With so much talk about how the All Blacks will go on to thrash the Lions just as Team New Zealand did to Oracle Team USA in the America’s Cup, I think we might be getting ahead of ourselves.
Why do I believe this? A number of reasons.
Firstly, I think the key All Blacks players, played near their best on Saturday. Kieran Read was immense in his first game back. The locking combination of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick were dominant. In fact, you even extend that to the entire All Blacks forward pack that played extremely well. Aaron Smith had a very good game at halfback, he controlled the game really well and I thought Sony Bill Williams showed his worth in attack.
On the other hand, I thought Owen Farrell didn’t have that good a game. His goal kicking wasn’t as accurate as it normally is, and didn’t manage his backs into the game enough. Ben Te’o’s defensive game was really strong particularly on Sony Bill Williams but wasn’t well utilised on attack. He didn’t get much front-foot ball, which you could put down to the amount of defending the Lions did. Because of this, the Lions forward pack struggled.
None of the Lions forward had an outstanding game and there is a lot of improvement there. Their set pieces (Scrum & Line-outs) were definitely not as effective as they have been on this tour.
So, when you compare a near-best All Blacks performance with a Lions side who clearly haven’t reached their potential yet, the nerves remain for the remaining two tests.
This leads onto my next point. If the Lion can get more ball than they did last week, they could be a force to be reckoned with. Their right-winger Anthony Watson was brilliant. He is a very good ball runner and he managed to beat a number of players when he had ball in hand, but the problem was he didn’t get enough of it.
If the Lions can find a way to get Ben Te’o and Anthony Watson more involved, and get them being destructive like Sony Bill Williams was for the All Blacks, it could change the game.
On Saturday the All Blacks were very disciplined and didn’t give away many penalties, but this could simply be because of how much ball they had. If the Lions can get good go-forward ball and use their big outside backs and win penalties it will put the All Blacks under pressure and the scoreboard will tick over in the Lion’s favour.
Another aspect of the game that could keep the second test very tight, if not tilt into the Lion’s favour, is if they can finish effectively. The All Blacks had three real chances in the match and they took all of them, whereas the Lions created five or six great chances and only took two of them. This has been a problem all tour, but if they can get their success rate it will go a long way to beating the All Blacks.
This leads me onto my next point, which I’ve already quickly mentioned, goal-kicking. Beauden Barrett’s goal kicking has been splendid of late for the All Blacks, but he struggles for the Hurricanes and struggles at Westpac Stadium. When you compare that to the Lions, who have the best goal kicker in the world in Leigh Halfpenny and a rather decent understudy in Owen Farrell the All Blacks could be shown up in this area of the game. If the it’s close and it comes down to goal kicking, don’t be surprised to see the Lions come out on top.
Lastly, the tires the All Blacks scored in the first test should never have happened. The first two tries to Codie Taylor and Rieko Ioane both occurred because the Lions fell asleep. They weren’t expecting the quick tap for the first try or the All Blacks to play off the back of a massive scrum for the second. The final try to Rieko Ioane came from a drop ball, which should have been taken.
When you add everything up, the Lions clearly have much more room to improve. Their forward pack wasn’t very good on Saturday night, the backline showed potential but wasn’t utilised the way it could have been and I thought the Lions key players were a bit off their game.
On the other hand, the All Blacks were superb. All their key men played near their best, with the exception, as he was playing out of his normal position.
If the Lions can get more ball and use their outside backs more effectively, it will lead to more penalties, meaning more points for the Lions.
I think the second test will be much closer than people are predicting. I’m still backing the All Blacks by about 10 points but I still wouldn’t be surprised if the Lions snuck the second test.