Belfast Telegraph

Lions couldn't deal with the pressure, and the bad news is that it will just keep rising


Comment: Neil Francis

One of the most galling things about last Saturday's Test was that the All Blacks decided to play 'Warrenball'. They didn't do it to mock us; they did it because they weren't sure how good the Lions were.

They also needed to get into the groove of serious Test rugby. Terrible, though, that they can play 'Warrenball' better than Warren Gatland can. Short passes to your runners going in direct lines, get around the corner, move it quickly to the outside, use Jamie Roberts, sorry Sonny Bill Williams, to hit it up even further and then see what sort of space you have.

The key here is that the All Blacks can revert to their all-singing, all-dancing high-tempo game if they so choose. They may wait until the second half of this Saturday's game to present it but it is coming and for the life of me I have no idea how to stop them, nor do I suspect has Gatland.

The Lions need a cunning plan for the second Test. I think they have already shown their hand and it is a pretty thankless task to go and instruct the Lions players to 'go out and tackle harder, hit the rucks harder and clear out any tackle zone at a much faster pace' against a team who have already demonstrated that they can beat you everywhere.

Steve Hansen (right) is not exactly as cunning as a fox who has been named Professor of Cunning at Oxford University but he gets to coach the side that have been the best on the planet for the last 100 years. They know how to play rugby, it's in them, it's in their DNA and it was one of the most dispiriting things about the defeat last week - they beat us at the only game we know.

Gatland's portion is that of mounting frustration. The All Blacks job becomes available after they win the World Cup for the third time in a row.

There will be plenty of interest but Gatland probably realises at this stage that he has angered so many of his own countrymen over the last two months that there will be very little point in throwing in his CV. They might point to Gatland's success in Europe.

Gatland's tactics may work in Europe but it would be a big risk to put him in charge of an All Blacks side that plays rugby in a way that we in Europe still cannot understand. A horse that can count to 10 is a remarkable horse, not a remarkable mathematician and there are many ahead of Gatland now who are far more familiar with how to play the All Blacks way.

Nobody could blame Gatland for being tetchy - his side will lose the series 3-0 and he has very little chance of getting a job that he yearns for.

When you undertake such a difficult tour, the downside that comes with failure can be quite damaging. Clive Woodward, after winning a World Cup in 2003, took quite a while to recover from the 3-0 series sweep 12 years ago. I'm sure Gatland will recover himself and return to Wales for the next couple of years where he will be able to deal with any potential fallout.

In the aftermath last weekend, Gatland was encouraged. A lot of the things that went against them were "fixable" - a few defensive lapses here, lack of concentration there, a little bit more effort on focus and drive to win the collisions and Bob's your uncle.

It is the great unquantifiable in sport - pressure. There are all sorts of intangibles at the highest level of any team sport - luck is one, external factors such as the crowd or the referee are another, but pressure is a constant.

All of those mistakes that Gatland talked about that could be fixed all came about from pressure. The Lions did not perform to expectation and nobody in their ranks played above themselves.

This surely came down to pressure - whether the pre-match weight of expectation, or maybe the dressing room just didn't crackle and the buzz left them before they left the dressing room, or maybe the All Blacks played such a high-octane game that they simply struggled to live at that pace.

From all the times that I played against them they run 1,500m at 100m pace and you can live with them for about 400 or 500m but then they burn you off and you make mistakes and simple chores which you can easily do at lower intensity become difficult.

You miss tackles, you don't get there as quickly as you think you should and you drop the ball, throw loose passes and you let in "soft tries".

These mistakes are only fixable and preventable if you act and think as fast as the All Blacks. The key to beating them is dictating the pace and the Lions needed to slow the game down. I suspect that Saturday's game will be even quicker, more dynamic, more aggressive than anything any of the Lions will have ever encountered.

Courage is great, self-belief is also necessary and the ability to think on your feet and maintain your discipline in the white-hot heat of a Test match in New Zealand against the All Blacks. Fixable - only if you have the capacity to fix it.

The All Blacks will think that they let in a couple of soft tries - in the All Black eyes to concede a sloppy try after the 80th minute is unforgivable.

For Sean O'Brien's wonder try, there will be an inquest about how the Lions even managed to get out of their own 22. The All Blacks will be thinking those lapses are fixable.

The All Blacks also won't have the handicap of having to reshuffle their deck and will be far more dangerous with Beauden Barrett at out-half. I figure they will be far stronger for their win last Saturday.

There is no better team than the All Blacks in terms of measuring out opponents' weaknesses once they have played them and they will measure out their strategy far more clinically than the Lions will.

The time for taking positives, learning from mistakes or fixing fixables is over. Either the Lions play far above their own potential or another week of agony awaits them.

Belfast Telegraph


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