The final scoreline in the first Test may obscure the fact that this was a truly excellent contest between the best players in the world. The first half was as good as it gets, each side playing at the edge of their ability. We saw one of the greatest tries ever seen on a rugby field for a start, and there were lung-bursting phases of thrust and counter thrust which were a delight for the neutral, but the team with the most cohesion was always likely to win that struggle.
We also saw one of the best 8 and 9 performances of all time from Aaron Smith and Kieran Read. I am not sure how you are supposed to deal with the quality of that display, in that they totally eclipsed Murray and Faletau who hardly got a look in. Their tactics dealt with the Lions blitz defence as they probed in the narrow areas but at supreme pace and trusting their handling skills.
I said pre-match that the Back row and the Back three were the key areas for the Lions and so it was. Daly ball-watched badly for the first try, probably thinking that a hooker idling out on the wing was not a threat until he picked the ball up from his bootlaces and dived in at the corner with a good turn of pace. Otherwise the Back three were a bonus although Watsoncant get enough of the ball and really should play fullback. Unfortunately the Lions efficient line out was more than offset at the breakdown and the imbalance of the back row showed. This was a game-changer as Sam Cane and Jerome Kaino had huge games alongside Read.
The pace and ball handling of the All Black forwards were awesome, in contrast to the Lions who showed no aptitude in that area and preferred to see Murray’s box kicking. While it was impressive, it was predictable and took the game away from the Lions as they should have either kept the ball in hand or played territory. They were wonderfully dangerous on the counter-attack, but couldn’t construct any continuity in their play and get Te’o more into the game. He showed nine carries but this was misleading.
In my opinion, the Lions forwards now have to get stuck in and then run Te’o and Davies into more traffic to get the All Blacks turning and feeling pressure.Their mobility can be improved with one or two selections but more importantly with a change of tactic.
The mood will have been enhanced by a cracking contest yesterday in Wellington against the Hurricanes. Nobody was realistically going to play their way into the Test Team but there will be smiles in the camp to have more than matched the Super Rugby Champs. Gatland chose not to empty his temporary bench, so we had the unusual sight of many players going the full 80 – a throwback to the old days. For many of them it will be their last Lions Jersey so fair enough.
On to Saturday – how do I see it? Some angry Lions forwards will rip into the Kiwis and the team will try to keep the ball more (or should) as well as play some territory. Farrell needs more front foot ball and Faletau needs to turn up. I sense that the All Blacks will play a wider game and test the fitness of our forwards. We didn’t see much of their attacking game – other than their tries – which is a scary thought. But will they get enough ball ?
I sense that there is plenty left in this tour, in Windy Wellington and in the game that matters.