Under the enclosed roof of the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin this morning the Lions tour took another step backward from the euphoria that followed the excellent win over the Crusaders.
It was close, but once again the Lions didn’t quite manage to finish off their chances. It’s now 4 games in and although the Lions did cross for 3 good tries they were also stopped on or over the line on several more occasions. They also made line breaks that stuttered from poor passing or decisions – chances at Eden Park will be few – they have to be clinical and take every point on offer.
Looking at the media reports that immediately followed the final whistle there were lots of ‘this wasn’t the test team’ – exactly – but then it wasn’t the All Blacks either.
It wasn’t a disaster and I’m guessing that it will have helped Warren Gatland and his coaching team sort out a number of the 23 shirts for Saturday week.
Overall the Lions are improving, the big question is – will it be fast enough to cause the ABs problems?
The Highlanders were good for their win – but, like the Lions they also went close several times when only outstanding last ditch tackles kept them out. The thing is that all the NZ teams can offload with a scary accuracy and keeping the ball alive requires a scrambling defence. This slick handling will go up another level against both the Maori ABs and in the test series. The Highlanders backs and forwards managed to hand off the ball just when you thought it had been trapped in the tackle.
I found it also disappointing to read the player ratings on the UK web sites – the bias was palpable, depending on whether you read an English, Welsh, Irish or Scottish page.
Some player ratings were as diverse as 4 to 7.
The idea is to pull the 4 countries together on a Lions tour, to see it as one team not ‘ours and the rest’. Looking at the XV that they suggest are shoe-ins you have more than 25 players mentioned ffs!
Was today a disaster? No – but it did show that the Highlanders had taken notice of last Saturday – they moved the ball faster and used chips to combat the line speed of the Lions defence. They created the space that the Crusaders couldn’t manage.
Warren Gatland has always maintained that he has innovative plays that he won’t reveal until the test matches – let’s hope he has some good ones.
I imagine that, failing disaster the team that will play the Maori ABs on Saturday will also be at Eden Park on the 24th. There is no time left for Gatland to experiment he now has to show his hand.
There has been no news yet of the injuries to Dan Biggar and Courtney Lawes – both of whom did well while they were on the pitch. It was also slightly worrying to see Rhys Webb limping as he left the field – he will certainly have one of the 23 test shirts if he is fit.
One thing we do know is that Stuart Hogg’s tour is over – cut down by friendly fire, the Scottish fullback is unluckily out of the reckoning.
As I’ve said before we now move on – win two matches at Eden Park or Wellington (on 1st July not 27th June) and it will be a triumph – this is just another step on that path to possible immortality for the 2017 British and Irish Lions.
As an aside I thought the handing over a giant sword instead of yet another Haka was a better way to honour the fixture – the Haka should be preserved for the Maori ABs and the All Blacks in my view.