Monday 18 December 2017

Gatland must find a working system

Lions coach Warren Gatland faces some difficult decisions. Photo: PA
Lions coach Warren Gatland faces some difficult decisions. Photo: PA

One thing is becoming pretty evident on this hellish Lions tour of New Zealand. What you can get away with on previous Lions tours - gel together the best of European rugby in a couple of weeks - is not good enough to beat many of New Zealand's top teams.

Lions coach Warren Gatland was right about one thing in his early team selections. Playing combinations of players that have played together for their own countries was the right approach in principle.

But this tour in particular never had any easy games to begin with, unlike previous tours to Australia and South Africa. This tour is like no other, where every match apart from the opener is of test intensity.

If Gatland thought that 'Warrenball' could work in New Zealand then he must think again. Gatland and backs coach Rob Howley's game plan may have worked well enough for Wales but is not good enough in a country that keeps reinventing the game.

The difference in skill levels between the two hemispheres, so evident at the last World Cup, is again proving the major difference. While the Lions were much more cohesive in Auckland and scored a well-worked forwards try courtesy of Ireland No 8 C J Stander it was still fairly predictable stuff, a blunt force instrument competing against a sharp knife.

The final try by Ihaia West that sealed the win for the jubilant Blues (the worst performing New Zealand franchise this year by the way) was sublime in both set-up and execution. Minutes after Lions replacement props Joe Marler and the sometimes over-excitable Kyle Sinckler had slapped backs and hugged after they thought that their superior scrum had created the match-winning penalty, the Blues simply came again. A superb out the back off- load by rampaging No 8 Steven Luatua was equally matched by another from the irrepressible Sonny Bill Williams. The angle and pace from West was superb and left Johnny Sexton and others flat-footed and staring into space.

The try was at a different level, one not yet matched by a Lions team who while industrious, had nobody that looked like carving up a pretty stiff Blues defence. Auckland had plenty of X factor type players.

All Black winger Rieko Loane, who made England's boy wonder Jack Nowell look decidedly average, No 8 Luatua and of course the game's outstanding player Sonny Bill Williams all found plenty of holes in the Lions defence.

While the hosts were using width and offloading skill, the Lions were playing crash ball in around the rucks. It started well enough and was probably the right approach given the slippery conditions. But when the Blues worked the Lions out, Gatland's team had no Plan B. They simply couldn't play another way.


The introduction of Sexton did give the visitors some much-needed width but for most of the game the Lions attack had little zing to it. They looked too compressed and the main ball-carriers never looked to link up with players running angles but just buried their heads in an effort to smash through a resolute defence.

The Lions can still play the way they do in the Six Nations but they need to take more chances. The Auckland game plan was simple enough, crash one or two of their big carriers in close, then use long loopy cut out passes to their danger men like Loane.

Naively, the Lions bit in defensively. They will see much more of the same strategy this weekend against the Crusaders. New Zealand's philosophy is about producing faster, multi-skilled players who can play the game with width and with skill.

Gatland still has time to adjust, and the Lions set-piece game, apart from Rory Best's mind fog at the end, is very good. They dominated the scrums and lineouts and there were pretty good performances from Welsh scrumhalf Rhys Webb, Stander, Jack McGrath, Robbie Henshaw, Justin Tuperic as well as the English second row pairing of Itoje and Lawes.

The Lions need to unleash the game-breakers. They must prepare for the long passing game and they need to get their defensive line-speed and organisation spot on before tomorrow.

Tthat means coming up in an even, organised line. It also means making their first-up tackles. The Lions also need better tactical awareness in keeping New Zealand teams pinned into the corners and using their superior tight game.

New Zealand teams want the Lions to try and run from deep, they encourage it, so the Lions must play patience and territory first. At the moment it is just a bunch of individuals. That's understandable but Gatland needs a discernible Lions style of play. That must start with better defence and wider attack.

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