The opening test of a Lions series is a journey into the unknown. Everything the Lions coaching staff have done in the last five weeks, since the earliest arrivals introduced themselves for those pre-tour camps at the Vale of Glamorgan and Carton House, has been geared towards this moment.
Even New Zealand, in fortress Eden Park, were not quite sure what to expect from the tourists. They were about to be asked a different type of question to anything they would have experienced playing in the annual Rugby Championship.
Australia, South Africa, and Argentina are familiar foes. The players clash regularly in the Super Rugby tournament. There is little room for surprises.
The Lions are different. For one, their 20,000 supporters bring a raucous, colourful, and vibrant presence to the stadium.
It is quite extraordinary. As so often happens in an opening test, the Lions starting team on Saturday had never played together as a unit, yet were expected to be both fluent and competitive.
The All Blacks are used to being favourites at home, but such had been the steady improvements in several aspects of the Lions’s game over the last two weeks that there was a genuine feeling that New Zealand just might be vulnerable and open to a stern examination, from a side capable of presenting a different challenge.
What transpired was a test match worthy of the name, especially in an opening half of spine-chilling rugby that will live in the memory for a long time. Unfortunately, New Zealand had far more in their arsenal and, having sized up what the Lions had to offer over the course of that mesmerising first 40 minutes, lifted their intensity and nailed every chance that came their way.
The big advantage the hosts had was the facility to sit back and analyse the key strengths of their opposition over the first six games of the tour and work out a way to negate those potential advantages.
In a coaching triumph for New Zealand, they targeted and attacked those strengths and countered every one of them.
The scrum had been a potent weapon for the Lions on tour, but they never gained any appreciable edge in this game.
Ironically, one crucial scrum resulted in a penalty advantage, from which New Zealand’s inspirational captain, Kieran Reid, created the match-clinching try for rookie winger, Reiko Ioane, with a magical sleight of hand in the 56th minute.
That score sucked the oxygen out of the Lions’s challenge.
The lineout maul, which has created havoc against all New Zealand provincial opposition, never generated any appreciable yardage, while the All Blacks varied the point of their attack to such good effect it never allowed the Lions to implement the pulverising line speed in defence that strangled the Maoris in Rotorua.
If anything, it was New Zealand who delivered that suffocating defensive blanket.
To have any chance of beating the All Blacks, you have to take every point-scoring opportunity that comes your way. The disappointing aspect was that the Lions created four clear-cut chances before Rhys Webb’s consolation try at the death — and converted only one, a recurring theme from the opening game against the Provincial Barbarians.
Admittedly, that was one of the greatest tries scored in test rugby by the Lions, created by Liam Williams and finished, 80 metres from where it started, by Sean O Brien, who, once again, was magnificent.
Contrast the Lions’s profligacy with New Zealand, who created three try-scoring chances and nailed every one of them.
In the build-up to this game, I highlighted the absolute necessity of the Lions being within touching distance of New Zealand when they dip into their bench on 50 minutes.
At that key mark, the Lions were only five points in arrears, but, in reality, were struggling manfully to live with the pace and unrelenting intensity that Reid’s men unleashed after the break. While the tourists were still alive on the scoreboard, it was only a matter of time before the floodgates opened.
The strange thing, from a New Zealand perspective, was the decision to cover an injury at full back by moving the best No 10 in the world, Beauden Barrett, to replace Ben Smith, who was concussed.
The Lions management must have been ecstatic when they saw that, after only 26 minutes of play. That said, Aaron Cruden wasn’t found wanting in any of his primary duties, while Barrett displayed some sublime touches, when covering the back field.
One sensational, one-handed pick-up and side step on the retreat drew gasps from the crowd.
For as long as I can remember, New Zealand have prided themselves on their ability to boss the breakdown and continued that trend on Saturday, with a masterclass in generating quick ball.
From my vantage point, it was incredible to observe the speed of the recycle, never more than four seconds, which set up wave after wave of attack.
With that facility and Aaron Smith’s lightning service, the Lions were on the back foot throughout. They could never deliver the line speed that propelled them to their two best victories on tour to date, against the Crusaders and Maori All Blacks.
Traditionally, the best chance the Lions have in challenging for a series is winning the opening test, on the presumption that the hosts will only get better, which is something that you can be sure of with this New Zealand side.
Only once in Lions history — on the Australian tour of 1989 — have the Lions won a series on the back of losing the first test.
So what does Warren Gatland do to turn things around, in the few days at his disposal, between now and Saturday’s second test, in Wellington?
Apart from the very marginal call to opt for Alun Wyn Jones over Maro Itoje in the second row, the consensus here was that Gatland had got the side spot-on.
Williams, despite one dropped ball in difficult conditions, which led to a second try for Ioane, delivered on the counter-attacking threat expected of him.
He set up the cracking try that lifted the spirits of his entire side heading into the dressing room at the break.
Tomorrow’s final midweek outing of the tour, against the Highlanders, offers the likes of Courtney Lawes, who has had an excellent tour without any real reward, Jonathan Joseph, Robbie Henshaw, and CJ Stander a fresh chance to stake their claims for inclusion in Saturday’s match-day squad.
On the basis of the side picked by the reigning Super Rugby champions, however, the tourists are posed for yet another searching examination.
With just three games to go, another win on this excruciatingly difficult tour may just prove hard to come by for the Lions.
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