You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Warren Gatland dreams of having last laugh but Lions must stay tight

The Guardian logo The Guardian 18/06/2017 Paul Rees
Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach, has received criticism about his side’s restricted style of play. © Getty Images Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach, has received criticism about his side’s restricted style of play.

History, ancient and modern, points to the Lions being outroared by New Zealand. The All Blacks warmed up for the series by amassing 78 points and 12 tries against Samoa. When asked what the Lions would need in Saturday’s first Test, the Samoa captain, Kahn Fotuali’i, replied: “Luck.”

As well as tries, luck has largely eluded them so far. The loss of the No8 Billy Vunipola before the tour was compounded by the thigh injury suffered by Owen Farrell in training, a Lion the All Blacks would find space for. It would be no surprise if Warren Gatland gave Farrell until the day of the game to prove his fitness, even if his chances of playing were minimal, to make New Zealand prepare for two different teams.

Steve Hansen has been unusually biting in his remarks in the buildup to the series, with the New Zealand head coach saying Gatland has always prepared his sides to play one way, looking to go through opponents rather than round them, and that he was running out of time. “He keeps telling us he has something up his sleeve other than his arm,” he said. “We will wait and see. It will be a big move if he changes.”

Hansen added pointedly that the All Blacks employed a style they liked which involved using the ball a lot, as if goading Gatland to abandon the tight, organised game the Lions employed against the Crusaders and the Maori All Blacks, triumphs based on forward domination, suffocating defence and tactical kicking. New Zealand would like nothing more than for the Lions to try to match them in kind, keeping the ball alive and off-loading, knowing it is a game they are the more skilled in. After the hosts dazzled against Samoa, the Lions stuck to their script in Rotorua, dominant but far from fluent.

Gatland will not fall for it but equally he knows that to repeat the results against the Crusaders and the Maori All Blacks, his team will have to finish with an aplomb that has proved elusive. The series will be a contrast in styles, tight and loose, as it was in 1971, the Lions’ one successful tour of New Zealand, when it was the All Blacks who were ridiculed for their one-dimensional approach and the tourists lionised for their skill and daring.

Yet in the first Test, one of only two openers they have won in New Zealand, both in Dunedin, they owed their victory to pluck and luck, defending waves of attacks and scoring their try directly from a charged-down kick. Defence will be key on Saturday, as will discipline and holding on to the ball. Despite Hansen’s jibes, the All Blacks do not run the ball for the sake of it: they believe in the certainty of chance, looking to use set pieces to launch attacks and exploit the 10- or 20-metre gaps between the back divisions and using turnovers to exploit a defence in scrambling mode.

They are not a team that run for the sake of it, rarely taking play through multiple phases, kicking if a defence has not been unpicked after three or four. Mistakes are their currency, as Gatland, knows.

It is the mix of skill and steel that makes the All Blacks so formidable, artists and artisans, physically and mentally strong. They can crack under sustained pressure, as they did against Ireland in Chicago in November, but not very often and rarely at home.

Much has been made of the Eden Park factor, the ground that will host the first and last Tests where New Zealand have not lost at since 1994, but it is seven years since they were last defeated in front of their own supporters, 32-29 by South Africa in Hamilton. Since then, they have made home advantage count in 46 internationals and this century they have been beaten only six times in one of their stadiums, and only three times in the past 14 years.

It sums up the size of the task of a squad that has been together for less than a month and been given shockingly inadequate preparation time, but even so they will be the strongest side New Zealand have faced since winning the 2015 World Cup and for a while before that. The All Blacks were able to indulge themselves against the sacrificial Samoans and blitz a few cobwebs but as preparation for what is to come in the next three weekends, it was superficial.

The Lions, in contrast, will be battle-hardened, if sporting some scars. Their task will be that bit more demanding if Farrell does not play. His absence would probably mean Leigh Halfpenny, an equally accurate goal-kicker, starting at full-back rather than the more attacking Anthony Watson, and a solid midfield of Jonathan Davies and either Robbie Henshaw or Ben Te’o. Gatland’s instinct has always been to play Farrell at 10 but the way the England man combined fluently with Johnny Sexton when the latter came on as a first-half replacement for Davies against the Crusaders and played at fly-half opened the coach’s mind to the pair both starting the first Test.

His chance to look at the combination again against the Maori All Blacks was thwarted when injury forced Farrell off the bench but much of the Lions’ preparation will have been done in training, away from New Zealand’s gaze. It may explain why Elliot Daly, who can play in three positions, has been underemployed so far, starting only one of the first five matches, and why the wings have largely remained rooted to their flanks, even Jack Nowell, a player who in Exeter and England jerseys operates without a number on his back, although they roamed at times on Saturday.

While the Lions’ approach in the first Test will be to use possession to win territory and suck the All Blacks into a scrap, which they did so effectively against the Maori when they gave their opponents little latitude in the loose and muted the fly-half Damian McKenzie as they will need to do to Beauden Barrett, they will have been working on attacking off turnover possession. If looking to match New Zealand in kind is futile, they will need to exploit mistakes with similar ruthlessness. There has been debate about whether Sam Warburton should start in the back row given his lack of match fitness but he is the Lions’ most effective breakdown burglar and he gets on the right side of referees. Maro Itoje’s plundering skills and his ubiquity leave Gatland with a dilemma in the second row.

The Lions’ penalty count has been high enough in matches they have not controlled to ensure defeat if it is repeated in the first Test. The match referee, Jaco Peyper, took charge of Ireland’s defeat to New Zealand in Dublin last November when he was criticised for conniving at challenges that were felt to have strayed across the border of foul play. The media will this week be used to exert pressure on him by both sides but officials today like to give players a long rein and it will be up to the Lions to shorten it by forcing him to get involved, as they did against the Maori. Ireland lost three players to injuries in the first half that day, including Sexton and Henshaw, proof that for all the All Blacks’ finesse, they can mix it.

A series against New Zealand is, for any side, the ultimate test. The All Blacks are at their most vulnerable in the first match of a rubber, as Wales found last year, England in 2014 and France in 2013, and where recent history offers succour to the Lions is their record in the opening Test. They have won three from five in the professional era, as many as they have in the final two games of their series. New Zealand in 2005 was among the blanks and since 1971 they have won only two Tests there. They are not expected to make it three this tour and Gatland’s coaching methods have been sneered at in his home country. He can take it as a compliment: a team used to dancing to its own tune does not want to feel the strain.

More from The Guardian

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon