New Zealand are edgy – and they are right to be

Do not be fooled by the air of All Blacks in­vin­ci­bil­ity: the lo­cals have been rat­tled by the re­cent Lions dis­plays. Now the tourists need to cap­i­talise at Eden Park

The Daily Telegraph - - British & Irish - Will Green­wood

New Zealand nerves creep up and spread like a Christchurch mist. They weigh on the players, qui­eten the crowd and it makes win­ning rugby matches much harder. I have seen it be­fore, in the 2011 World Cup fi­nal. The mo­ment Thierry Dusautoir, France’s war­rior cap­tain, re­versed the haka chal­lenge, a sta­dium shifted un­com­fort­ably in their seats.

The game meant so much to the All Blacks, the op­por­tu­nity to win the ul­ti­mate prize on home soil, that it al­most hob­bled them. The anx­i­ety was pal­pa­ble, it spread to the players, and New Zealand crawled over the line.

Today, as the All Blacks, the world’s best team, pre­pare to take on the Bri­tish and Ir­ish Lions in the first Test in Auck­land, the coun­try is rat­tled. They are not quak­ing in their boots, but there is no doubt that con­cerns have crept in.

Three weeks ago, this was not the case. This won­der­ful coun­try re­tained its justly earned air of rugby su­pe­ri­or­ity. The Lions were given re­spect, and lit­tle else. Re­cent re­sults against the Waikato Chiefs – de­spite it be­ing a much­weak­ened side – and the Maori All Blacks have changed this. Ian Smith, the leg­endary Kiwi touch­line com­men­ta­tor, was se­ri­ously im­pressed after the Maori game, and he does not do se­ri­ously im­pressed very of­ten.

In truth, even be­fore the Maori game, the cof­fee shops on the es­planade of St Clair last Sun­day were gos­sip­ing away about how “bloody tough these fel­las in red are”. They are right to be con­cerned. The Lions have been build­ing up their per­for­mances in terms of in­ten­sity, con­trol and ex­e­cu­tion, and they have a game plan that not only plays to their strengths but also has the chance to limit the im­pres­sive skill set that New Zealand teams can em­ploy.

It is not built on the bas­ket­ball style of the Su­per Rugby teams, but then there is no point in try­ing to out-all Black the All Blacks. The Lions un­der­stand this. At the heart of their vic­to­ries so far have been the set-piece and de­fence. The South Africans won a World Cup in 2007 with a line-out that no one could touch. Con­trol your own ball and deny a team qual­ity pos­ses­sion from the most fre­quent set-piece and your odds of vic­tory rocket.

An All Black back with­out a set-piece plat­form is like a caged tiger, aes­thet­i­cally im­mense but un­able to dis­play its true grace. At the scrum, the Lions have been shunted, but rarely, and the col­lec­tive brute power has been get­ting wor­ry­ing for the Ki­wis.

They are now a dan­ger­ous scrum unit and that will mat­ter. French­men are ref­er­ee­ing two of the three Tests and if they de­cide that one side is the best for­ward pack, they will rinse the opposition. The Lions will be happy to roll that dice.

Their de­fence, mean­while, has been driven by an ag­gres­sive press that has man­aged to hold some of New Zealand’s best at­tack­ing units try-less. Neg­a­tive? Not in my eyes. Pos­i­tive de­fence is no less of an art than pos­i­tive at­tack. As well as the com­mit­ment to throw bod­ies into the contact ar­eas, there has been real or­gan­i­sa­tion with early set-ups, good spac­ing and clear com­mu­ni­ca­tion that has given the Lions com­fort with­out the ball and seen some very tal­ented New Zealand players run­ning up dead ends and out of op­tions. This de­fen­sive abil­ity has also trans­lated into much better dis­ci­pline, and the penalty count that hurt the Lions so badly in a cou­ple of their ear­lier games has im­proved. After the shocker in Auck­land, only six penal­ties were con­ceded against the Cru­saders. Fewer than 10 and you have a shout.

As a re­sult, the pres­sure on the opposition has been al­lowed to

The longer you keep the All Blacks tight the nervier the home crowd will get

build and it has been am­pli­fied by a kick­ing game and line chase that has ratch­eted up their feel­ing of suf­fo­ca­tion. It is eas­ier to outscore the All Blacks if you can stop them from scor­ing. Which is good news for the Lions, be­cause they have been wast­ing points and when they have cut loose in at­tack, they have been less con­sis­tent. Chances have been missed and this will be their big­gest is­sue to­mor­row. If you fail to take the points you cre­ate, the All Blacks will beat you.

The Lions have been im­prov­ing in this area and they have shown that they have plenty of skills when it comes to at­tack­ing with the ball in hand. They are not look­ing to em­u­late New Zealand’s all-court game when it comes to of­fload­ing, but they are pass­ing the ball with in­creas­ing con­fi­dence in and around contact.

The very best of the Lions players can all han­dle. Even in the down­pour of Ro­torua, the pull­back balls from first-re­ceiver for­wards such as Mako Vu­nipola, Ge­orge Kruis, Taulupe Fale­tau, Peter O’ma­hony and Sean O’brien at times showed what they can do. Cou­pled with the dex­ter­ity of Jamie Ge­orge and Tadhg Fur­long, and the snaf­fling mitts of Alun Wyn Jones or Maro Itoje, and there is ab­so­lutely no ques­tion that the Lions can find width and space.

The Lions have stretched and punc­tured some re­ally good teams. The All Blacks, we all know, are a

Fans have been gos­sip­ing away about how ‘bloody tough these fel­las in red are’

dif­fer­ent beast, es­pe­cially when play­ing at that im­pen­e­tra­ble fortress, Eden Park. War­ren Gat­land’s re­sponse post-blues and High­landers de­feats was to sug­gest the qual­ity in the warm-up games was close to Test-match in­ten­sity. Gat­land is wrong. There is a step up. But even so, the All Blacks are hu­man and they can be rat­tled. The longer you keep them tight, the nervier the crowd will get.

It will trans­late on to the field be­cause for all their bluff and bravado, the Ki­wis are con­cerned. The Lions now need to make sure they give them some­thing to be re­ally wor­ried about for the rest of the se­ries.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.