Belfast Telegraph

Gatland's nightmare only just beginning, as Best throws his Test hopes up in the air

 

By Neil Francis

A good while ago, I was selected to play for the Barbarians against Australia in Melbourne. The nice people from Qantas flew us out first class and we stayed in the best hotels - these are the perks, the flip side is you have to perform!

Sean Fitzpatrick was giving the pep talk on the evening of the match which was played five days after we landed. I could not understand a word he said. Jetlag. We went to the ground and got ready to play.

The team went outside to warm up and I thought I would just put my boots on and I'd be with them. Twenty-five minutes later the team came back in with a good sweat on them. I was fast asleep in the dressing room with dribble running down the side of my mouth.

Abdel Benazzi, my second row partner, checks for a pulse and I wake from my slumber. This is five minutes before a serious match against the Wallabies. A can of Red Bull later and I am ready for the world. I have a stormer but none of my team-mates let my sleeping patterns and severe jetlag go - relentless slagging.

Playing a match of any kind a few days after flying from London to Auckland will always be a struggle. The Lions looked like they were sleepwalking against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians, but they got the win and we can blame a goodly portion of their somnolent display on time zones.

None of them were under any illusions when they all got picked to travel, but deep down in the hours after the game there would be murmurings of disquiet. That Barbarians side was full of All-Ireland League level players - New Zealand AIL level players! The point would not have been lost.

It will not have been lost on the Lions either how comfortable the opponents were on the ball, their skill levels, their quality of passing, their speed of thought and body, but most of all how direct they were. The thought in my mind a day after the match was that a jetlagged All Black side would have put 100 points on insurance clerks and postmen in 80 minutes. This is going to be worse than we all feared.

We now get to know what sort of a binary world the northern hemisphere plays its rugby in. Yesterday when the Lions took on the Blues nobody was certain what would happen.

The Blues are considered fragile and have been underperforming since the mid-1990s. What we saw was a demonstration of skill which the Lions just cannot match.

The Lions had a number of easy outs which they used their scrum to organise. In the 69th minute, with the score at 15-13 to the Blues and with both sets of replacement front rows on the pitch, Joe Marler got a heave going on the loose head side and the scrum was edged clockwise and Pascale Gauzere gave the penalty. Maro Itoje pumped his arm into the air in triumph.

Leigh Halfpenny slotted the penalty and the game was delicately balanced. At that stage the slippy ball and some heavy rain in the middle of the game gave the advantage to the Lions, in their one-dimensional route, to try and finish off the game. They now realise that this wasn't close to being good enough, and the three tries to one gives you an idea of the skill levels of New Zealand players.

Defensively the Lions had done their homework and they employed a shooter to try and cut out the long passes. Their line speed was very good, and they knew all about Sonny Bill Williams and Steven Luatua's ability to off-load in the tackle, and occasionally they managed to cut this off, but as limbs and minds became fatigued, the Blues were still fresh.

Luatua staying upright long enough and moving his drive a metre or two out of the point of contact gave him enough space to get the ball away to Sonny Bill. Lions players only anticipated it too late and the giant got a great line, and his sublime pass to Ihaia West, who burst on to the invitation and then stepped Halfpenny to go under the posts, served notice that Warren Gatland's nightmare has only just started.

Marler gave away another stupid penalty for travelling in the tackle. As the Blues tried to run down the clock they gave away a penalty sealing the ruck and the Lions undeservedly had a chance to try and line out maul their way to a win.

I could see the indecision in the ranks, the disorganisation in Rory Best's quick throw when the blockers barely knew the call and Maro Itoje was only six inches off the ground as the ball came sailing over his head. That moment of madness may cost Best dearly.

The problem is not in structure or organisation. The problem the Lions have is dealing with the bewildering speed, the directness into contact and the awesome skill levels under pressure that practically all of the New Zealand Super Rugby players possess.

If ever there was a microcosm of how this was demonstrated it was on the left wing where Jack Nowell had a nightmare against Rieko Ioane.

Ioane only scored one try, and had a further two disallowed, but it was the manner in which he embarrassed Nowell which was disconcerting.

The Blues winger was simply too quick and almost disrespectfully sailed past Nowell whenever he had a chance. Ioane most probably won't get into the All Blacks squad, that is the scale of quality they have.

Gatland's nightmare has started early in this tour, and his problem now is that once the weakest Super Rugby team has beaten the Lions, they'll all want to do the same, except do it better. The viability of this tour now rests with the performance against the best club team in the world. You can but pity their predicament.

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