Lions under fire over selections, on fire upfront

Date published: June 17 2017

Second-half dominance will have won over doubters, begrudgingly, that the Lions tactics can be effective in New Zealand.

Lions tours rarely run smoothly but the last 24 hours have raised the bar for the 2017 edition, from the outrage at four call-ups from Wales and two from Scotland due to “geographical reasons”, to the high of putting away a dangerous Maori All Blacks side.

Starting with the furore over those selections, the logic of Warren Gatland opting to call up Kristian Dacey, Tomas Francis, Cory Hill and Gareth Davies with the quartet all nearby in Auckland is obvious.

So too Allan Dell and Finn Russell of Scotland, fresh from putting away the Wallabies. The Lions need bodies off the bench against the Chiefs and Hurricanes and all six can arrive with no jet lag – Hill also trained with the Lions squad in Wales.

None of it however feels right. Of the six players called up only Russell and Davies were truly in the frame for the original squad selection back in April, and even then they were outsiders, especially for a bet on rugby.

When location matters more over merit, then something has gone wrong. It has happened before of course – think Andy Nicol in 2001, plus Tom Court (on holiday in Australia) and Shane Williams (playing in Japan) four years ago. But never on a mass scale like this, unrelated to injuries, at a designated time in the tour.

Better players have missed out due to being in Argentina or JapanĀ on the basis of proximity to New Zealand, despite the fact that they could have been informed mid-week to be in camp by the weekend. Those Tests for England and Ireland are irrelevant.

Instead of accusations about the value of the shirt, imagine how strong the Lions would appear off the back of Saturday’s win and with Dylan Hartley, WP Nel, Joe Launchbury or Jonny Gray, Danny Care, Cian Healy and one of Russell or George Ford now in reserve for the game against the Chiefs.

Some of the heat has been taken out of the uproar as a result of the accomplished win over the Maori All Blacks. Gatland might not like the term ‘Warrenball’ but there is no denying the formula was a success in the wet in Rotorua. The win may even bore many into appreciating the style named after him.

Conor Murray’s kicking was incessant and accurate, forcing errors out of James Lowe at full-back that suggested he will find life at the RDS in winter a good challenge when he joins Leinster.

The tight five, containing four Saracens plus Tadgh Furlong, were superior again as they were in Christchurch, nailing down starting spots in the Tests. That would mean no Alun Wyn Jones, whose leadership and work-rate are hard to fault, but the current unit clearly works well together.

Johnny Sexton had his best game of the tour, one miraculous kick right into the corner flag a sign of his renewed confidence, while as Gatland said afterwards Ben Te’o continues to improve with each game, finishing with 12 carries for 70 metres.

There are still problems. Soft penalties in the first half undid the Lions’ best work yet again, the defining image being Mako Vunipola slapping Furlong on the backside in frustration after he failed to release at the breakdown.

Once those were cut out, conceding no penalties in the second half after four in the first, all ran smoothly.

More importantly the Lions’ lack of proficency in attack is yet to resolve itself. Making three clean breaks to one by the Maori, Davies’ burst through in the first half had to be followed up by a try.

And when Te’o roamed free in the closing stages on yet another impressive run, so isolated was he as the only red shirt in acres of green grass that he looked as though he was about to win by five lengths at Royal Ascot.

The Lions’ up-the-jumper power tactic is firing on all cylinders, but that unquestionably will not be enough to win the Test series. It feels unlikely that Leigh Halfpenny – who did his chances no harm here – will routinely knock over 20 points in each Test. They simply have to take those try-scoring chances.

Better discipline and execution can make this is a very interesting series, and the Lions will have learnt plenty from a hit-out with Jaco Peyper on the whistle, Sam Warburton noticeably trying to keep him on-side late in the contest after an off-the-ball scuffle.

On a day when the Lions needed to silence a few critics they certainly ticked that box, subduing what on paper was a talented Maori side. No, it was not pretty. And they will not care one bit.

by Ben Coles