The Lions dirt-trackers, or to be fair to the quality of the stadia, mid-week team, have run out comfortable winners against a heavily depleted Chiefs team. Unlike last week against the Highlanders where key players were released, all nine of the All Black and Maori All Black squad members were absent and this left them, in particular, without their first choice hooker, a lock, open side and 9, 10, 12 and 15 amongst others. Talk about missing the axis of your side…
Without wishing to detract from the way the Lions played, which I’ll come to, most of these loses, and the loss of all those experienced combinations, really showed. Within the first 20 minutes there had been three or four Chiefs line outs lost to overthrows and the lineout was constantly under pressure thanks to having one jumper against three all the time.
So that dominance produced good territory and a couple of tries for the Lions, one a penalty try direct from the lineout and one from a bit of phase play in attack. After my complaints about the inability of the Lions to score on counter-attack they also scored from deep in their own territory and from a loose kick that they received. These are all good signs that the attack is coming together and the players are starting to gel.
Liam Williams and Jack Nowell both shone. I don’t think anyone really doubts they’re both quality players, although maybe not as star-spangled as their Kiwi opponents. Tonight’s performance will further those who say Williams should play at full back rather than on the wing for Wales as he looked far more assured with that extra space and picking and choosing where to insert himself into the line as well as the spaces in the defensive set up. I’m not sure if Nowell struggled with the travel or was drained after the Premiership Final and struggled a little to regain focus in the first games he played but he was back. Bigger was also back to his best and showed what he offers. Of the forwards it’s hard to pick out one or two players. The dominance was such that really everyone deserves a mention or, equally, the quality of the Chiefs pack was low enough due to absences that no one deserves a mention.
The Lions have started to gel, which is a good thing. But while the last match has allowed the world, and the All Blacks in particular to see that, there isn’t a new game plan - defend with high speed, scrum well, lineout well. But we have yet to see the Lions try to do that against a full strength All Blacks team with all the speed and strength they’ll bring and all the guile they’ll bring to defeat the rush defence as well. Does anyone doubt with the quality of Read (or Savea), Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett, Anton Leinert-Brown and Sonny Bill Williams they can’t find tricks in that axis to work their way around it, through it or over it?
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