The British & Irish Lions must be prepared to win 'ugly' if they are to level the Test series against the All Blacks in Wellington on Saturday, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
The Lions came into the first Test in Auckland feeling reasonably confident, having beaten the Crusaders and New Zealand Maori, but suffered a disappointing 30-15 defeat to the All Blacks.
The highlight of the game for the tourists was one of the greatest tries of all time. Liam Williams started it with a counter-attack from close to his tryline, and great interplay between Jonathan Davies and Elliot Daly resulted in a five-pointer for Sean O’Brien at the other end of the field.
You have probably (like me) watched the try several times already, but it's worth watching again (and again):
'That first try they scored should go down in the annals as one of the best tries scored in Test rugby,' said All Blacks coach Steve Hansen after the match. 'They’ll be proud of that and look to do more of it.'
Hansen would certainly like the Lions 'to do more of it' – in other words, play a more attacking, expansive game – because a faster, looser match would benefit his side. Sure, the Lions may score four tries with that 'positive' approach, but the All Blacks would probably score six or seven.
No, the best way for the Lions to beat the All Blacks is to stick with the game plan that saw them beat the Crusaders and Maori. Both of those teams were tipped by many to beat the tourists. The Saders were on a 15-match winning run in Super Rugby and the Maori packed with All Blacks, but it was the Lions who claimed two morale-boosting victories.
How did they achieve it? Their forwards dominated at scrum time, their lineouts were good, the speed of their defensive line gave their opponents little to no space in which to attack, they used their big ball-carriers to get over the advantage line, and they won the territorial battle by kicking accurately out of hand.
The Lions were accused of winning 'ugly' in Christchurch by the Kiwi press, but that didn't bother them then and it shouldn't now. They should be going into the second Test looking to win – and not entertain, as Hansen would like them to do.
So what must the tourists do to make it 1-1?
Firstly, and most importantly, their pack needs to play its part. In Auckland, the All Blacks had the edge at scrum time, and it was from a dominant scrum that Rieko Ioane scored his first try. The Lions also need to compete better at the breakdown, slow down the All Blacks' ball, and dictate the pace of the game, as they did so well against the Crusaders and Maori.
They also need to win the physical battle and dominate the collisions. Bringing Maro Itoje into the second row at the expense of Alun Wyn Jones would help them with that. Itoje came off the bench in the 48th minute of the first Test, but he should have started.
Gatland may also be tempted to make changes at blindside flank and flyhalf, with tour captain Sam Warburton and Johnny Sexton coming in, but otherwise, he should back the players who started in Auckland.
The back three, in particular, justified their selections, with Liam Williams enjoying the match of his life before spilling a high ball that resulted in Ioane's second try. Ben Te’o and Davies were excellent in midfield, and it was only after Te'o left the field that Sonny Bill Williams began to make an impact.
The Lions' defence has been excellent during the Saturday matches on this tour. In Auckland, the All Blacks countered the speed of the Lions' backline by using their big ball-carrying forwards to attack around the fringes of the ruck. This won't have escaped Gatland's attention.
The Lions' biggest problem on tour has been their inability to take their try-scoring opportunities, and that was again the case in the first Test. They should have scored in the second minute of the match – when a hesitant Conor Murray was stopped just short of the line, and Elliot Daley then put a foot in touch before grounding the ball in the left-hand corner – and again early in the second half after an excellent counter-attack. Another two tries were botched when passes didn't go to hand. To win in Wellington, the Lions have to take every chance that comes their way.
The tourists will also need to ensure that they are ahead on the scoreboard, or at least within striking range of the All Blacks, going into the last quarter, because as recent history shows, that is when the world champions lift their game. If the Lions can put the All Blacks under scoreboard pressure, they can force them into making uncharacteristic mistakes.
Then there's the referee. The Lions were not happy with the performance of Jaco Peyper in Auckland. Near the end of the match, O'Brien and Sexton remonstrated with the South African, with Sexton telling him, 'You give them [All Blacks] everything'. Respected British rugby writer Stephen Jones wrote in the UK Sunday Times that 'Peyper was a walking, whistling disaster area'.
The Lions will be pleased to have French referees Jérôme Garcès and Romain Poite for the remaining two Tests, as they are unlikely to let the All Blacks get away with as much as they did in Auckland. Remember too, that there was a French referee (Mathieu Raynal) for the Lions' match against the Crusaders, and he heavily penalised the hosts at scrum time. Without that dominance up front, the Saders struggled, and the same could happen to the All Blacks on Saturday.
The Lions will arrive in Wellington as underdogs, but if they play the right game, and a few of the referee's calls go their way, they could claim an upset.
Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images