This year’s Lions series asked more questions than it answered about the two Test sides involved, but it’s hard to argue that the tourists came out of it the better. Warren Gatland defied expectations by getting his side to play attacking, ball-in-hand rugby rather than territory, and he put aside his preference for certain players, largely selecting his team on form. Even though Sonny Bill Williams’ red card in the second Test altered the course of the series, coming away with a draw when they were expected to be hammered out the gate was a relative success for the Lions.
As for the hosts, the manner in which they lost the second Test and failed to get a grip of the third has damaged their reputation of invincibility, and brought to light a couple of inconvenient truths that Steve Hansen and co. will have to address if they are to restore their team’s total dominance of international rugby. Two losses and one draw against northern hemisphere opponents in the space of eight months is unforgivable for an All Blacks squad and coaching ticket, and won’t be forgotten anytime soon by a demanding rugby public who view constant success as a given.
When you look at the starting XV’s that New Zealand fielded in the Tests, there’s no arguing with the packs that Hansen picked. Each unit within the forwards (front row, second row, back row) contained the best individuals available, as well as balanced combinations, the one exception being Dane Coles, who was unavailable due to concussive symptoms. Codie Taylor was excellent in Coles’ absence and Joe Moody and Owen Franks maintained the high standard that they have set over the last few years.
Despite being surprisingly below par in the third Test, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock dominated the first and battled manfully in the second as part of a seven-man pack when Jerome Kaino was sacrificed to allow New Zealand an extra player in the back line after Sonny Billl Williams departed. Kaino was ultra-physical and himself, Sam Cane, and Kieran Read continue to be the archetype loose forward trio, but it’s in the backs where Hansen has tough decisions to make ahead of the upcoming Rugby Championship.
Scrum-half isn’t an issue, with the competition between Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara pushing both players to new heights, but further afield, individual errors and imbalance proved to be costly. New Zealand had plenty of chances to put the Lions away in the first half of the third Test and secure the series win, only to be undone by poor execution when the try line beckoned, and the end result was that the hosts hung in the contest, developed self-belief, and clawed their way back to a draw.
A lot of this had to do with Beauden Barrett’s place-kicking woes. For all his qualities (and there are several of them), the Hurricanes playmaker struggles from the tee, and his accuracy across club and international tournaments isn’t what you would expect from a player that is regarded as the top out-half in the world. The other problem for him is that teams have developed a style of defence when playing him that makes him markedly less threatening. When the opposition rush up into the space just outside Barrett, it cuts off his passing options and forces him to turn back infield where two or three forwards are waiting to hammer him back in the tackle.
Barrett is deceptively strong in contact for a lean man, but trying to bash over tacklers isn’t his natural game, and it prevents him from getting the players outside him into gaps with his world-class distribution. Scott Robertson’s Crusaders were the first to use this tactic back in May, and Andy Farrell adopted it to good effect, limiting New Zealand to five tries in three matches. Australia, South Africa and Argentina will have watched those Tests closely, and realised that if they can get their defence right and stop New Zealand from crossing the whitewash, they struggle to win because of Barrett’s profligacy from the boot.
Midfield turned out to be tricky against the Lions for New Zealand, even with the abundance of quality at their disposal. Ryan Crotty’s injury troubles and Malaki Fekitoa’s drop in form robbed them of their most balanced centre partnership, and the combinations that were used across the series were found wanting. Sonny Bill Williams could have been the standout player of the series, but his reckless shoulder charge on Anthony Watson ended his participation in it.
In theory, Ngani Laumape and Anton Lienert-Brown complement each other well: a bulldozing 12 with a low centre of gravity and a 13 with incisive running lines and the softest of hands. Both were outplayed by Jonathan Davies in the third Test, and when Crotty is fit, someone will have to make way for him. The Crusaders stalwart has to start when he is available because everything New Zealand do runs more smoothly when he’s on the pitch. He has impressive pace, a nose for the try line, and the strength in contact to get over the gain line, but it’s his ability to know where to be and what to do at every point in a game that makes him a guaranteed starter. It’s difficult to say who out of Williams, Laumape, or Lienert-Brown are best-suited to playing alongside him long-term.
The back three is also an area where finding a balance won’t be easy. Notwithstanding the devastating abilities of Julian Savea, Waisake Naholo and Rieko Ioane with ball in hand, all three were exposed under the high ball by the Lions. Does that mean that Hansen has to select Jordie Barrett at full back and Israel Dagg and Ben Smith on the wings whenever New Zealand play a side who have a strong kicking game? They say that when you let the opposition’s strengths dictate your team selections that you’re already on the back foot, but New Zealand are making themselves vulnerable to aerial bombardment by picking any one of Savea, Naholo, or Ioane.
Learning From The Past
The Graham Henry-Richie McCaw-Dan Carter edition of New Zealand used the RWC 2007 quarter-final loss to France as a powerful motivating tool, and recognised the need for improvement in certain facets. In the years that followed, they added a pragmatic dimension to the enterprising, multi-phase game that they had already fine-tuned, and they became nigh-on unbeatable, going from strength to strength, and enjoying unprecedented success during the next two RWC cycles. It’s not that they stopped playing try-scoring rugby; they just realised that sometimes, circumstances (weather conditions, refereeing decisions, the quality of defences) dictated that they had to grind out victories via three-pointers, rather than attempt to play champagne rugby and lose big Tests in the process.
What made doing this somewhat easier for New Zealand was that they had 1) the greatest 10 who has ever lived in the form of Carter, a gifted pivot who could execute whatever game plan his team wanted him to, and 2) a hard-as-nails, warrior openside flanker as captain who was as adept at getting his hands dirty at the bottom of rucks as he was at doing the glamorous link play in wider channels.
There’s no doubting Kieran Read’s physical or mental toughness, but for Beauden Barrett, is it really as clear-cut as saying that he has to improve his place-kicking and get better at playing territory? Most players have flaws that they can never quite eradicate, and the creases in Barrett’s game may never be ironed out, regardless of how many hours he puts into them on the training paddock. Maybe it would be more practical to let his brother take the shots at goal and hand the touch-finding duties over to someone like Israel Dagg?
While the current crop of New Zealand players are considered by some to be lesser versions of the champions that preceded them, they are still outstanding, intelligent athletes, and are more than good enough to adapt. The biggest challenge facing them in this regard is time. It is less than ideal that their imperfections have been highlighted in the middle of a World Cup cycle, as opposed to at the start of one, because it gives them less time to make the necessary changes. You would always back New Zealand to think their way through a predicament and remind everyone why they deserve to be at the top of the table, but it remains to be seen whether they can do so over the next two years.