Belfast Telegraph

Lions v All Blacks: Nowhere to hide in crucial battle for momentum, warns Hansen

 

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

There is no build-up like Lions build-up. Months of squad picking, points scoring and performance assessment ultimately leads to tomorrow morning's opener at Eden Park.

As New Zealand boss Steve Hansen so succinctly put it, there is no hiding place for either side in Auckland.

The odds are stacked against the tourists, still getting to know one another after a bruising, whistle-stop tour of the host nation before being pitted against the best team in the world on their favourite ground.

A look at the names on the team-sheet and it gives hope to the legion of fans who have made their way south for the series, but it's gelling it all together that will prove the toughest part.

That was the word Warren Gatland used to describe his surprise appointment as captain Peter O'Mahony, a man who knits a team together. He may not be the most outstanding player in it, but the side will be better for his presence.

The Munster man is a warrior who won't take a backward step and he's part of a team that possesses a hard edge. Their opponents are among the toughest collections of rugby players ever to play the game.

The quest for momentum is set to be medieval.

"I think it's pretty important for both of us," Hansen (right) said.

"There's nowhere to hide, is there? It's advantage to the team that wins the first one but there's still two more to go after that and there's been plenty of occasions in sport where people have come from behind to win.

"So it's not the end of the world but it does give you momentum and as long as you keep your feet on the floor, you're in the contest, aren't you?"

The war of words between the two coaches simmered down a little after the teams were named. The control is handed to the leadership group and the role of the men in the stand is reduced.

Gatland instead was focusing on the positives for his side after naming a team that looks to have an attacking edge out wide, but is primarily built on defensive line-speed and set-piece excellence.

"We squeezed the life out of (the Crusaders and the Maori) and we won't stop being aggressive defensively," he said.

"To play against the All Blacks you've got to have a strong set-piece. You need a platform to be able to work off.

"We've created opportunities early on the tour we weren't finishing, but on Tuesday we started to do that.

"I think we've played some lovely rugby. We struggled at the start, but we've scored nine tries to three in the last four games. I can't fault the players if we're getting some success by dominating up front."

When Ireland beat the All Blacks in Chicago, the World champions were missing second-rows Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock and their return in Dublin made all the difference. Codie Taylor is a fresh face in Dane Coles' absence and O'Mahony and co will put pressure on his throw.

Graham Rowntree conceded that despite winning the majority of penalties when his tight five came up against four All Blacks starters in Christchurch two weeks ago, it wasn't always plain sailing either.

Set-piece dominance is nowhere near a given.

What is a given is the brutish physicality of the kind the Lions haven't seen since their dramatic defeat in Pretoria in 2009, arguably the most bruising Test match in history.

Sonny Bill Williams and Ben Te'o will renew an old rugby league rivalry in the No.12 channel and that's just the tip of the iceberg. With South African Jaco Peyper not known for his control of the tough stuff, it could get nasty.

What the Lions must be most aware of is allowing Beauden Barrett a second on the ball.

They must put a rabbit on the brilliant World Player of the Year, singling him out for special attention by rushing up and denying him time.

He is the most dangerous player in the game and can destroy teams in a second.

Opposite him, Owen Farrell has a chance to take another step to rivalling the brilliant New Zealander.

He'll never have Barrett's capacity to break, but he is growing in stature every game and it is hard to argue with his selection even if it meant Johnny Sexton has to be satisfied with a place on the bench.

The Lions back-row's job is to keep the pace up and ask questions of recently returned pair Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino. O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien and Taulupe Faletau have been excellent as a combination on tour to date, with Sam Warburton surely keen to join the party along with England powerhouse Maro Itoje.

The benches look evenly matched, but interestingly Gatland (below) opted to question whether the All Blacks' replacements are quite as strong as they used to be. The ability to manage the final quarter could be key, hence the inclusion of Leigh Halfpenny who has not trained fully all week.

All in all, it's set up to be a cracking Test match. The All Blacks have far more firepower and the capacity to destroy any opponent, but the tourists will be quietly confident of shutting them down enough.

Victory for the men in red would blow the series open and end New Zealand's long record of wins at Eden Park.

"Some people take 100-odd years to break a record and then get lucky enough to do it," Gatland said, referencing Chicago. "We think we are in a good place. We think we have been improving, we have stayed really tight as a group and we haven't let anything externally have an impact.

"This group of players have been unbelievable to deal with; we haven't had any issues, we haven't had any players moaning about anything."

They have a chance and if everything goes right they can create history, but it is impossible to bet against the brilliant All Blacks.

New Zealand

Lions

First Test:

Eden Park, Saturday, 8.35am

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