Iain Morrison: Too many mistakes, not enough ambition from Lions
The tourists are as predicible as Big Ben. If they have a box of tricks they pulled out absolutely nothing of note from it. Perhaps they are saving the surprises for the Tests; you hope so.
The only surprise they sprang yesterday was playing even dafter rugby than Tana Umaga could have anticipated. Warren Gatland unearthed a winning strategy some ten years back when coaching Waitkato that involved big runners collecting one-out passes and he has been peddling the same shtick ever since despite the game changing out of all recognition.
Rugby needs different styles of play and Saracens, to take only the most obvious example, have proved just how brutally effective a limited gameplan forged around defence, kick-chase and relentless pressure can be.
Munster did the same, albeit less effectively, although the Irish province also highlighted the shortcomings of such a strategy in the Pro12 final against a Scarlets’ side that move the ball out of the contact zone quickly and attack space; a little like, you are thinking to yourself, a Super Rugby side.
Gatland could have learned a few lessons from that Pro12 final. If you are playing a limited game plan then be sure to play with intelligence, which is what his team failed to do yesterday when too many players left their brains in the dressing room.
Jack Nowell knew that Rieko Ioane is lightning fast so what was the English winger doing defending 20 yards inside his opposite number, giving the Blues No 11 all the space he needed to score that opening try?
Liam Williams tackled his man in the air once, before doing the exact same thing to the same man just minutes later, giving the French referee no option but to reach for his pocket.
Still the Lions should have salvaged this one at the death, or rather could have until Joe Marler crawled along the ground with the ball tucked under his arm to concede a vital penalty just yards from the try line – but even he was not the worst offender.
Maro Itoje is the darling of this Lions squad and with good reason. He is big, athletic and above all else smart; an obviously intelligent rugby player who will captain England one day, not that you would know it from yesterday’s encounter.
The big lock conceded one penalty after slapping the ball out of the half-back’s hands. He was largely to blame for the Blues’ scintillating winner when Itoje was the defender who drifted too early having failed to spot Sonny Bill Williams’ run.
That winning score was the result of two well-executed offloads but when Itoje picked a beautiful line to take a short pop from Jonny Sexton in the second half the English lock didn’t even look for, never mind throw, the offload. Instead he rolled, not once, but twice, risking another penalty, and by the time the ball was recycled the Blues defenders were at their stations once again.
It was the lack of ambition as much as poor decision-making that makes you worry for this Lions squad and it is worth contrasting that with what is happening closer to home.
If you haven’t already done so, log on to worldrugby.org and check out the Scotland U20s who beat their Irish counterparts by five tries to three in the junior World Champs in Georgia last Saturday. One of those tries was instigated inside the Scots’ own 22 as, helped by two superb offloads, they went the length of the field to score a cracker.
The senior side play Italy on Saturday and, whatever else happens, Gregor Townsend’s squad won’t lose the game for a want of ambition.