By The Spotter
Playing more Thunderball than Warrenball, the Lions lived the high life for good portions of the Eden Park first test, but ultimately their faltering habits near the tryline and the instinctive off-loading skills of the All Blacks condemned them to a gallant defeat. Along that line, there really is something to be said for the way our guys are literally raised with a footy ball in their hands, as opposed to feeling the leather pigskin for the first time at a public grammar school.
What a right royal bruiser of a game she was, but played out with superb skill and bona fide tension. And with not one even semi-squalid incident, as a match of such high stakes and intensity could well have produced. Great credit then to all the combatants and match officials alike that such an uncompromising encounter was also a clean one.
It evolved into one of the best test matches in world rugby in recent memory. And it delivered quite a bit more than promised- did anyone apart from perhaps the Lions’ inner sanctum really envisage that the comparatively fragile-looking Liam Williams would become one of the match’s genuine stars?
Two opposing narratives emerged. The All Blacks were let off the hook of defeat by some keystone cops-type butchering of scoring chances from their opponent. Conversely, they ravenously devoured every one that came their way.
The final points gap was rather flattering for New Zealand. What it highlighted of course was that the Lions’ affliction of not being able to finish movements with the goal line beckoning still bedevilled them. Ben Te’o probably would have rated an 8 to a 9 for his match performance, but that moment in the second half when he didn’t flip the ball on with a couple of players outside on the overlap should see him downgraded to a 7. It was a critical juncture and it allowed the All Blacks to escape when they just may have been tamed.
Sean O’Brien was as usual a class act and tackler supreme, but could not quite exert the influence of the All Black loose forwards. Kieran Read, in a profile on match-day morning divulged his very personal goal of being remembered as a great All Black and if he were to retire before next week, the display he put on would go a long way towards confirming that very status. He was quite simply devastating in everything he did. Added to that the All Black lineout functions like an altogether different mechanism when Read is present in it. And his scooped pass from the scrum rabble that led to Rieko Ioane’s first try? In a word…wow.
In keeping his detractors and others in waiting at arms length for a little longer, Sam Cane responded with a strong overall performance and made a heap of telling tackles. At one point he effected a quite freakish turnover in the first half in basically stealing the ball straight out of Peter O’Mahony’s cradled arms. It was certainly an act of great physical strength. And he needed to show out, because Ardie Savea when he came on demonstrated just how dynamic he can be. Have you just about ever seen anyone who steadfastly refuses to die with the ball as Savea? The man just doesn’t know when he is tackled. He is a dodgem attached to a pogo stick.
Brodie Retallick was, as normal, immense, particularly in the first half. Comparing his dynamism to Alun Wyn-Jones and you would have to say that the Welshman is nearly ready for his pipe and slippers on that insipid performance. It proved that not starting with Itoje was a fairly sizeable selectorial blunder, as obviously the Lions’ plan was to run at the All Blacks in the first half.
Hansen and his group proved that they were thinking ahead of all the hacks and armchairmen of selectors throughout the nation with their pick of Israel Dagg on the right wing. He possibly has never played a better defensive test. He practically was Rieko Ioane’s guardian angel. And those raking punts of his are a great pressure breaker.
In the wrap up, the All Blacks won because their forwards were stronger in contact and far more athletic all over the pitch. And because the whole team as a collective could finish properly. And they had more speed- Radio Sport’s Daniel McHardy summed it up well on Friday: Beauden Barrett to Owen Farrell is a Lambourghini to a Lada.
You get the feeling that the Lions will not be able to play much better than they did, apart from rectifying how to not to panic from within ten metres of the opposition goal line. On the other side, the All Blacks only just coped with and repulsed the Lions’ open tactics of the first half, but will be pleased with their patience in finding their way through some ‘Warrenwall’-type defence in the second.
Lions forwards coach Graham Rowntree may now wish to slightly upgrade his opinion of the All Black forwards as being ‘an efficient, honest forward pack’. Dynamic and bruising could be a little closer to the mark, thank you sir.
Really, the Lions will be kicking themselves all the way out of bed this morning though- they had numerous chances to ‘live’, but fumbled and stumbled a bit too much and finally let ‘die’.