Lions expose soft underbelly of New Zealand rugby

Author
Chris Rattue, NZ Herald,
Section
Rugby,
Publish Date
Wednesday, 21 June 2017, 6:44PM
 Lions captain Ken Owens looks on during the match between the Auckland Blues and the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park. (Photo \ Getty Images)
Lions captain Ken Owens looks on during the match between the Auckland Blues and the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park. (Photo \ Getty Images)

New Zealand rugby took another blow to the ego as an increasingly impressive Lions team ripped the embarrassing Chiefs apart in Hamilton.

Overblown haka performances aside, it's been the British and Irish Lions who have done the most impressive stamping, made the ground shake, since their early fumblings in the north.

Sir Graham Henry was among those who believed the Lions had accepted an itinerary from hell, but hardly anyone envisaged that the flames would be singeing New Zealand rugby's reputation.

There was also plenty of talk that the match against the Chiefs this week was a nuisance. Think again, again. In the great touring traditions, a pre-test performance has given the Lions impetus, with players ranging from stoic tighthead prop Dan Cole to the back three also making strong test selection statements.

Throw in that the Blues, yes the horrible Blues, have had to carry New Zealand's reputation somewhat, and this has actually been the tour of constant surprises. Hopefully the professional clubs in Europe are taking note, that they don't start umming and ahing in their various languages and dialects about releasing players for the famous red jersey in future.

No matter what happens in the test series, Warren Gatland's muscular troops have already poked a big hole in a soft New Zealand rugby underbelly.

There is no doubting the quality of New Zealand rugby's top layer, both the players and Steve Hansen's coaching/selecting unit. But players both well known (think Damian McKenzie, Richie Mo'unga) and not so much (the Chiefs wannabes) have been unmasked as inept pretenders by the Big Red Tide.

The suspicion that New Zealand's prowess has been over-stated by the Australian and South African travails is being highlighted by a touring side which upped the tempo despite flying ring-ins to Hamilton.

Lions jersey devalued? Well before fulltime, it was the Chiefs jersey which had been cleverly un-stitched and ironed out.

Whereas the famous Lions of 1971 showed us how to kick around the corner, the 2017 squad has been an education in how to play straight ahead.

Highly regarded teams - Crusaders, Maori All Blacks and Chiefs - have run into a stone wall when they have had the ball, which has not been very often. The Lions have been masters of protecting the ball - it's hard to remember a genuine Andrew Hore-class steal against them. To keep the Hore theme going, the Lions are proving masters of the seal, as in sealing off the ball.

They have also dominated in the air, although this is actually why I think the All Blacks will narrowly prevail this Saturday at Eden Park. Once the Lions come up against all round aerial command, from Sam Whitelock, Ben Smith and co., they will be starved of the possession they have found so easy to regain and maintain around the country. Their scrum-penalty-lineout routine won't rule so easily, either.

But this is shaping as one hell of an opening test.

Not that this will probably comprise the bench, but Gatland could inject significant second half impact if he parked Jack McGrath, Kyle Sinckler and Maro Itoje on the bench.

I'm with Graham Henry on that one - Alun Wyn Jones to start, with Itoje the game changer. The Lions could match the All Blacks toe-to-toe with replacements, an area where Hansen's troops almost always have the advantage.

And of course, the Lions kick goals from everywhere particularly if they include Elliot Daly, who can call for the tee on his side of halfway.

As for the mind games, and the Dirty War the Lions must engage in, Gatland is playing it well. As the failed 2005 Lions coach Clive Woodward explained, Gatland is getting in the referees' ears already, trying to encourage every penalty he can.

The All Blacks have Beauden Barrett, who is very hard to beat, and the rapid fire passing of Aaron Smith will dilute the Lions up-and-at-'em defensive wall. But Smith can get jittery behind a battling pack. And the All Blacks may have a few midfield holes providing a point of momentum for the Lions.

The Lions probably aren't built to chase the All Blacks. They will be desperate to score first - drop goal or penalty - and sew seeds of doubt in the All Blacks, whose captain Kieran Read will be puffing early after two months on the sideline.

On the noise factor, the Lions' fans pack a punch while New Zealand spectators are quite capable of taking themselves out of the equation, nervously observing rather than wholeheartedly supporting unless you count Mexican waves.

And holy guacamole, those All Black fans have something to be nervous about, which is no bad thing.

-NZ Herald

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