There are some fundamental aspects to winning matches in New Zealand, and after three matches out there the Lions are still struggling to come to grips with them. The gainline is king and at the moment the New Zealanders are on the throne.
There has been a lot of talk about the breakdown, and the refereeing interpretations of it. I think people are forgetting how often our home teams come up against southern hemisphere opposition, and - even more often - get refereed by southern hemisphere officials.
If it is true that there are differing interpretations, then Sir Clive Woodward and his coaches have had plenty of time to prepare for them. I think that the real reason why the New Zealanders are successful at the breakdown is their dominance of the gainline. It's not simply about the numbers of players being committed there. The Lions forwards in Hamilton yesterday were having to double back on themselves before they could hit the rucks and mauls, whereas the Maori were picking up from the scrum or the ruck and going forwards. It is a basic difference which counts for an awful lot at the highest level.
Some things in rugby do not change. I toured New Zealand with Wales once upon a time and we were terrorised by a fellow called Michael Jones, a great flanker in his own right and one who had the good fortune of having Wayne "Buck" Shelford at No 8, who was a rather handy henchman.
In the same way Jones was able to create havoc back then, so Marty Holah had a field day for the Maori because his side's defence was aggressive and the Lions failed to get over the gainline. The Lions were playing laterally and it played into the hands of Holah. With that man Richie McCaw looming on the horizon to play on the openside in the Tests, the Lions know they must nullify the threat of the "loosies", as they call them Down Under, or they will just be making life easy for them.
There is a theory that Woodward and his coaches are keeping something back, which I hope is true though I am not too confident. The All Blacks have yet to reveal their full hand, though in poker parlance a 91-0 win over Fiji seems like a pair of aces in the hole to me. If Woodward is bluffing he must have a few big ball-carriers up his sleeve that I don't know about. With the possible exception of Martin Corry and Lewis Moody, I am not sure who they are.
The Lions called Ryan Jones of Wales out as cover for Simon Taylor, and Ryan can carry the ball, but whoever does the job had better start doing it against Wellington and Otago this week. You cannot switch form on and off like a light.
The next few days are when Woodward, Andy Robinson and Eddie O'Sullivan will have to earn their corn as coaches. There were too many handling errors from the Lions but I would be more concerned at the lack of a strategy of what they are trying to do. They have simply got to get over that gainline.
And there were so many other key areas with little glitches. Steve Thompson's throwing started off all right, but I can understand why it deteriorated. He was under attack from the Maori and their two-man lifts at the back of the line-out. That is something the Lions should be able to work on.
The same goes for the restarts, at which the Lions did not compete. Stephen Jones kicked long on occasions but that only invites the prospect of counter- attacks from the back three.
At the scrummage I felt that the back row could have done more to help out the new boy Andy Sheridan at loose-head prop. The back row were binding loosely or standing up and the scrum was not anywhere near as dominant as the Lions would like it to be. If a prop is struggling, sometimes you have got to put a bit of weight in behind him.
So the upshot was that the Lions had very little field position. I counted on the fingers of one hand the number of times they were in the Maori 22. There was slow ball which they decided to shovel out, which meant a fair bit of rubbish coming the way of Matt Dawson and Jones. I have said from the start that the Lions need someone to put his hand up and replace Mike Tindall at inside-centre, and Gordon D'Arcy did not manage it yesterday.
The try they did score was simple and direct: first and second phase ball followed by a bit of magic from Brian O'Driscoll. It was a rare example of a Lion taking the game by the scruff of the neck.
I am sticking to my belief that the Lions' backs have the potential to do some damage on this tour. We haven't seen much of Jonny Wilkinson yet, and nothing at all of Jason Robinson and Gareth Thomas. But to get the best out of them and the likes of Josh Lewsey they have to sort out those Kiwi loosies.Reuse content