When I said in yesterday’s post I wouldn’t be surprised if the Provincial Barbarians beat the Lions, I had no idea just how prophetic my words might be.
With a slightly more sympathetic pass, or without a truly heroic piece of defence from Taulupe Faletau (illustrating why I consistently pick him above Billy Vunipola in my world Number 8 rankings - Vunipola is better at one thing, Faletau is better all round) and later a good piece of maul defence from Mako Vunipola and I would have looked truly prescient.
Bear in mind the NZ betting had the spread at something like 45 points and a 13-7 victory to the Lions, one they can count themselves as somewhat lucky to manufacture at that, is really not the sort of performance anyone expects.
Now, one of the excuses - the Lions only arrives in New Zealand on Wednesday and their body clocks are shot to bits - I have a lot of sympathy for. When I went to New Zealand I actually adjusted really quickly but not everyone will, and I didn’t have to play rugby to a high level. The excuse about lack of time and being ring-rusty will fly better come Tuesday, but this barbarians (PB) side has actually had less preparation time and was drawn from the majority of the Mitre 10 Cup (formerly the more descriptive National Provincial Championship) teams. The aim was to get a player from each of the provinces but they didn’t quite manage that due to injury. As I commented yesterday, New Zealand rugby basically has a template, and although individual players play in their own style in a given position, they all understand the core job that goes with wearing a certain number and can play to that number. The excellence, the brilliance, that comes from playing together and knowing exactly where a person will be because you’ve passed to them 1,000 times in 50 matches and you’ve offloaded to them 100 times won’t be there, but if you make a break, everyone will know exactly how to support it. The same is not true of even all the Welsh teams, and when you add in the English, Irish and Scottish teams it just gets worse.
The PB side didn’t have the magic linking that the Super Rugby sides do and the All Blacks will simply because they don’t have the time together than these other sides do - the Lions will have to get better because their opposition are certainly going to. But the Lions looked, for most of the match like individuals playing against a team. While, man for man, they were better the other side were a better team for most of the match, kept in check by guts and determination.
Just about the only time that wasn’t true was at the scrum and sometimes at the lineout - times where there is less teamwork in the sense of trusting your inside players and running good lines and so on, and more teamwork in the sense of everyone binding and pushing, or learning the calls and jumping/moving/binding properly and superior skill and strength will have a bigger impact because the players around you are all test level players and they can scrummage, they can maul, they can jump in the lineout. In broken play, in the open field, it was a different story.
The Lions, past and present, might be putting a brave face on it in public but the Blues will be rubbing their hands and the coaches will be working the players hard.
Farrell certainly, and Biggar probably, will be happy, Sexton unhappy. Faletau and Moriaty happy. Hogg unhappy. The coaches largely very unhappy.
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