Lions play war games

The All Blacks can expect a brutal aerial bombardment and bone-crunching tackles to combat their superior running game against the British and Irish Lions in Saturday’s eagerly awaited first test at Eden Park.

It was the near perfect execution of these tactics that negated the threat of Damian McKenzie, Nehe Milner-Skudder and James Lowe when the Lions mauled NZ Maori 32-10 at Rotorua last weekend.

It all started with the domination exerted by forwards Tadhg Furlong, Mario Itoje, Sean O’Brien and Taulupe Faletau against a well-beaten Maori pack that gave Irish halves Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton a perfect ride.

Murray’s towering bombs were deadly and pose a major threat to the All Blacks’ back three who won’t be allowed the freedom to attack with the impunity they enjoyed in the 78-0 thrashing of Samoa.

With Murray seen as the major challenger to Aaron Smith’s status as the world’s best halfback, their contrasting styles should make interesting viewing.

More interesting could be that between the Irish champion and PJ Perenara when the latter comes off the bench to provide the thrust and aggression which made him such a star against Samoa.

Much as I admire Smith’s silky skills, Perenara may have more to recommend him against Murray in matching like-for-like.

Caging the brilliance of Beauden Barrett will be the first priority of defence coach Andy Farrell whose son, Owen, is almost as good a tackler as he is a goal-kicker.

Intimidation is as much the Lions’ game as running and slick passing is the All Blacks’.
With Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies impressing against the Maori with their bone-crunching tackles, it will be interesting to see how they fare against Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty should they be chosen to start.

Having just recovered from damaged ribs, Crotty’s selection at centre is a surprise after Anton Lienert-Brown’s magical offloading in partnership with Williams against Samoa. But the test pair cannot expect the same leeway against the Lions who will also be eager to test SBW’s defence.

The admirable Crotty’s best position is second-five, not centre.

However with Ben Smith and Israel Dagg also shining against Samoa, the All Blacks should carry the day if their forwards combat the threat posed by the Lions pack with the power and accuracy Brodie Retallick exerted against the Samoans. But expect a hard-fought battle.

I’m not surprised Julian Savea has lost his test left wing berth to 20-year-old Rieko Ioana, but it must have been a difficult job choosing between the Blues star and dynamic Highlander Waisake Naholo.

Meanwhile plaudits to Emirates Team NZ for what has been a thrilling America’s Cup challenge that has them 3-0 in front of defending champion Oracle who will have had five days to speed up their boat before the competition resumes on Sunday.

With skipper Glen Ashby the only sailor involved in the dramatic collapse against Oracle four years ago, there is no baggage to carry for other members of the crew.

Certainly not champion helmsman Peter Burling who, having owned up to past mistakes as a rookie match racer, has proved a quick learner.

Having recovered from their early capsize to overcome Britain’s Ben Ainslie and the Swedes, the Kiwis have Oracle Aussie skipper Jimmy Spithill worried, if not lost for words.

  • Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author