Coming as it did just 24 hours after the All Blacks’ demolition derby against Samoa, it was impossible not to notice the contrast in rugby styles between the host nation and the tourists, who laboured to another win. The incessant rain in Rotarua did not help the Maori backs to shine and if Warren Gatland had his way his Lions would respond to Saturday’s Test match Haka with a rain dance.
At the risk of flogging a dead horse, what the heck is George North doing amongst the Lions’ Test team “probables”? He gifted the Maori their only try. He was targeted relentlessly by the opposition, at least in the first half when the Maoris saw some of the ball, and he was laughably out-jumped for one high ball by the short-arsed winger Nehe Milner-Skudder who is generously listed as eight inches shorter than North.
Admittedly it wasn’t a day for wings to shine but not once did the Welshman cause the slightest alarm in the Maori defence and if North appears in the Lions’ starting team next Saturday the loudest cheers will come from those in black.
Tommy Seymour played himself out of contention last Tuesday, despite that interception try, but Elliot Daly oozes rugby intelligence, one of the few players in the Lions’ back division that you could imagine turning out for the All Blacks. He also has the ability to kick penalties from 60-odd yards, which you fancy may come in handy next Saturday.
The Maori found themselves squeezed relentlessly by the men in red and they conceded 15 straight arm penalties in yesterday’s match as a result… and still Jaco Peyper failed to card any player for repeated infringements, despite a little nudge from captain Peter O’Mahony. The Lions conceded four penalties, which tells you which team was turning the screw and which team’s thumb was in it.
The South African referee also blows the first Test next Saturday so both sets of coaching teams will have studied his style very closely and one aspect you could see from the moon is that Peyper is relaxed about defenders standing offside.
This is crucial because both teams next Saturday will employ the same midfield rush defence that is led by the man in the 13 channel who tries to cut communications to the wing/full-back by blitzing up on his opposite number.
Incidentally, Conor Murray occasionally joins this defensive cavalry charge, meaning that the Lions are without their first sweeper at times which you can bet the All Blacks have noted.
One of the reasons that this Lions’ backline find tries hard to come by is because they have two “bashers” in the centre, Ben Te’o and Jon Davies, and lack creativity as a result. The other reason is because the New Zealand sides have been allowed to stand offside at almost every breakdown.
The Lions do it too but Maori were more obviously guilty yesterday because they were doing most of the defending. At almost every breakdown the pillar/post nearest the ruck was a metre in front of the hindmost foot. The defender in the 13 channel was regularly creeping as much as two or three metres offside and Peyper turned a Nelsonian blind eye for almost the entire match. Finally, with 68 minutes on the clock, the referee eventually signalled offside by waving his arms back and forward and the Lions, to jeers from the crowd, kicked another three.
This is not like a squint scrum feed which only affects that one set piece. This problem of ignoring offside affects the entire pattern of the game and not for the better. Back the defenders up by one or two metres and suddenly the opposition offence has that extra split second of time and bit of space that they need to run their midfield play or give the ball width. Unless Peyper applies the law strictly, Saturday’s opening Test is going to suffer as a consequence.
In fairness to the South African, that part of the game has to be bossed by the touchies or “assistant referees” as we must now call them. They are the ones who are bang in line and they have to crack down on the cheats or risk ruining next Saturday’s much anticipated Test match.