By Paul Williams
THE LIONS registered their first loss of the tour with a 14-12 defeat against the Brumbies. Prior to this game the tourists had been able to rely on their set-piece, but this was not the case on Tuesday. The Lions scrum was under pressure in the first half. It reduced the opportunity for quick No 8/No 9 pick-ups and didn’t yield a single penalty in the first 40 minutes. It’s worth noting that the second half replacements of Richard Hibbard, Dan Cole and Alex Corbisiero made a notice difference, winning a kickable scrum penalty on their second attempt.
After a promising opening lineout, an accurate back-ball to Richie Gray, the Lions lineout became painfully erratic and a hindrance to their game plan. Slow, messy possession from both the scrum and lineout allowed the Brumbies defensive line to regularly gain an extra yard, often shutting down the twelve channel and leaving Billy Twelvetrees stranded behind the gainline to get smashed. Shaky set piece possession also contributed to the Lions carrying the ball just 281 metres – their lowest on this tour. Whilst Warren Gatland will be alarmed by the lineout percentage and the number of metres carried, the number that will worry him most is 100% – the win ratio that he can no longer attain.
The lineout – a genuine concern
The Lions lineout has been a talking point on this tour, but after the Brumbies performance Gatland may have turned it into a shouting point. The men in red had a debilitating lineout completion of 61.9%, missing eight from 21, having only missed eight in total up until the Brumbies fixture. It meant that the Lions weren’t able to control any meaningful territory – particularly in the redzone.
It’s very difficult to gain territory in modern rugby. 50 yard line breaks are a rarity, and the easiest way to gain 50 metres, and maintain it, is a penalty kick to touch and to win the subsequent lineout. As a rule the hooker usually, and often unfairly, receives the blame for a shaky lineout, but on Tuesday that criticism seemed justifiable. Whilst some of the Lions eight losses at the lineout could arguably be blamed on a combination of jumpers and lifters, unfortunately for Rory Best, many were directly attributable to the accuracy of his delivery.
It is hard to be overly critical of the Lions loss against the Brumbies. Whilst all Lions teams have little time to learn the nuances of each other’s game, this lot barely had the chance to learn each other’s names. Gatland has called up seven new players into the squad, eight would match the all-time record, and five of them were involved in this game.
This was elite rugby’s equivalent of the team bus driving through the village, with twelve players on board, and seeing if any passers-by fancied a game of rugby in return for a Ruby Murray and chips and two beer vouchers. The central axis of the back-line, 12 though to 14, all flew into Australia this week and therefore can’t be expected to deliver a performance good enough to beat the best team in Super Rugby, regardless of their individual ability. If you could, then the Barbarians should, theoretically, be one of the best teams in the world.
Good goal kicking vs elite goal kicking
Tuesday’s loss against the Brumbies illustrated the difference between good goal kicking and elite goal kicking. The Lions had a kicking completion of 67% – four from six. Whilst this isn’t disastrous, it fell below the 80% completion required at this level and the standard that we are used to seeing from Leigh Halfpenny, and Owen Farrell, who has also kicked well on this tour. Both of the missed kicks were taken from simple positions and comfortable distances.
The missed goal kicks took on extra significance because the Lions were unable to score a single try – as is so often the case, goal kicking could have won the match. It may seem harsh to blame the defeat on two missed goal kicks, though, and they weren’t the reason for this loss. However, elite rugby is a game of nano margins, and if the first miss was two inches to the right and the second miss two inches two the left then the Lions would have won by four points and retained their 100% win record. As a footnote, it would be unfair to blame Stuart Hogg, at 20, and with only a single game at N0 10 for the misses. Blame should be directed squarely at the non-selection of a third kicking fly-half from the original squad.
A loss is good for the Lions Tour
Whilst the loss against the Brumbies is damaging for the current touring party, it’s arguably good for Lions tours’ long-term appeal. We don’t want to see a procession of one sided victories over weak regional teams and depleted Super Rugby franchises; at times this tour has been the Monaco Grand Prix of rugby. Lions tours are supposed to be attritional, competitive encounters where the result shouldn’t be decided the minute that the teams have been selected.
The Brumbies have deservedly joined the lucky few who have rolled over the tourists – and that’s what these tours are all about. This loss for the Lions team was actually a victory for the Lions tour, and as a strange as it sounds, long may they continue.