Gatland Battling History As Well As Awesome All Blacks

The British&Irish Lions are staring down the barrel of a Test series defeat in New Zealand after a masterclass from Steve Hansen and his coaching team. In his latest column for Dai Sport, Geraint Powell, explains why the All Blacks reign supreme.

19 September 1959 remains the only date in history that Welsh rugby players have been part of a Test match winning side against the All Blacks at Eden Park in Auckland, and the only time the British&Irish Lions have won a Test match at Eden Park.

Terry Davies and Rhys Williams of Llanelli RFC, Ray Prosser of Pontypool RFC, John Faull of Swansea RFC and Haydn Morgan of Abertillery RFC were the 5 victorious Welshmen. The Welsh players in the 1st Test became the latest Welsh players to fail to join this most elite of Welsh elites.

Whilst many Welsh rugby fans yearn for the fleet footed playmaker 10, from Cliff Morgan to Barry John to Phil Bennett to Jonathan Davies, and whilst many of the greatest All Blacks legends have worn the 7 jersey, the 9 has traditionally been the key playmaker in New Zealand rugby. Not the 10, or “first five eighth” in Kiwi-speak.

Ray Prosser certainly learnt this lesson on his long tour of 1959, bringing a traditional New Zealand style to Pontypool throughout his coaching tenure across the 1970s and 1980s. “Pooler” could certainly play through their 9, to the consternation of many in Welsh rugby, and particularly successfully through David Bishop in the mid-1980s.

If the Lions are going to retrieve this Test series, following their comfortable 30-15 defeat in the 1st Test in Auckland that will stand the test of time as an All Blacks masterclass in playing through a scrum-half in the modern game and neutralising a fast defensive line speed, they will now need to win the 3rd Test back in Auckland and not just this Saturday’s 2nd Test in Wellington.

If more Welsh players do not join the elite class of 1959 and taste victory at Eden Park, then All Blacks attack coach Ian Foster will (if he wants the job) become the overwhelming favourite to succeed Steve Hansen as the All Blacks head coach after the 2019 World Cup on the back of a series win over the 2017 Lions.

In terms of his personal dual with Lions defensive coach Andy Farrell, it is most definitely 1-0 to Ian Foster after round one.

The Lions are a concept designed to fail. A once every four years exercise in throwing together players from four very different rugby and national squad cultures and playing styles, against the wishes of many reluctant independent club owners, and with little or no preparation time for some of the players before jetting off to the southern hemisphere at the end of a long season.

But what the 2017 Lions have been able to quickly achieve through defence coach Andy Farrell is a suffocating defence, as shown in the grinding down wins over the Crusaders, the Maori and the Chiefs and based on a fast line speed reinforcing a solid set piece.

Unfortunately, this progress was also very much on public display to the All Blacks coaching “brains trust” of Hansen, Foster, Mike Cron and Wayne Smith whilst the All Blacks were able to mostly hide their hand. Little was declared by them, in a 78-0 warm-up drubbing of a poor Samoa.

In order to maintain a fast defensive line speed, the Lions did not in the 1st Test aggressively flood the breakdown nor did they start with an out and out “jackal” such as Sam Warburton in the back row. The Lions did attack the All Blacks lineout, successfully disrupting 5 of 13.

But the All Blacks did not play the ball wide via their 10, in the modern aerobic Super Rugby style, not even in the opening half hour before the reshuffle caused by match ending injuries to Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty that forced Beauden Barrett back to 15 and saw Aaron Cruden taking over at 10.

The All Blacks once again reminded us of what some persist in forgetting, they can win ugly if need be. Whenever a soft belly emerges in New Zealand forward play, such as 15-20 years ago, it is remedied within a few years.

Owen Franks, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock can do the basics just as well as anybody in the British Isles. Codie Taylor showing, with his catch at ankle level and try, what the front 5 can do extra in New Zealand rugby. Additional skill sets, not alternative skill sets.

They may love the fluid chaos in securing turnovers and counter-attacking, but the win is always their overriding objective. They reverted to a traditional New Zealand style very much of the past, one that would be familiar enough to Colin Meads, Ian Kirkpatrick and Graham Mourie.

The All Blacks, with a dominant scrum, simply removed the Lions defensive line speed from the equation altogether. They played tight on the open side, with a constant flow of short passes from Aaron Smith to a constant supply of ‘one out runners’.

They occasionally went back to the blind side, looking for any mismatches that had developed or simply taking advantage of the Lions defending forwards having followed ‘round the corner’ to the open side whilst some of their own ball carriers had remained on the blind side. The All Blacks had 131 attacking rucks, losing a mere 4.

It was definitely one for the rugby purists, but the execution was sublime. The gain line and the collisions won, gaps in the narrow defensive line pinpointed, good footwork into tackles, and reinforced with robust clear outs that remained acceptable to referee Jaco Peyper.

The Lions worn down by 183 attempted tackles, allowing the All Blacks to play wider later in the game.

It is hard to see where Warren Gatland goes from here, for he most definitely requires a solid forward platform and preferably supremacy at the set piece. To keep the All Blacks lineout under pressure, but with a much improved Lions scrummaging performance.

It is to be hoped that Gatland and his team have something up their sleeves, and Hansen doesn’t have another ace to play. There was certainly one outstanding try, started by Liam Williams from inside his own 22 and finally finished off by Sean O’Brien.

The French referees, Jerome Garces and Romain Poite, will undoubtedly assist in their northern hemisphere interpretation of several laws.

Gatland might be tempted to start with Warburton in Wellington, as part of a strategy to slow down the recycling of the All Blacks and to force more All Blacks into the clear out to try and speed up their disrupted recycling and to avoid conceding turnovers to the Lions. Any turnovers obtained by the Lions would just be an extra bonus.

Some big Lions tackles back across the gain line wouldn’t go amiss, to encourage the French referees to penalise side entry from the All Blacks and not just to place them on the back foot.

But how will the tactics of the All Blacks evolve? If more Lions commit to the narrower channels, will we see the All Blacks punch cross the gain line in the midfield before any Lions press defence can close them down? Or will we see long miss passes from Barrett or Cruden?

The Lions will know, if they over commit to the breakdown without turnovers or even significantly slowing down the ruck ball of the All Blacks, space will probably fatally appear out wider.

The age old problem for all teams playing the All Blacks, you are usually damned if you do and damned if you don’t if they are on top of executing their chosen game plan.

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