The Auckland Blues handed the British & Irish Lions their first defeat of the 2017 tour, in only their second warm-up game yesterday evening. An incredible finish from substitute fly-half Ihaia West put the hosts ahead with only 5 minutes to go, and the Lions failed to capitalize on their late chances to regain the lead in the 22-16 loss.

It’s massively disappointing to lose the first warm-up game against a Super Rugby side, and with the Blues currently ranked the lowest of all the Kiwi sides in Super Rugby, there is a foreboding element to the result.

Nevertheless, the Lions did step up a level from their previous outing and despite the result, there were more positives and encouraging aspects to take from the performance than there was from Saturday’s win.

Scrum Parity

The scrum plays a big role in every game of rugby, but it’s a hugely important element to the Lions’ blueprint to defeat New Zealand. One of the areas they believe they can achieve parity, it was an area in which they dominated in Eden Park.

After a steady yet unspectacular scrummaging debut against the Provincial Barbarians, Gatland’s new front-row had a more successful effort against the Blues’ unit. Jack McGrath and Dan Cole put their Blues counterparts under pressure throughout the entire game, while Joe Marler & Kyle Sinckler only compounded that once they entered the fray.

The Lions won 4 penalties from the scrum and could have won more, as their Kiwi opposition struggled to match their drive. With Charlie Faumuina – the Blues’ tighthead – likely to be in New Zealand’s test squad, it’s an encouraging sign that both McGrath & Marler put him under intense pressure at the coalface.

Line-out Woes

Another set-piece area the tourists are expected to target, they had a mixed bag come line-out time on Wednesday. At this stage of the Lion’s infancy, Gatland will just want to see cohesion developing between different throwers and lifting pods. There was evidence of this during the game, and for the most part, the Lions were adept in the air as they bundled pressure on the Blues’ throw and maul. However this contrasted one or two frustrating errors that will rankle their pack.

Rory Best’s overthrow at the death of the game was a particularly painful note to end the evening on. In such a winnable position, the Lions need to be winning that ball and rumbling towards the try line. The high profile miss is something that will frustrate Best, and something the Irish hooker will cop a lot of flak for, but the problem runs much deeper than his throw.

With Best’s throw as the trigger for the jump, the ball is going to be in full flight before Itoje makes his jump. The Saracens’ lock will take his guidance from Best, and he needs to time his jump to meet the ball at his full extension. However, this is something that goes astray, and it’s ultimately a system failure as opposed to a bad throw.

The above screenshot captures the moment the ball leaves Best’s hand. It’s a quick throw as the Lions walk into the line, likely an attempt to catch the Blues off guard in their maul defence. Even with that little preparation we see Itoje is poised in his movement, ready to jump, while Marler moves into position behind him. Sinckler has yet to react at this point, and although he is the last person that needs to react, you feel he could have done better here. As the front lifter, his role is to catch Itoje mid-jump and support his ascension – he takes his cue from the jumper, so it’s another simple timing issue.

Following the ball’s progress through it’s full flight, it’s clear the jump is too late to meet the ball at the peak of it’s throw. In the first shot Itoje’s feet are planted as he prepares to spring, but by the time he is making his leap the ball has already gone over his head. Ideally Itoje should be at full extension when he gathers the throw after an earlier jump, and that’s a far cry from how this set-piece played out.

The throw could have been better on Best’s behalf certainly, as it is dipping considerably before it has the potential to catch Itoje at full-reach, yet the timing between all three players is the issue. Sinckler should have been quicker to turn, Itoje should have been quicker starting his jump – these things come with time, and it’s something Gatland won’t mind as long as it’s resolved over the coming weeks.

High Penalty Count

Simply put, you cannot give away 13 penalties in a game, and expect to come out on the right side of the result. The penalty offences detailed below give an idea of how avoidable some of them were – Haskell’s neck-roll after only two minutes was a momentum swinger, Biggar’s offside, Payne’s obstruction, closing the gap, Marler’s double movement – frustrating penalties, and frustrating ways to concede possession.

1 James Haskell Neck Roll
2 Dan Biggar Offside at Lineout
3 Courtney Lawes Taking out the man in the air (lineout)
4 Jared Payne Obstruction
5 Rhys Webb Offside at Ruck
6 Maro Itoje Not Releasing the Ball
7 The Forwards Closing Gap in Lineout
8 CJ Stander High Tackle
9 Justin Tipuric Tackler Not Rolling Away
10 Johnny Sexton Tackler Not Rolling Away
11 Liam Williams Taking out the man in the air (open play)
12 Liam Williams Taking out the man in the air (open play)
13 Joe Marler Double Movement w/Ball

That indiscipline will be an area of concern for Warren Gatland, and it’s something they will need to eliminate from their game going forward. But it’s also an indication of the Lion’s general sloppiness as they are still trying to achieve familiarity with each other.

Backline Malaise

While the Lions dominated up front against the Blues, their struggles outside the pack were clear to see. The impressive Rhys Webb benefited from clean ball which he quickly fed wide, but it was fed to a backline that were unable to cause the Blues problems. A lot of one-up runners and loose kicking from Johnny Sexton and Webb as the game wore on, Howley’s attacking plan has yet to find it’s feet – if there is one.

The word creativity is going to be thrown around a lot over the coming weeks as the Lions strive to strike the right chord in attack, and it’s an area they know their opposition will excel. Blues’ were excellent with the ball in hand, with Sonny Bill Williams’ skillset prominent and Reiko Ioane superb on the wing. Their ability to offload in the tackle ripped the Lions’ defensive line, and it’s these unpredictable moments that cut through a system. Something the Lions arguably cannot do.

Some of the media talk during the build-up to the game was enjoyable if not ridiculous, as Lions’ coaching staff refuted the idea of ‘Warrenball’, pointing to rugby ‘chaos’ – whatever that is. In truth, any expansive attacking game would be a hugely encouraging change from what we’ve come to expect from the Lions, as there are already question marks about Rob Howley’s ability to create a test winning attacking strategy.

And, the Context

2017 marks the first time the Lions have played Super Rugby sides in warm-up games, so they’re playing in uncharted territory. The challenges and teams they face over the coming weeks will be far superior to those they have traditionally faced in the run-up to the test series, and that context is not lost on Gatland.

Making mistakes in warm-up games is fine as long as lessons are learned, and that’s the emphasis over the next few weeks – if the Lions spend the next fortnight losing games but improving in their combinations, those results will mean very little if they can achieve a test victory in New Zealand.

 

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