Belfast Telegraph

Comment: Lions are in a bad place but it can be put right

And Tony Ward explains how ahead of Saturday's showdown against Crusaders

By Tony Ward

The easy option for those outside the sacred circle is to stick the boot in.

My own feeling on Wednesday when watching a second shapeless Lions performance - particularly in attacking terms, ie when we have the ball - was one of sadness. Have we learned nothing from the last World Cup and the manner in which three of the four semi-finalists qualified, with New Zealand setting the bar?

Like backs coach Rob Howley, I don't know what 'Warrenball' is but I do get the criticism.

On a personal level, I like the former Welsh scrum-half but his bizarre press conference prior to playing the Blues did himself or this Lions management little credit. It was smart-alecky stuff and smacked of arrogance, a characteristic they can ill afford at any stage in this tour's development.

Yes, they did improve from the previous Saturday as so they should. And it has nothing to do with jetlag or preparation time. But what it has everything to do with is getting to know each other, specifically in units under match pressure. That said, the absence of any semblance of creativity or willingness to take New Zealand on with purpose or a preordained plan in the wider channels is a huge concern.

With the exception of Jonathan Joseph - clearly out of the frame already - I cannot see where that game-breaking spark of invention for the Lions can possibly come from. As we have seen with the last three winners of the Guinness Pro12, and the Wallabies, Pumas and All Blacks on the biggest stage of all, if there's a will then there is a way. I am not looking to be overly simplistic but without planning to change lines of attack and support how can you possibly dig yourself out of a hole bar the brain-dead kick to the corner and pushover try option?

In Eden Park, the Blues crossed the Lions whitewash six times and although only three were given two were crackers with even the simplicity of the first try in its creation beyond the wherewithal of the tourists at this point.

It's as if we are still in a time warp in this part of the world and New Zealand have moved on even further from 2015 again.

Just look at the Maori squad named for tomorrow week and the inclusion of Nehe Milner-Skudder, Damian McKenzie, Ihaia West (who I am informed by one of my Maori friends has definite Irish links) and (Leinster-bound) James Lowe, to name but some.

Does their absence from the full All Blacks squad indicate a move away from winning matches through sheer dexterity in scoring tries and specifically the premeditated desire to exploit where room still exists? Of course not.

West's match-winning try in Eden Park, on the back of two sublime offloads, deserved to be just that.

The 2017 Lions are in a bad place early on this tour but it is nothing that a win tomorrow, by taking on the Crusaders at their own game, wouldn't put right.

To that end, the head coach has named what is close to a Test line-up when balancing the need for game-time with performances to date.

To be fair to Gatland, his hands are tied in so far as he has had to give all 41 players a starting run in the opening three games. Hence 11 of the starting 15 will make their initial run-on appearances; however, rookies they are most definitely not.

The ultimate success of the tour will, of course, be measured in Test results. Nobody remembers semi-finalists or finalists, only winners. But in the context of this series and the run up to the opening Test in a fortnight's time, this game in Christchurch is crucial. A moral victory (as in another narrow defeat) by way of a good defensive show, hot line speed, solid set-pieces and maybe a mauling try or two is of little consequence for what lies ahead.

We need to see something that sows a seed of doubt in Kiwi minds and so far it just ain't there.

I really want to believe that northern hemisphere rugby, at least among the Four unions that make up the Lions, is nowhere near as bad or as dated as it appears on the evidence to date. Only Ben Te'o and Stuart Hogg of tomorrow's backs have started, while for Conor Murray, Jonathan Davies and George North it will be a maiden run.

Hogg's inclusion (with Leigh Halfpenny omitted from the match-day squad) is on the back of Owen Farrell's reliability off the tee (plus Johnny Sexton or Dan Biggar in reserve) and a risk well worth taking because I cannot see where a clean line break might come beyond the Scottish full-back.

Both Te'o and Davies make for a smart defensive pairing but that conservatism, however square they might each play, will not win a Test series.

From an Irish perspective, both Peter O'Mahony and Seán O'Brien (along with CJ Stander) could be competing for the No 6 jersey alongside Taulupe Faletau who is a nailed-on certainty to start at No 8. Apart from Murray at scrum-half, Irish interest could centre around either prop (Jack McGrath or Tadhg Furlong) or indeed both if Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler are viewed ahead of Joe Marler and Dan Cole as the best impact replacements.

And unless he is carrying an injury, the absence of Sam Warburton is intriguing. Depending on how Jamie George goes Ken Owens is looking the best of the hookers, while a place for Maro Itoje has surely to be found come the first Test. The fact that the Lions are top-heavy with second-rows yet the Blacks still field the best combination in the world says it all.

Belfast Telegraph

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