Fine match, even a very fine one, but short of greatness because for the last half-hour the outcome was never in doubt. But it was an odd match too because the form it took wasn’t as expected.
The pundits, even enthusiasts for expansive rugby like Stuart Barnes, had mostly been clear. The Lions couldn’t beat the All Blacks by playing adventurous rugby. So no panache, no champagne stuff. Instead they must dominate possession with an old-style English forward game, a dominant set-piece, hard driving and lots of rolling maul, while controlling territory by kicking to the corner to put the All Blacks under pressure. They might then win penalties and kick goals or go again to a five-metre line-out and another forward drive, even if there was no mighty Dean Richards as of old to stick it up his jersey. The argument made sense, even if it was, for Lions Romantics like me, somewhat depressing sense.
But what happened? The game wasn’t two minutes old when the Lions chose to run the ball. Jonathan Davies found a gap as wide as a Cathedral door, cut through, passed to Conor Murray who passed to Elliott Daly who all but got in at the corner. A nimbler wing – Anthony Watson indeed – might have made it, but the cover defence just managed to force Daly into touch. Still as a statement of intent it was as impressive as it was surprising. The All Blacks came back of course, kicked a couple of penalties and then scored a good try from a tap penalty which the Lions were slow to react to. Then after Owen Farrell’s penalty goal had made it 3-13, the Lions scored a wonderful try. Full-back Liam Williams ran audaciously from deep in his own 22, and after an exchange of passes with Jonathan Davies (again) and Daly featuring, Sean O’Brien went over. Though Daly is English and O’Brien Irish, this was a try straight from the glory days of Welsh rugby in the Seventies. Farrell missed the conversion, but 8-13 at half-time was better than one had feared. The adventurism continued after the break. Anthony Watson made a run of side-stepping mesmeric brilliance, worthy of Welsh wing magicians like Gerald Davies and, more recently, Shane Williams. Watson of course is English – so it might be more suitable to compare him to Jason Robinson.
But that, sadly, was more or less it. The All Blacks took control, their young wing Rieko Ioane scoring two tries, and kept it till the last minute of the match when Rhys Webb, the Lions replacement scrum-half, nipped over the try-line. This was significant only inasmuch as a 30-15 defeat sounds quite a bit better than an 30-8 one.
I suppose Barnes and the other gloomy pundits were right. The Lions found that they couldn’t beat the All Blacks, this time anyway, playing the daring handling game we used to look for from Lions teams. The trouble is that, on the evidence of this match, they couldn’t beat them either in the way that the pundits had thought possible. The Lions line-out was secure but their mauls were easily checked, and in general they came off second-best at the breakdown. Moreover there was no Lions’ dominance of the set-scrum; quite the contrary. The second New Zealand try came when the Lions scrum went backwards, the referee signalled a penalty, and before he blew his whistle to stop play, the All Blacks captain and number 8, the mighty Kieran Read, dextrously slipped the ball to scrum-half Aaron Smith, and a couple of passes later Ioane was over in the corner. That settled the game and was a moment of humiliation for the Lions forwards.
So: a comfortable win for New Zealand, and what should worry the Lions most is that, though the All Blacks were very good, they were someway short of their mesmerising best. They played with pace and power and intensity, and some of their off-loading was exceptional, but they made handling mistakes too and never quite cut loose as they can. No doubt this was due in part to the quality of the Lions defence, but after the final whistle you couldn’t but wonder what will happen when the All Blacks really click.
Which thought invites the question: what can the Lions do to turn things round? It’s a question to which there is no obvious answer.
Gatland’s selections have always come in for criticism, but I don’t think he got much wrong. Those who deplore what they see as his pro-Welsh bias might consider that the only Welsh player in the starting XV who had a poor game was also the only one whom even the anti-Welsh brigade would have had in the team – Toby Faletau. The veteran Alun Wyn Jones played pretty well till replaced by Maro Itoje, and was certainly better than his English lock-partner, George Kruis. I thought the wrong lock was substituted, but almost everyone would have had Kruis in the starting XV. Liam Williams made a mess of fielding the kick which Ioane snapped up to score his second try. Leigh Halfpenny might well have fielded it, but I can’t think he would have made that run out of defence that made the Lions’ glorious first try possible. So I don’t think Gatland got anything seriously wrong in his selection.
Nor do I think he made a mistake in opting for a more ambitious style of play than many believed likely or indeed wise. Things can change of course, but on the evidence of this First Test, the Lions are not going to enjoy the forward supremacy many expected, or at least hoped, they would have. Much of the time they were on the hind foot and their backs were feeding off scraps. In the circumstances they did pretty well. Their back three, Watson especially, were always dangerous, Jonathan Davies – another whose selection came in for criticism- was excellent and indeed had his best international match for a long time. Ben Te’o did what he does well enough. Owen Farrell was very good in the first half, and Conor Murray’s box-kicks sometimes had the All Blacks in trouble. The Lions forwards may be more effective in Wellington, but the idea that they will dominate looks fanciful today.
One repeats: the All Blacks will almost always score tries. So you have to score tries to beat them, and the one positive message that comes out of this First Test is that Lions backs have shown that they too can be dangerous, scoring or initiating tries. So perhaps this was a better day for the Romantics than the Pragmatists.