As I stood, pint in hand, watching the inevitable New Zealand second half onslaught, my mind cast me back a year to Wales’ tour of New Zealand. In the first test Wales came out of the blocks charging and went in leading at half time 18-15. Watching at home as a neutral I knew the All Blacks hadn’t clicked, and watched in bemusement as the British pundits attempted to goad All Blacks legend Sean Fitzpatrick; asking if he was worried that the All Blacks could lose at Eden Park for the first time since 1994. He sat there calmly and told them not a chance. He wasn’t being arrogant but just knew the All Blacks always finish games strong to wipe out their opposition.
The same thing happened on Saturday night and all the half times Lions optimism turned to dust as the All Blacks cranked up the gears with a turbo charged second half finish. In their last 6 home games the All Blacks have dominated the last 20 minutes winning the last quarter by a cumulative total of 91-0 and it was the same story here, bar the last minute Rhys Webb consolation try.
At the end of the game there was a sense of deflation. The Lions have been improving week on week but this match was several steps too far and they were found wanting against the best in the business.
What is perhaps most deflating is that the Lions didn’t even play that badly, they were just outclassed and given a lesson in how to finish off chances. The Lions counterattacking play was excellent, but with the exception of THAT try (one of the best I’ve ever seen), there was not the supporting players to finish off breaks and land the killer blow.
When the All Blacks made a break there were always two options on the players shoulders, but too often Te’o and Davies were isolated after blasting through the line. Whilst the Lions were dangerous on the break their structured attack did not look dangerous enough to penetrate the All Blacks, and they enjoyed surprisingly little territory despite opting for a kick chase game dictated by Conor Murray.
The substitutions were also questionable as Gatland took off two of the best performers in Te’o and Williams for Sexton and Halfpenny respectively. Halfpenny is a solid player but does not have the attacking prowess to warrant being thrown on when 20 points down. The introduction of Sexton for Te’o also felt desperate as Gatland took off one off a player having a great game in an attempt to change up the pattern of play. This move actually weakened the Lions attack as both Sexton and Farrell were playing flat to the gain line and the Lions then struggled to build any momentum.
It is worth commenting on just how good the All Blacks were. They nullified the Lions suffocating defensive game by attacking around the fringes of the rucks and offloading out of the tackle at every opportunity.
Their returning captain, Kieran Read, had no right playing as well as he did in his first match back after months on the treatment table.
He was dominant with the ball in hand, as well as his back row partner Jerome Kaino, and they caused the Lions problems all game.
Special mention should also be given to Reiko Ioane scoring two tries on his first start for the All Blacks.
Eliot Daly is by no means slow but he was made to look like a pub team forward as Ioane outpaced him to score his second try of the match.
It’s not all doom and gloom for the Lions though. The frustrating part is that they did create chances but then just failed to finish them off. In hindsight failure to score in the second minute was always going to be costly as you get so few chances against the All Blacks. Wholesale changes are not required the Lions just need to play with at a level of accuracy that they have not yet come close to on this tour. They played at 80% of their ability here but anything less than 99% accuracy against the All Blacks is not good enough. The players have the skill they just all need to have the game of their lives in the next game in Wellington.