Eyes On: Maori All Blacks v British and Irish Lions

With just a week to go until the first Test match, the Lions took on a strong Maori All Blacks side that contained a number of players capped by New Zealand. After the All Blacks’ 78-0 demolition of Samoa in their warm-up match on Friday, the Lions surely knew that it was important to send a message with a good result of their own.

The opening 40 minutes was a close affair, with 4 penalties from the boot of Leigh Halfpenny cancelling out Liam Messam’s converted try and a penalty from the Chiefs’ Damian McKenzie. As conditions worsened after half time however, the Lions took control of the game through territorial kicking and the strength of their pack, with a penalty try and one from Maro Itoje contributing towards a 10-32 victory.

This will likely be the last game many of these players are involved in before the first Test, especially now that Warren Gatland has called up reinforcements, so with just 1 match left to go before the big games begin, here are my thoughts on the latest game.

 

Falling foul of the law

Sometimes I feel like a broken record, but the Lions’ discipline was shocking yet again, especially in the first half! I don’t expect teams to go the whole game without being penalised, but against the All Blacks they will not be able to give away any cheap penalties if they want to win. Against the Blues, I noted that they kept getting penalised for stupid infringements at the line out and they did this again conceding a free kick 5m from the Maori line. Tadhg Furlong also gave away a penalty at the breakdown despite referee Jaco Peyper giving him a number of warnings and teammate Mako Vunipola also giving him a hefty slap on the bum.

What was also a worry is that a scrum half as experienced as Conor Murray does not appear to have learned the laws of the game that are being played on the tour. Under the new laws – which have been in place in the Southern Hemisphere since the start of their season and will be coming to the Northern Hemisphere once the new season begins – the line out will still be played if a penalty is kicked directly to touch, even if time is up on the clock. The players on this tour should all be fully aware of the changes to the laws, so there is no excuse for a mistake like this. Hopefully we won’t see the Lions fall foul of any law amendments at a crucial point in the Tests.

A strong game plan

Though the weather certainly played into the Lions’ hands, the Lions tactics were perfect for dealing with the Maoris. The pressure from the defence caused McKenzie to stand so deep, it was all but impossible for them to get their dangerous backs and back row into the game. Nehe Milner-Skudder showed a few flashes of the skill that lit up the World Cup, but his grubber kick that led to Messam’s try was speculative at best and should have been dealt with by George North. It’s fair to say that the most exciting moment from the Maoris was their stunning haka, the best I can remember watching!

The tight five looked a weakness for the Maoris and the Lions pack took full advantage of it in the scrums and line outs. Once the weather deteriorated and the ball got slippy, the Lions took full advantage by using the high ball to test the Maoris’ handling under pressure and were often rewarded with scrums that they duly dominated. The penalty try was just reward for their efforts today and I’m sure many of the forwards cemented their Test squad status with that performance. I don’t expect the All Blacks pack to be bullied so easily, but this is definitely an area where the Lions could have an advantage and if conditions are poor – they have been for a lot of the matches so far – the chances of a Lions victory will increase.

Their attacking still needs some work though. There appeared to be more breaks from the tourists, many courtesy of Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies – surely they must be the centre pairing for the Tests – but too often the support was lacking. There were also a couple of occasions where the Lions were turned over close to the Maori line. At risk of sounding like a broken record, to have a chance of beating the All Blacks the Lions must take any chance they create.

Naming the 23

In my last article I named what I felt would be the 23-man squad for the first Test assuming everyone is fit. As I picked this before the Lions named their squad for this game, I have decided to reassess my selection after each of the remaining games, as players continue to get more game-time. This match has made me change a couple of selections, but it has also solidified a number of picks. As with last time, this is on the assumption that everyone is fully fit (Owen Farrell’s injury means he is currently a doubt for the first Test and I have not heard anything about Courtney Lawes’ head injury) so if there is a player who is currently an injury doubt I will put their replacement next to them in brackets.

  1. Mako Vunipola
  2. Jamie George
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. George Kruis
  6. Sam Warburton (Peter O’Mahony)
  7. Sean O’Brien
  8. Taulupe Faletau
  9. Conor Murray
  10. Owen Farrell (Johnny Sexton)
  11. Elliot Daly
  12. Ben Te’o
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. George North
  15. Leigh Halfpenny
  16. Ken Owens
  17. Jack McGrath
  18. Kyle Sinckler
  19. Courtney Lawes (Alun Wyn Jones)
  20. Peter O’Mahony/CJ Stander
  21. Rhys Webb
  22. Johnny Sexton (Dan Biggar)
  23. Anthony Watson

Whilst I have kept the same 6 front rowers, I have switched the starter at hooker as I feel today’s starters were so successful they will be selected as a group. Conor Murray came through the game looking very good and did not appear to be struggling with his shoulder in the same way he did against the Crusaders. With Stuart Hogg out, Leigh Halfpenny was reliable and positioned himself well to field kicks from the Maoris, whilst his metronomic kicking off the tee becomes very important if Farrell is unavailable for the fist Test. The wings have been very difficult to pick as there have been no standout performers. Despite his error for Messam’s try, George North keeps his spot as I can’t imagine Gatland wanting to go up against Julian ‘The Bus’ Savea with the slighter wingers he has to pick from. Anthony Watson was given the full 80 minutes again today which makes me think he will be preferred to Liam Williams, though I have not seen much special in attack, but I do not feel that his defence is good enough to start against the All Blacks. Daly has not started since the Blues game but has come off the bench for the last two games. Due to his versatility, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him and Watson swapped around, however I feel that he is a more reliable defender and his all-round skill set gives the Lions extra options in attack or when looking to clear their Lines. I have picked Courtney Lawes on the bench over Alun Wyn Jones due to his versatility and the way he can put the fear of God into a fly half when they get the ball. Jones was my pick for the Tour captaincy this time last year but has not seemed to be at his best form and has also been rather undisciplined in his Lions outings so far. CJ Stander has been solid if not spectacular so far in the tour, so I feel that today’s impressive performance by the Lion’s pack could have put O’Mahony ahead of him. Further to this, O’Mahony captained the team well today so if Warburton is deemed not ready for the first Test, I could imagine the Irishman coming in to lead the side.

 

What were your thoughts on the game? Do you think I missed anything? What would your squad be for the first Test? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

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