Now the British & Irish Lions are four games into their tour, I can see them ticking along nicely, and improving, except in one area: Their scrum.
In all other areas, I can see them getting better and better; their defence is outstanding, and that is a typical Warren Gatland trait.
But if I were Graham Rowntree, the Lions scrum coach, I would be scheduling a few extra scrum sessions because they got dealt to by the Crusaders and the Highlanders. These are the best of the best, and the set-piece, especially the scrum, is something the UK and Irish sides pride themselves on.
The Highlander reserves who came off the bench were able to mount a big scrum to provide the penalty that won the game. That was crucial. That just doesn’t happen. The Lions got turned over at scrum time and it cost them the game.
And we saw it also in the Crusaders game at the weekend. Whether or not they are adapting to the southern hemisphere way of doing things, I think they need to put their homework in there.
That’s been the difference. I think the New Zealanders are better in their franchises, where the packs have had a lot of time together, but the Lions should be much better than they have shown. They should have more pride in their scrums than that.
The one thing about the scrum is that it is very, very coachable. It’s not like the teams are bigger, faster, stronger. The sides are actually very evenly matched in terms of body weight, and they are each as strong as the other. The scrum is a coachable thing, and it results from time spent together. And I think that’s where the Lions need to put their efforts into.
Fitness is a huge part of it, but concentration is more important at this level. There’re enough breaks for players to compose themselves, catch their breath, get ready and get their head where it needs to be.
Greg Pleasants-Tate came off the Highlanders bench, and at his first scrum as hooker did very well and got right underneath his opposite and touched him up. Effectively that was the turning point in the game.
Another turning point, for me, came when Dan Cole the Lions tight-head prop got penalised for rolling his arm when he clearly didn’t roll his arm; the Highlanders loose-head prop Aki Seiuli lost his footing and collapsed the scrum yet he got awarded the penalty. That penalty should have gone the other way, and it could easily have been three points — which is the difference in the game. That call came from the assistant referee but watch the replay and you’ll see that Dan Cole’s elbow doesn’t drop down so he did not infringe.
But it is wrong that scrums should dictate the game. It becomes a 50-50 call, and when that call goes the wrong way we end up debating the outcome when we should be talking about other things. New Zealanders were grizzling about the French referee on Saturday, and now they are lauding Angus Gardner when clearly it is two different sets of characteristics from the respective referees.
You do your homework analysing your referee, just like you do on your opposition. You work out his pet hates and you play up to that as much as you can. I guess that’s the imperfect nature of rugby. It’s all got to do with personalities and getting to know the people. We’ve seen that the French referees aren’t going to talk much, and that’s just the way it is. New Zealanders are not used to that, but still we can’t complain about it.
I thought the Lions defence against the Crusaders was outstanding. That was obviously a much stronger Lions team, and they had the ability to do some stuff on attack through Ben Te’o and Liam Williams, who made a bit of a difference. What really stood out for me was the line speed. To keep that up for 80 minutes, and to apply pressure to the point where the Crusaders had no time or space, and were forced into errors, results from a huge commitment.
We had seen them trying to achieve that against the Barbarians, but they didn’t bring the aggression. In Christchurch, they did bring the aggression; that goes to show that when you have a whole team committed to the blitz style of defence it smothers the opposition, forcing them into making errors. And, if we’re going to put a label on that, then that’s called Warrenball. But take a bow, Warren Gatland. That’s one of his trademarks. That’s the way he likes to play the game, and why he has won so many trophies. But it’s not unbreakable.
The Highlanders, and this will have been noted by the All Blacks selectors, brought x-factor into the equation when faced by the same style of defence. You can rush up to someone like Highlanders winger Waisake Naholo but you’ve got to hit him; he’ll get round you if you let him dance, and Malakai Fekitoa is the same. He’s freakish in the way he can beat a man, and he shows the blitz defence still needs the players to make their tackles. You can’t just rush up and look at the guy or give him any space; you have got to actually make a tackle and put him down. That’s what happened on Tuesday. The Lions defence came up, were in the face of the Highlanders, but a bit of magic from those two key players especially — Naholo and Fekitoa — made a big difference.
The kicking game was also huge for the Highlanders. They obviously watched the Crusaders game and thought if the Lions are going to rush up there’s space in behind and the short chip-kicks will put some pressure on if executed properly.
If not executed properly, however – as when Lima Sopoaga’s cross-kick was intercepted by Tommy Seymour — it can be costly. The Lions have done their homework. They know the cross-kick is very popular down here, especially by Beauden Barrett, and they will be looking for it, and waiting for it, in future games. Seymour dropped back, almost invited Sopoaga’s kick, and then timed his run perfectly to take the ball.
Looking forward to Saturday, the problem for the Maori All Blacks in Rotorua is, unlike the franchises, they haven’t had any time together. They’ll be like the All Blacks every year, when their first game is scratchy because they haven’t played. But that aside, the Maori will bring emotion, history and, like the Provincial Barbarians, they will have nothing to lose and they will play with a lot of aggression.
Can they do it? Can they beat the Lions?
Yes they can, but you would expect the Lions to be a little bit better than against the Crusaders and they will want it to be a dress rehearsal so close to the first Test.
Looking at the All Blacks’ game with Samoa on Friday, you have to think, if you are in the Samoan camp, you can slip under the radar and catch the All Blacks by surprise.
The game has been treated, in New Zealand, if not by the All Blacks, very much as a curtain-raiser or training run ahead of the Lions series; if the Samoans have been planning for a couple of months, however, you can imagine them wanting to give the All Blacks a surprise. If there’s ever going to be a banana skin in a game that has had such a low-key build-up, this is the one.