanders on Tuesday, the Lions had only managed to score two tries in 240 minutes of rugby and there was a feeling of discontent about the coherency and effectiveness of the Lions’ attacking gameplan, as well as their ability to execute it.
Truthfully, simplicity may be the Lions’ best friend on such a demanding tour as this one, but nevertheless, they showed against the Highlanders flashes of their ability to go through the phases, demonstrate composure and expose weaknesses in the opposition defence.
Both Jonathan Joseph’s and Sam Warburton’s tries were well constructed and though the performance as a whole fell short of the one they showed against the Crusaders, certain players did put up their hands and earn consideration for the Test squad.
Ben Te’o’s ability to break the gain-line consistently has helped those around him, whilst Taulupe Faletau’s eagerness to float wide and impact the game beyond the tight has also been noticeable.
Farrell was at the heart of a cohesive performance against the Crusaders, Mako Vunipola has been at the forefront of the ball-playing forwards and Anthony Watson showed a cutting edge from deep, when he replaced an injured Stuart Hogg in Christchurch.
One area where the Lions must improve before the Tests, lest they play straight into Steve Hansen’s hands, is with their tactical kicking.
Again, putting aside the game with the Crusaders, where Farrell, Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton kicked very well, the Lions’ poor kicking has been surprising and disappointing in equal measure. New Zealand may be the masters of the craft in terms of controlling territory via the boot, but the likes of Rhys Webb, Greig Laidlaw, Dan Biggar and Jared Payne will have expected more of themselves.
So often kicks are too long and not given enough air, allowing Kiwi back threes to take the ball under no or little pressure, whilst kicks to the wing have rarely made the Kiwi defenders turn and give the advantage to the chasing Lions.
With the Blues and Highlanders dominating that kicking battle and powerful carriers like Rieko Ioane and Waisake Naholo running on to Lions kicks, the ability to generate any kind of territorial platform was missing.
The importance of Murray to the Lions in the Tests cannot be underestimated, whilst a midfield boasting both Farrell and Sexton has seen the Lions at their best so far this tour, despite Gatland insisting both players are fly-halves and jostling for the ten jersey.
When you look at the talent at Gatland’s disposal, it is understandable that fans are frustrated that the Lions have coughed and spluttered their way through three of their four tour games so far, but invitational touring is so much more than putting together a XV of players and having them perform at the level we all expect of them in their club or international teams.
The Lions have shown growth throughout the tour to date and, honestly, these last four games will be considered completely irrelevant if Gatland can muster together the bulk of his Test 23 and put in an emphatic performance against a Maori side that is littered with All Black-calibre talent.
The last thing the Lions need is to be pressured into playing an expansive game, when the All Blacks will respond with pragmatism. New Zealand will kick, play territory, defend well and then take their chances when they arise. The Lions cannot be afraid of doing the same thing.
If this were England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales touring New Zealand it may be a different proposition, but the Lions just don’t have that same level of familiarity with each other. If they don’t match the All Blacks’ pragmatism and tactical nous with their own and end up geting caught up in frenetic, harum-scarum clashes, New Zealand will put them away in ruthless fashion.
Gatland is not one to bow to outside pressure in terms of how his side should play, so the prospects of the Lions falling into that trap seem unlikely, but don’t expect the barbs from the hosts of “toothless Lions” to go away anytime soon.
The Lions have stumbled against the Blues and Highlanders, but the progress of the group as a whole is noticeable, if not spectacular. This is where the tour diverges, though, from a group of 41 players desperately trying to impress and catch the eye, to a preferred 23 looking for chemistry and fine-tuning, with the remaining 18 ready to step up if called upon.
The dress rehearsal for the Tests comes on Saturday and the 23 players picked for that game can erase all frustrations with a strong showing, not to mention sparking hope in their expectant fanbase.
Alex Shaw’s squad to play Maori All Blacks (and Tests)
Lions: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Ben Te’o, 11 George North, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 George Kruis, 4 Alun Wyn Jones, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Mako Vunipola
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Maro Itoje, 20 Courtney Lawes/Sean O’Brien, 21 Rhys Webb, 22 Jonathan Sexton, 23 Liam Williams