I missed Saturday’s match due to a migraine. I’ve seen the highlights but that’s not the same.
One thing I would say is that, although it’s hard from TV and particularly from highlights, it seemed to me that the French referee was not refereeing the scrums impartially. He had it in his mind that the Lions were the dominant pack and he awarded penalties against the Crusaders even when the penalties, from what I saw in the highlights, seemed to deserve to go the other way. I could be wrong but that was my impression. There were also a number of times the Lions defence looked offside to me - again with the caveat of TV angles making that hard to judge - that went unpenalised, and one clear yellow card for a cynical, professional foul that got a penalty but deserved more.
That said, the Lions rattled the Crusaders and forced them into errors that they don’t normally make and stopped them scoring tries from positions where you would normally expect them to clinically dot the ball over the line. However, it must worry the Lions coaches that the players on the pitch didn’t score any tries either. They made a couple of decent opportunities and either put the ball down in a pass, passed a metre or more over the player’s head or the scramble defence kept them out. None of these are good things in what must be close to the test side.
So, on to today’s match against a much depleted Highlanders side. With nine players absent for the All Blacks and the Maori squads, this less than half the Highlander’s starting squad, although there was a sparkle of genuine star-dust with Fekitoa, Squire and one or two others who are around and about All Black selection or are minor players in the All Blacks squad and were released to play today.
It’s going to sound odd to say, but the Lions’ attack is still looking frail. They scored a move off set piece that relied on Stander and the Biggar have moments of personal brilliance, and a defender slipping, rather than a good set piece move. They scored a try that relied on a brilliant piece of individual defence. And, finally, they scored a try that built through the phases and came from building pressure and good attacking play. The criticism I levelled at the Lions’ attack not looking good on Saturday is still there today. There are ten days (and two more games) to try and get this right but I’m not feeling good at the moment. We’ve seen the Lions against what is likely to be the All Blacks tight five performing well, albeit possibly with a less than stellar refereeing performance favouring them. We haven’t seen anything like the All Blacks loose forwards, or the All Blacks back line but all the Super Rugby loose forwards and backs have more or less handled the Lions.
The stats from the match suggest that the Lions won one more turnover defensively (including two within 5m of their try line) but they also conceded three more while on attack (the difference is whether the other side took the ball or you coughed it up) and this is one of those times when the numbers don’t tell the whole story - the errors from the Lions seemed to be in more critical positions, letting the Highlanders back into the game. In addition, yet again, the Lions were on the wrong end of the penalty count.
This is likely to be the dirt-trackers and probably some of the reserves for the test team. But there seem to be some of the same woes and problems running through both sides and the All Blacks will defend better and score more ruthlessly than the Super Rugby sides, despite what Warren Gatland might try to tell us.
Lions watch: honestly no one looked that impressive today. Alun Wyn Jones has an excuse - he was backing up from Saturday and played for a long time after Lawes failed his HIA. Webb and Bigger looked OK both better than in their first run out, but not good enough to displace Murray and, in all honesty, Farrell I think, although with another week to gain confidence he might just push his way in, particularly if Farrell gets injured on Saturday. Joseph definitely had pluses, including scoring a nice try that was made inside for him, but had minuses too, particularly in defence. Nowell and Seymour both looked poor overall and are destined to be dirt-trackers barring injuries to more senior Lions. While you can’t complain about Stander’s work rate, and he saved a likely try, he gave up I think three penalties, four turnovers, and didn’t make many metres for all his ball in hand time. Not a good day at the office. Warburton’s second half was good, but his first half was too quiet, O’Brien and Tipuric are probably ahead of him to start at openside in eleven days time.
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