The phoney war is over, the real stuff starts tomorrow. All the talking and, yes, all the writing is irrelevant after that whistle blows and the two teams adopt their game faces.
This promises to be much more than a mere rugby match. Saturday’s first Test pits the best team in world rugby against the pretenders who would be king. It is a contrast in styles and in sporting philosophy as much as anything; the all round rugby cabaret as practised by the New Zealand hosts against the more mundane, muscular excellence of the British and Irish Lions. There is more than one way to play the game and thank goodness for that.
After a slow start, the tourists have shown some form even if most of it has come against ordinary opposition; the Chiefs fielded no more than one third of their first choice XV, including Scottish-born scrum-half Finlay “Red” Christie who won’t, since you ask, be making the trip to Glasgow Warriors at the end of the Super Rugby season along with his coach Dave Rennie.
It is a little too simplistic to present the first Test as the Lions’ aggressive defence against the All Blacks’ efficient attack but there is a kernel of truth in it. The Lions smother defence orchestrated by Andy Farrell kept the free-scoring Crusaders try-less and they will attempt to suffocate the sparkle out of Beauden Barrett, denying him the time and space the classy playmaker needs to do his stuff.
There are various methods to counter a “rush” defence and you can be sure that All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has his team well versed in every one of them. They are:
1. Go over it
New Zealand teams always kick the ball plenty and Barrett is sure to do the same, especially in the first 20 minutes and especially if the 90 per cent chance of rain forecast comes good.
2. Outflank it
The Blacks can try to get the ball wide by using players “out the back” to get the ball to the wing before Jon Davies (or whoever is standing in the 13 channel) can slam the door shut.
3. Outflank it (part 2)
The low-slung cross-field kick or “kick-pass” as it has become known is a speciality of Barrett’s and we will see it deployed, probably more than once.
4. Play through it
Since the Lions use an “umbrella defence” led by the 13 who has a long way to go, the All Blacks can pick and drive or play one-pass rugby and “reload” quickly in attempt to catch the Lions’ outside backs back-pedalling to get onside.
5. Play through it (part 2)
The All Blacks will utilise the inside ball to take advantage of the natural kink in the Lions’ defensive line. The inside runner should have a little more space and a second inside pass may catch a lazy inside defender who thought the play had passed him by.
“To play the All Blacks you have to be bold, you have to take risks,” said Warren Gatland and perhaps the biggest risk the Lions coach has taken is picking Liam Williams at full-back because the Welshman is a much better attacker than defender. The All Blacks will send plenty of bombs his way and you have to hope that Williams does a better job of defusing them than he managed against the Blues when he earned himself a yellow card for twice tackling the man in the air.
Gatland sprang a surprise with an adventurous back three selection – Stuart Hogg would surely have been in with a shout if he hadn’t been injured – but the real danger lay in fielding a liability like George North. He opted instead for Elliot Daly and Anthony Watson and both are proven finishers and their aerial battle against Israel Dagg and Reiko Ioane could be key.
“I can feel the enthusiasm,” the All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said in the build up. “There is a real hunger in the hotel with the players. They are really up for it. That doesn’t guarantee that you will win the thing but it does guarantee that your attitude is right and we know that if we get our attitude right and our clarity is right then we are a good side.”
As is his want, Hansen is selling himself and his team short because they are a little better than good. New Zealand boast a 91.3 per cent win ratio on his watch and that impressive statistic jumps to a 100 per cent at home. Hansen has won every one of the 29 Tests he has led on New Zealand soil and let’s not even talk about their record at Eden Park which is crazy. My 22-year-old son was not yet born when the All Blacks last lost – to France – at their spiritual home.
We can argue the merits of one back against another all evening but the big games are usually decided by the big men. The one aspect of this game few people are focused on is the All Black forward pack which is unlikely to suffer the same bullying behaviour from the tourists that did for some of the provincial teams.
They will miss the effervescent Dane Coles who is injured but in Brodie Retallick, missing for that Ireland defeat, Sam Cane, Jerome Kaino, Owen Franks and even an undercooked Kieran Read the All Blacks have enough about them to match anyone up front. With weapons elsewhere, forward parity should be enough to see the Kiwis edge a close encounter.