From ‘Warrenball’ to ‘rugby chaos’, if the British & Irish Lions achieve nothing else on this tour of New Zealand, they have at least helped broaden the lexicon of the sport.
Attack coach Rob Howley yesterday echoed head coach Warren Gatland’s spiky rebuttal of the former term, refuting the accusation that the tourists will be relying on the one-dimensional physicality the New Zealander has been portrayed as employing during his almost 10 years as the Welsh boss and two tours in charge of the Lions.
Instead, the former Wales and Lions scrum-half believes that only by spreading chaos through heads-up rugby rather than a prescriptive gameplan can they defeat an All Blacks outfit he described as the most ruthless in world rugby. Toppling back-to-back world champions New Zealand over three Test matches on their own turf would be no mean feat and the Lions looked a million miles away from being at the required standard to do so in last Saturday’s tour opener against the Provincial Barbarians. Jet-lagged and let down by unforced errors and poor execution, they laboured to a 13-7 win in Whangarei, but Howley believes the tourists are building towards unleashing rugby chaos on the All Blacks in the first Test in Auckland on June 24.
The Lions make the first of their three visits to Eden Park this morning when they face the Blues, the first of the country’s five Super Rugby franchises, who will be stress-testing their ability to challenge the men in black. While Howley is prepared for some speed bumps along the road to the series opener three-and-a-half weeks from now, he believes it will be well worth it if the 2017 squad can match their predecessors from 1971 and become just the second Lions team in 12 attempts since 1888 to win a series on these shores.
“Of course, we want to be clinical, relentless in our process, and ruthless, because in not more than a couple of weeks we’re playing against the most ruthless side in world rugby,” said Howley, 46, before referring to the “pictures” likely to be presented by New Zealand during a game in open play and to which the Lions will have to react.
“There are plays that you want to play and show different shapes. We have seen some pictures of the All Blacks and understand how they play and defend and make sure we work on elements in training and putting our players under that fatigue and chaos that the All Blacks will do. If we go in the next couple of weeks and lose one or two games, but get good pictures because of how the All Blacks play, we will be a better side because of those experiences.”
Since naming his 41-man squad for this 10-game, six-week, three-Test tour, Gatland has preached the importance of unleashing his X-factor players to pick apart his fellow New Zealanders. Yesterday, Howley added that loosening the shackles was “the nature of the game” and it was bringing explosive results already in training, including what he said were very unstructured 15-a-side practice matches.
“That’s from chaos, that’s from structure. The majority of the game now is from kick returns and turnovers and it’s the ability to react in those situations and to not get left behind, to be ahead of the game. That’s in terms of support lines and handling skills.
“That’s something we’ve talked about with 15 versus 15 [in training]. We have a hugely motivated squad and that’s in terms of linespeed and [defence coach] Andy Farrell’s coaching players to come off the line. But we’re trying to put that match speed into training and we have a hugely competitive squad here and we did a drill yesterday, an offload drill and the contact was explosive.
“That’s the challenge for us. You have to sit back, sometimes, as they want to give everything in training and we have to make sure we’re smart with that. We were playing an offload drill and it got pretty heated. We’re mindful of injuries as well, but we are mindful of putting players under pressure as well. So there’s a fine balance as well, but we went from a technical drill into open play and play what’s in front and suddenly it becomes a highly competitive contact. We just had to be mindful of that.”
Gatland and his coaches have four more games after today to work on bringing the chaos into the first Test and Howley said: “The answer will come over the next four to five weeks. That’s what we’re working on. There are different pictures over here, the way the game is and we’re trying to get up to speed with those pictures, hence the rugby chaos. The players are enjoying it, as the rugby chaos doesn’t go on for too long and it’s about intensity and the speed of the game and the speed of the decision-making and getting the ball to the wide channels. The more we practise it — obviously it’s in its infancy at the moment — but the more we keep working and we’ll see improvement on Wednesday.”
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