Monday 18 December 2017

Gaty's Lions are Wales in disguise

O'Brien and Furlong up for Crusaders

Jack McGrath of the British & Irish Lions is tackled by Blues hooker James Parsons at Eden Park, Auckland yesterday. Photo: Getty Images
Jack McGrath of the British & Irish Lions is tackled by Blues hooker James Parsons at Eden Park, Auckland yesterday. Photo: Getty Images

The most important function for any British and Irish Lion is to 'do your job'.

In this regard, Warren Gatland will feel much more at ease with the 22-16 defeat against The Blues than they were with the 13-7 win over the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians.

For, the tour to the Land of the Long White Cloud is all about winning alright - the test series.

Breaking it down into individual performances, Jack McGrath was the best of the eight Irishmen at Eden Park yesterday.

It must be acknowledged how few of the eleven Irishmen have made a test match impact in the opening two matches.

Loose-head prop McGrath will have his hands full against Mako Vunipola from here to the first test on June 24.

Nonetheless, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the mastery of the basics by the 27-year-old at Eden Park.

There wasn't even a hint of discomfort transferred from All Black tight-head Charlie Faumuina at the scrum, McGrath even squeezing out a penalty.

There were 13 tackles made - this was second only to Courtney Lawes' 14 - and none missed and even a precious turnover caused by the heat of his aggression.

Broadening the picture, it will come as no surprise to see how the Welshmen have generally started the tour better than those from the other three nations.

Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones, Ross Moriarty, Justin Tipuric, Toby Faletau, Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny have already pressed their claims.

Dan Biggar looked comfortable in showing some nice touches before his failure of a Head Injury Assessment offered Jonathan Sexton another chance.

Tour captain Sam Warburton will improve with games and Jonathan Davies and George North have yet to show their undoubted class.

Liam Williams is the only man to undermine his test chances.

This was not born out of mediocre form, but back-to-back bad decisions in the air to see a yellow card from Pascal Gauzere against the Blues.

The form of the Welsh brigade is directly related to how similar the game plan is from The Lions, especially given the sparse preparation time available to The Lions.

The single most obvious factor is in the way the scrum-half Webb box-kicked against The Blues.

There was no attempt to kick-to-contest or for touch. It was simply a case of going long.

This landed the ball into the hands of a back-three raised on counter attack rather than a receiver coming under pressure from chasers or a lineout coming under pressure from Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes.

In fairness, The Blues were quick to react to the challenge there in varying their targets.

However, the 'rugby chaos' created from open play is not nearly as manageable as that from first phase play off a lineout where The Lions have all their backs in a row and rushing up.

Ultimately, the tourists were undone by three pieces of brilliance from Steven Luatua, Sonny Bill Williams and Ihaia West for a magical try outside the scope of The Lions skills set.

"There is so much strength in depth in this country," remarked Gatland.

"I don't think there is going to be a lot of difference between some of the Super Rugby sides and the All Blacks.

"These guys have been together for seven months and the All Blacks are coming together cold."

There is a reasonable point there in that The Lions will have played six matches by the time the first test comes around.

"We talk about the Test match series and the preparation and go back to 2013 when we won the first game against the Barbarians and we won by 70," he recalled.

"We won the next game against Western Force by 60 and it wasn't great preparation for the Test matches.

"We will have learned a lot (about ourselves) and learned a lot about the opposition and I think we will keep improving."

It would be surprising were Conor Murray, Seán O'Brien and Tadhg Furlong not given a start against The Crusaders in Christchurch.

This will be a formidable test at the home of the only unbeaten club in Super Rugby, in the thrust of a 14-match unbeaten stretch.

Should The Lions manage to stun The Crusaders everything that has gone before it will be forgiven and forgotten.

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