Anyone who watched the opening game of the lions tour can’t have failed to be disappointed with the manner in which the Lions limped over the finish line. Opening games of a Lions tour shouldn’t be like this. They should be statements of intent a chance to stand up and show it’s gone up a level. In short if not a perfect performance then one that should be electric and brimming with intensity.
Sure there are a fair smattering of mitigating factors that need to be taken into consideration. Preparation time from the end of the domestic seasons sees many of the squad backing up less than 10 days after playing the biggest games of the year, which is tough in itself. Additionally having landed a mere 72 hours before this game the horrific travel schedule they’ve had to endure leading into the first game is certainly another. The tiredness and heaviness in the limbs was evident for everyone to see. At times it looked like they were running through treacle and their levels of intensity in contact and reacting to opportunities as they arose I feel showed this.
The one thing that can’t be allowed to drop off though is execution of basic core skills and from some of the most skillful players in the world it just wasn’t there. That in turn impacted heavily on their cohesion and timing which lead to real issues in the Lions finding their rhythm in attack.
They still created opportunities though and with 15 clean breaks and 21 defenders beaten, missed opportunities were plentiful.
Watching the Lions it felt as though it was very much a case of working in small units they were familiar with, and a big issue for me was lack of visible leadership on the pitch. I’m not talking about a captain talking to the ref, or making decision around kicking for sticks. More that spine of a team, the 2, 8, 9, 10, 12 and 15 who should be grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck and setting the agenda.
Perhaps that refers back to the earlier mentioned tiredness but in these early stages of the tour Gatland and co will have desperately wanted his leadership group to stand front and centre.
The expectation would have been for them to take control of the game, and strangle the life out of this sparky Barbarians outfit, with long kicks into the corner allowing the Lions to work their way into their attack patterns in the safety of the opposition 3rd of the pitch. Instead we got no obvious game other than one out runners and that coupled with poor passing accuracy resulted in a terribly flat attack formation with very little depth.
Oddly, though the Lions probably got most joy in the outer channels, the focus remained on one out runners and pods off 9. It was all about winning the gain line first and then trying to play off that front football but despite a few stand out moments it never really materialise did it? In some ways that strict adherence to structure despite it not having the impact is to be expected, it’s the first tour game, no one will have wanted to put a foot wrong and everyone will have wanted to show they can play to the game plan but while that is fine to a point, on a tour in which they will play the most intelligent Rugby players in the world it can’t be the default setting neatly summing up the major difference between NZ and Northern Hemisphere Rugby.
Luckily for the Lions the introduction of a group of subs turned the the game in the right direction and instrumental in this was Owen Farrell who brought urgency and a fair amount of cohesion to a floundering Lions side, the result was a wonderful try for Anthony Watson that we breakdown in a bit more detail.