Talking points from the game including All Black backlash, Beauden Barrett's kicking yips, Maro Itoje's coming of age and Warburton's quiet industry all covered
Lions glory. But a black elephant remains in the room
The Lions beat the All Blacks by 24-21, levelled the series, and achieved something that few professional rugby players will ever experience – a win in New Zealand. It was a wonderfully chaotic game, where the rain was so extreme that the frequency of ‘miss passes’ was overtaken by missed catches. Conor Murray’s box kicking was custom made for the conditions and created enormous problems for the All Blacks’ kick defence. Murray’s tactical kicking became so pivotal that it meant Rhys Webb didn’t even make it onto the field – which is very rare in a modern game where scrum halves are robotically substituted after 65 minutes. Maro Itoje made sure that anything that was once standing no longer was, and his work at the restarts was immaculate.
Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell combined well in midfield and were instrumental in the Lions first try -which saw the Lions pull a very Kiwi move by leaving Taulupe Faletau wide on the left touchline after the prior phase had stretched the All Blacks’ defence to the right touchline. But. But. But. But. But. There is one big but. To only win by three points against a team that played with 14 men for 55 minutes is far from reassuring heading into the third test. Even considering Mako Vunipola’s sin binning, the Lions had a theoretical one man overlap for 45 minutes. Despite a far more muscular performance from the Lions’ forwards, it was against six men, Jerome Kaino having made way for Ngani Laumape in the reshuffle that followed Sonny Bill Williams’ red card. Let’s celebrate the win, of course, who wouldn’t? But crack open the Prosecco – save the Champagne for next week should it be required.
Sonny Bill Williams. Same old shoulder.
A lesser known medical disorder resurfaced in the second test. ‘League Union Split Personality Disorder (LUSPD) is the condition where former league players temporarily become disorientated by their immediate surroundings and demonstrate abnormal behaviours – the most common being tackling without the use of the arms. Sonny Bill Williams demonstrated these symptoms when tackling Anthony Watson and rightly received a red card and a four-week ban.
For many elite players, a tackle without the arms can often be excused as a rush of blood, or a one-off misjudgement – that is not the case with SBW. The ‘no arms hit’ is a regular lapse in his game and arguably a result of jumping from code to code/ sport to sport and thus never fully adjusting to one tackling technique. The All Blacks will obviously show solidarity publicly and not blame SBW for the defeat, but privately they will not be best pleased. The Kiwis don’t really do mistakes and that one was massive.
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Warburton allows others to excel
Sam Warburton has been in a difficult position on this Lions tour. Quite literally. The fact that he sticks his body in places that few others are prepared to, means that most of what he achieves on the field remains unseen. The problem with doing unseen work is that it doesn’t transfer well to TV footage and the negativity can then filter down onto social media. But the second test showed exactly what he does and why he is important. To appreciate what Warburton does, don’t look at him, rather look at the effect on players around him and the impact on the opposition. Sean O’Brien had a magnificent game in the second test.
O’Brien was the Lions’ top carrier (nine carries) and did exactly what he was selected for – to carry his guts out. This was not the case in the first test where he was the principle ‘jackal’ at the breakdown. Toby Faletau also benefited from Warburton’s presence; he had the luxury to stay wide for the Lions’ first try knowing that Warburton would be covering the middle third of the field. And even with conditions and a one-man advantage being taken into consideration, the All Blacks’ ruck speed was noticeably slower than the first test. If the Lions’ want to win the third test, they’ll need Warburton to start.
All Blacks’ goal kicking is a problem – in the rain
In dry conditions, when the All Blacks are scoring four plus tries a game, Beauden Barrett’s goal kicking completion really doesn’t matter. But in conditions that would make Noah reach for his tool kit, you need a kicker that can do the business. The All Blacks had a goal kicking completion of 69% in the second test, which is way below the 80-85% required at test level. It seems churlish to criticise Beauden Barrett for his goal kicking when the rest of his game is so impressive, but as the second test showed it is a problem.
Barrett is one of few elite goal kickers who still has an ‘arc’ on his kicking trajectory – a right to left arc to be precise. The best goal kickers over the past decade have been those who kick the ball straight, or with a slight fade – Leigh Halfpenny being a perfect example. If it is to rain in the Third Test, Steve Hansen may consider having two goal kicking options on the field.
Some disciplinary issues are inexcusable
The second test was littered with an embarrassing amount of brain farts from both teams. Sonny Bill Williams and Mako Vunipola’s collective tally moved beyond brain farts and into brain diarrhoea. The brain flatulence can be neatly segmented into those offences that can be mitigated for and those which cannot. Charlie Faumuina’s infringement was a fine example of an infringement that really can’t be prevented. Faumuina’s tackle on a mid-air Kyle Sinckler was a split-second reaction that can’t be coached out of a player, it is a synaptic response for which there is no solution.
However, Mako Vunipola’s’ late hit on Beauden Barrett falls into the category that can be solved and should never happen. His petulant hit on Barrett was evidently stoppable and served no purpose. It is a remnant of the amateur game, where a late hit left a ‘mark’ on your opponent. In professional rugby, acts like that leave a very different mark – such as potentially losing a test series and tainting the careers of players and coaches alike. A mark which most would gladly do without. If the Lions are to win the final test, the penalty count will need to halve.