Li­ons must face spark at break­down or face the fi­nal cur­tain

Irish Examiner - Sport - - RUGBY -

Three key ar­eas the Li­ons must ad­dress Counter the All Blacks’ break­down in­stincts

I have al­ways be­lieved that if the set piece el­e­ment was taken out of rugby, New Zealand would be un­touch­able. They are so su­pe­rior when it comes to break­down ef­fi­ciency and that, al­lied to a bril­liant skill set through­out the side, make them very dif­fi­cult to sup­press.

They pos­sess an un­canny abil­ity to read a break­down sit­u­a­tion and then make de­ci­sions on the hoof whether to flood the con­tact area in an ef­fort to gen­er­ate a turnover or only com­mit a max­i­mum of two play­ers to slow the re­cy­cle and fill the field.

On the flip side, when in pos­ses­sion, they have be­come mas­ters of the three-sec­ond ruck. They clean out the ball carrier with such ruth­less ef­fi­ciency that not only does their scrum-half Aaron Smith get ball de­liv­ered on a plate, he does so with at least two black jer­seys be­tween him and the near­est Li­ons player.

That makes it very dif­fi­cult for even the best of poach­ers like Sean O’brien to ef­fect a turnover or slow down the ball. As a con­se­quence, Smith barely has a hand laid on him. Con­trast that with Conor Mur­ray who, through­out the first test had to con­tend with ei­ther the long levers of Brodie Retallick or Sam Whitelock at­tempt­ing to block his box kicks or a com­bi­na­tion of Jerome Kaino or Sam Cane pres­suris­ing him in the tackle.

War­ren Gat­land lost out in the war of words with Steve Hansen over the pres­sure ex­erted on Mur­ray and at no stage did I think it was any­where near as dan­ger­ous, from an in­jury per­spec­tive, as the cheap shots put in by some Glas­gow War­riors play­ers ear­lier in the sea­son.

By re­cy­cling pos­ses­sion at the break­down so quickly while still go­ing for­ward, the All Blacks put the Li­ons de­fen­sive line on the back foot and de­nied them the chance to im­ple­ment the suf­fo­cat­ing line speed that closed down the at­tack­ing threat posed by ear­lier op­po­si­tion on tour.

Gat­land’s re­sponse to ad­dress­ing the is­sue is to start an­other for­ager in tour cap­tain Sam War­bur­ton, along with O Brien, at the ex­pense of last week’s cap­tain Peter O’ma­hony. Given that O’ma­hony was de­scribed by for­wards coach Steve Borth­wick as the glue keep­ing the side to­gether and was the main rea­son why the Li­ons caused the All Blacks grief at the line out, he is be­ing harshly treated. It in­creases the pres­sure on War­bur­ton to de­liver as, in ad­di­tion to O’ma­hony, Justin Tipuric and CJ Stander have been far more con­sis­tent on tour.

Test the All Blacks’ men­tal su­pe­ri­or­ity with in­ten­sity

What­ever about the su­pe­ri­or­ity New Zealand car­ried into this se­ries in terms of in­di­vid­ual skillset and su­pe­rior tech­nique, ar­guably their biggest ad­van­tage is in the men­tal stakes.

They are a side well used to per­form­ing un­der pres­sure. You dare not lose in an All Black jer­sey, es­pe­cially when play­ing at home. Even more so in a his­tor­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant se­ries like the Li­ons.

When New Zealand lost the 2007 World Cup quar­ter-fi­nal against France in Cardiff, ex­tend­ing the pe­riod with­out win­ning the cov­eted ti­tle to 20 years, much of their fo­cus there­after shifted to get­ting the men­tal side of their ap­proach right. That has proved cru­cial in de­liv­er­ing back to back World Cups since.

That men­tal edge could prove cru­cial. On the ba­sis that there has to be a mas­sive lift in the in­ten­sity lev­els and phys­i­cal­ity the Li­ons bring to bear to­mor­row, if they fail to match that with a ruth­less men­tal ef­fi­ciency, the se­ries will be over.

The Li­ons will empty ev­ery­thing in the open­ing half of this game in order to build a score and put New Zealand on the back foot. That is ex­actly what hap­pened in one of the most bru­tally phys­i­cal and cap­ti­vat­ing Li­ons tests I have

Pic­ture: Dan Sheri­dan

Sam War­bur­ton: Un­der pres­sure to de­liver af­ter re­plac­ing Peter O’ma­hony.

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