DONAL LENIHAN: Lions must face spark at breakdown or face the final curtain

Sam Warburton: Under pressure to deliver after replacing Peter O'Mahony. Picture: Dan Sheridan

Donal Lenihan looks at three key areas the Lions must address.

1. Counter the All Blacks’ breakdown instincts

I have always believed that if the set piece element was taken out of rugby, New Zealand would be untouchable. They are so superior when it comes to breakdown efficiency and that, allied to a brilliant skill set throughout the side, make them very difficult to suppress.

They possess an uncanny ability to read a breakdown situation and then make decisions on the hoof whether to flood the contact area in an effort to generate a turnover or only commit a maximum of two players to slow the recycle and fill the field.

On the flip side, when in possession, they have become masters of the three-second ruck. They clean out the ball carrier with such ruthless efficiency that not only does their scrum-half Aaron Smith get ball delivered on a plate, he does so with at least two black jerseys between him and the nearest Lions player.

That makes it very difficult for even the best of poachers like Sean O’Brien to effect a turnover or slow down the ball. As a consequence, Smith barely has a hand laid on him. Contrast that with Conor Murray who, throughout the first test had to contend with either the long levers of Brodie Retallick or Sam Whitelock attempting to block his box kicks or a combination of Jerome Kaino or Sam Cane pressurising him in the tackle.

Conor Murray
Conor Murray

Warren Gatland lost out in the war of words with Steve Hansen over the pressure exerted on Murray and at no stage did I think it was anywhere near as dangerous, from an injury perspective, as the cheap shots put in by some Glasgow Warriors players earlier in the season.

By recycling possession at the breakdown so quickly while still going forward, the All Blacks put the Lions defensive line on the back foot and denied them the chance to implement the suffocating line speed that closed down the attacking threat posed by earlier opposition on tour.

Gatland’s response to addressing the issue is to start another forager in tour captain Sam Warburton, along with O Brien, at the expense of last week’s captain Peter O’Mahony. Given that O’Mahony was described by forwards coach Steve Borthwick as the glue keeping the side together and was the main reason why the Lions caused the All Blacks grief at the line out, he is being harshly treated. It increases the pressure on Warburton to deliver as, in addition to O’Mahony, Justin Tipuric and CJ Stander have been far more consistent on tour.

2. Test the All Blacks’ mental superiority with intensity

Whatever about the superiority New Zealand carried into this series in terms of individual skillset and superior technique, arguably their biggest advantage is in the mental stakes.

They are a side well used to performing under pressure. You dare not lose in an All Black jersey, especially when playing at home. Even more so in a historically significant series like the Lions.

When New Zealand lost the 2007 World Cup quarter-final against France in Cardiff, extending the period without winning the coveted title to 20 years, much of their focus thereafter shifted to getting the mental side of their approach right. That has proved crucial in delivering back to back World Cups since.

That mental edge could prove crucial. On the basis that there has to be a massive lift in the intensity levels and physicality the Lions bring to bear tomorrow, if they fail to match that with a ruthless mental efficiency, the series will be over.

Lions must face spark at breakdown or face the final curtain

The Lions will empty everything in the opening half of this game in order to build a score and put New Zealand on the back foot. That is exactly what happened in one of the most brutally physical and captivating Lions tests I have ever seen, against South Africa in 2009, after the Lions had been severely outplayed in the opening test. The class of 2017 must now find a way to repeat that and find a win.

The thing with New Zealand is, knowing exactly what’s coming, will have prepared for it mentally and will approach this game with a collective mindset of finishing the job. Five days ago, this sports-mad country stayed up half the night to witness Team NZ smash the might and unlimited resources of the USA to land the America’s Cup in Bermuda.

This All Black squad are ravenous to complete a highly notable sporting double this week by wrapping up the Lions series with a test to go. Right now the only thing that might serve to delay that is the likelihood of heavy rain and winds sweeping through Wellington tomorrow.

3. Defuse the All Blacks’ spark plugs

Eddie Jones went so far as to officially reclassify his bench as ‘finishers’ when announcing England’s matchday squad during the 2017 Six Nations championship. Steve Hansen is equally stoked by the role his bench has to play and refers to his replacements as “spark plugs”.

Call them what you like but the reality of modern day test rugby is that, without an impactful replacements bench, especially against New Zealand, you will find it impossible to win. The All Blacks took complete control of the final quarter in Auckland on the back of a big scrummage impact from their replacement front row and a massive energy boost in broken play from Ardie Savea.

In TJ Perenara, Hansen has the luxury of introducing a scrum-half who would grace the starting position of most international teams. The energy, pace and breaking ability he brings to proceedings around the ruck and maul, against tiring bodies, is always influential. At least Rhys Webb has the capacity to match that.

With their two remaining backline reserves already called upon before half-time in the first test, New Zealand had less impact than normal for that closing phase. They didn’t need it.

Having seen the massive statement made by Ngani Laumapu in midfield for the Hurricanes last Tuesday night, it is no surprise to see him promoted to the New Zealand bench this weekend. This country is full of strong, hard-running No 12s with skills to burn. He is capable of becoming a serious “spark plug”.

The Lions’ self-imposed refusal to use their bench on Tuesday night cost them the game. Gatland’s philosophy surrounding the Lion Cubs as I call them — the Geography Six over here — has backfired badly and has ended up doing exactly the opposite to what it was intended when they were controversially included.

As a result, Stander is now covering the back row for tomorrow’s key test on the back of a punishing 80-minute performance on Tuesday night while last weekend’s captain is left twiddling his thumbs. What happens if Stander has to come on after five minutes? He will be knackered.

There has also been a complete u-turn in relation to playing Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell together in midfield as this was considered a no-go area only 10 days ago. Ben Te’o has done little wrong on this tour but with two playmakers now in situ, hopefully a very exciting Lions back three may see more opportunities with ball in hand.

That might yet prove the key to winning this massive game but only if the tourists’ front five manage to impose themselves far more than was the case last weekend. The Lions have to firmly believe they are capable of achieving that. If not, it’s curtains I’m afraid.

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