Lions must face spark at breakdown or face the final curtain
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
Sam Warburton: Under pressure to deliver after replacing Peter O’mahony.