Beauden Barrett’s assertion that the All Blacks’ sparkling offensive play is only just getting started certainly sounded pretty disconcerting from a Lions point of view, given it came after a 12-try thrashing of Samoa.
Yet as much as Andy Farrell knows the tourists will have to make a big step up in class when they come face to face with world champions New Zealand in the opening Test at Eden Park on Saturday, the Lions defence coach believes he has seen the emergence of a group of leaders in Warren Gatland’s squad who will relish that challenge.
Speaking on Friday night after the 78-0 demolition of the Samoans in Auckland, All Blacks fly-half Barrett said of his backline going int the three-Test series with the Lions: “This is only a start and we can certainly get better in all aspects of our game.
“We know what’s coming. It is a different beast round the corner and we know we have to be better. I don’t think we are as clinical as we need to be. At times during the game we were a bit sloppy. There was some good skill at times but it won’t be good enough going forward.
“It’s obvious that they are bringing a bit of line speed, so teams have to adapt to that. It is a different style of defence to what we are used to. It works for them. I enjoy a challenge and there are different areas of the game where there will be a challenge, so that is just one part of it. It’s exciting and I’m looking forward to it.”
So too is Andy Farrell, the man who during a team talk on the successful 2013 Lions tour to Australia urged his players to take their opponents to the “hurt arena” and then “enjoy and destroy”.
He has seen the current squad keep the previously free-scoring Crusaders tryless during a Super Rugby season in which they had averaged 37 points over 14 games and then limit an explosive-looking Maori All Blacks side to a single five-pointer last Saturday in Rotorua.
Having asked for defensive leaders to emerge last weekend, the Ireland and Lions defence coach was satisfied his call to arms had been met.
“I think so,” Farrell said. “You’ve seen the back rowers be aggressive and making good decisions at the breakdown. You’ve seen them be physical. You’ve seen our front row working at pace, getting us some shape back. You’re seeing from the outside backs some real pressure from out to in, which is great and I think our back-field guys have been pretty good. They still need to be going forward as well.”
The question remains whether these Lions can perform a similar shutdown on the All Blacks over the next three Saturdays.
Is that possible?
“Of course it is, because it’s not just about defence. It’s about the whole game coming together. At the start of the tour, our discipline was letting the continuity down but we are solving that problem now (with only four penalties conceded to the Maori).
“Our game is now flowing into one; set piece into attack into breakdown into our kicking game, and on the reverse with the defensive stuff.
“It’s never about it (defence) in isolation — it’s about the whole game coming together and I think we’re blending nicely.”
Yet there is still the awareness that the Lions are going to have to revisit Farrell’s “hurt arena” three more times before the tour is over, starting this Saturday.
“It’s going to be a hell of a game. I know we’ll turn up and we’re a good side brimming for a big challenge. Mentally and physically we’ll be ready. It’ll be interesting to see how the two teams marry together, the chemistry of that, who adapts well on the run. That’s what the All Blacks have been very good at over the last period of time. We’ve got to be aware of that.
“Physically I don’t think we’ve disappointed so far. Will we need to up our game? Certainly. I think we’re going to have to take ourselves to a place that individually we’ve not been to before. But the boys realise that and are excited by that challenge.”
What is more, the levels required to win the 2013 series against Australia will need to be exceeded if a first series win in New Zealand since the sole triumph in 1971 is to be achieved.
“I think the game has cranked up. The All Blacks have certainly got better over the last four years and are reigning supreme at this moment. We’ve got to get close to that, haven’t we? We have to be careful this week of not overcoaching.
"We’ve got to be careful of making sure that the plan is crystal clear for them, so they can be on point come Saturday and already it’s been great that we’ve had a few days already to get some basic stuff in them through the week and we’ve got to get that right. Come Thursday, Friday it will be over to the players and we’ve got to make sure that their heads are crystal clear on how they’re going to go about this game.”
Going to places these Lions players have never been before will mean putting the All Blacks under more pressure that they have ever experienced, Farrell agreed, adding: “It’s who balances that out well in the heat of the battle, isn’t it?"
"Who deals with the pressure best, who deals with the situation and makes the best decisions on the run. We feel that we’ve got a game and the players to play in all sorts of ways. I think you’ll have to do that over the course of three games.”
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