DONAL LENIHAN: Half-back gold on show at Eden Park

With little preparation time, the opening test of a Lions series can often be decided by poor selection.

Those calls are often influenced by individual performances against host teams of varying quality early on the tour.

Warren Gatland’s selection for the key opening test tomorrow has, understandably, been based largely around the morale-boosting wins over the Crusaders and Maori All Blacks.

At Eden Park, we will find out just how accurate a barometer that yardstick has proved.

The back three carry an exciting mix of attacking promise while, in opting for Elliot Daly over George North, Gatland has rewarded form.

The fact that Daly can kick goals from 60m offers yet another deterrent to the All Blacks conceding penalties, even in the opposition half.

With Owen Farrell assuming the main kicking responsibilities, that opened up further options at full back, with Liam Williams offering far more with ball in hand than Leigh Halfpenny, as does Anthony Watson.

I can understand Gatland’s decision to start with the experience offered by Alun Wyn Jones in the second row over Maro Itoje, whose influence off the bench could prove decisive.

The fact that Peter O’Mahony retains the captaincy with Jones on board is a true measure of the respect and influence Munster’s skipper has exerted over the entire group since assembly.

New Zealand, too, have rewarded form, especially with the selection of Rieko Ioane on the wing. He looked sensational for the Blues against the Lions a few weeks ago.

Being in a position to omit Julian Savea and Waisake Nahola from his matchday squad highlights the rich pickings available to Steve Hansen.

He has gambled somewhat in starting captain Kieran Reid, who hasn’t played since April 30, but then again Sean O Brien hadn’t secured any game time since April 1 before starring against the Crusaders only two weeks ago.

That proved no April’s fool selection. Tomorrow will prove which management group got the big selection calls right.

Boss the set piece

The power and quality of the Lions set piece has been a feature in all their victories on tour and is something that has already exercised the mind of New Zealand’s brain trust.

The ease with which the tourists dominated a Crusaders front five with four of the All Black unit on board has forced Hansen and his renowned scrum coach, Mike Cron, to sit up and take notice.

The lineout has always been a key source for launching many of New Zealand’s attack plays. Shorn of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock for that battle against Ireland in Chicago, Joe Schmidt’s men deprived New Zealand of primary possession and their gameplan suffered accordingly.

Whitelock was part of the Crusaders lineout that struggled to cope with the Lions, but that close-up experience could yet serve to help New Zealand counter the visitors’ capacity to dominate this area and launch their lineout maul.

Whitelock is a smart operator and back in tandem with the brilliant Retallick will pose a different challenge than two weeks ago.

What the Lions will have learned from that encounter is that the throwing of Dane Coles’ replacement at hooker, Codie Taylor, is suspect when put under sustained pressure. The Lions will have noted that and will compete furiously in the air.

Much has been made on this tour about the differing interpretation when it comes to scrum engagement.

It will be interesting to see which way referee Jaco Peyper flips this time. The Lions will be much happier with the fact that a French referee will handle the second and third tests but will look to put huge pressure on that New Zealand scrum.

It will help the confidence of the comparatively young Lions front row of Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, and Tadhg Furlong that they were more than comfortable in dealing with the same All Black front row already on tour.

That said, Cron as scrum coach is a canny operator so expect a big improvement in this area from Joe Moody, Taylor, and Owen Franks.

Half-back gold

Right now, Beauden Barrett is the best rugby player on the planet. He is capable of magical things. Inside him, Aaron Smith had a poor season last year and has TJ Perenara breathing down his neck.

On his day, however, Smith is vying with Conor Murray for the title of best No9 in the game.

Murray has been faultless all tour and his partnership with Farrell has the capacity to develop into something special.

The only slight concern is that they have only featured together for 29 minutes on tour. We will be witnessing half-back gold in action in Eden Park when these four go head to head tomorrow.

Finding a way to minimise Barrett’s influence on the game is crucial for the Lions. Cutting the supply lines by piling the pressure on Smith would be a good place to start.

If the Lions forwards can deny him the front-foot platform New Zealand invariably enjoy, then he will be left with a combination of Sean O Brien, Farrell, and Ben Te’o to deal with.

On the flip side, Barrett has both the pace and the kicking game, with a variety of short punts that always manage to bounce into the hand at the right time, to counter the pressure applied by the excellent line speed the Lions apply in defence.

To win, Farrell and Murray need to grab control of this game from the outset and keep turning the All Blacks midfield and back three.

Take New Zealand out of the comfort zone that usually enables their strong bench close out the game in the final quarter and the Lions have a chance.

Win the game within the game

In 2016 New Zealand averaged five tries and 42 points per game. They were never behind at the 50 minute mark and, on average, enjoyed a nine-point lead at that stage until they met Ireland in Chicago.

The quality of their bench was invariably much stronger than that of most oppositions, enabling them to score around 28 points per game over the remaining half hour.

Incredibly, in Chicago, Ireland led by 22 points at that mark and a replacements bench, comfortable coming on when in the ascendancy, suddenly had to fight a different fight and were found wanting.

By definition, given that they’ve drawn from four international squads, the Lions replacements should be capable of matching the huge impact of New Zealand’s replacements, who have a match-winning quality coming off their bench.

That immediately takes away an advantage they so often use in the Rugby Championship against Australia and South Africa.

In many respects, the New Zealand substitutes enjoy an armchair ride with the starting XV regularly setting up the opposition to be ripped apart by the increasing tempo and intensity brought to bear by the likes of TJ Perenara, Aaron Cruden, Ardie Savea, and Naholo when introduced.

It is crucial, therefore, that the tourists be in the lead or at least be within a few points on that 50-minute mark, to enable them extend the contest into the closing quarter.

With two point-scoring machines available from the boot of Farrell and Halfpenny at that stage, New Zealand will be forced into a position where they just cannot afford to give penalties away.

New Zealand play for the full 80 minutes in every game. Even against Samoa, with a 78-point lead when the siren went to signal the end of normal playing time, they refused to kick dead and chased another seven-pointer.

The Lions have to match that intensity from start to finish to have a chance.


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