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
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.