Thirty-four thousand, five hundred sets of eyes inside Westpac Stadium, and millions more watching around the world, will be trained on one man in the opening stages of Saturday’s second Test.
British & Irish Lions scrum-half Conor Murray will be looking out of the corner of his own when he attempts the first of his trademark box kicks in Wellington. Will there be an All Black haring up on his blindside?
Debate has raged this week over the legality of New Zealand attacking Murray’s standing foot, with Lions coach Warren Gatland claiming the tactic was “dangerous” before his counterpart Steve Hansen bit back.
All of which means that the moment the Irishman first prises the ball out of a defensive ruck to clear his lines will be placed under an intense spotlight.
Not that everyone can tell what all the fuss has been about. “It’s a storm in the teacup to maybe take the focus off other areas,” ex-All Black Murray Mexted told ESPN earlier this week.
“That’s Gatland throwing something in the air. If you can’t attack a guy’s legs what can you attack? That’s absolutely absurd, it’s ridiculous.”
But what do other former players make of the tactic? ESPN spoke to two former internationals — ex-Scotland stars Rory Lawson and Kelly Brown — to get the inside scoop.
Rory Lawson — the scrum-half
There’s an element that it’s a little bit of a storm in a teacup. It was a fact that Warren Gatland would have picked out on review as being something he would have wanted to speak to the referee about.
By creating this public argument through the media he’s certainly drawing the attention of the referees to it. It’s probably something that Conor Murray can take as a compliment such is the quality of his kicking game but the All Blacks love to play right on the edge.
It’s one of the key territory gauges for the Lions and is an attacking weapon. So, I’m not surprised the All Blacks have gone after him a little bit but at the same time I think it’s one Warren and Conor will be pretty keen for the referee to be aware of.
Traditionally, the defensive players have gone to charge the ball down from the side of the ruck directly opposite the scrum-half’s kicking foot. So, defensively you’re on the left side of the ruck trying to charge down the right-footed kicker on the side that he’s kicking to.
But what a number of defensive coaches have realised is that the blinside, or the non-kicking side, is open and if you can put off a scrum-half and put him off balance a little bit, put it in his mind that you’re there, then you’re well within your rights to do it.
The one way to counter it is to build a little bit more of a defensive system around you. You always see a couple of players being put on the kicking-foot side to protect the charge down but maybe just that one player on the blindside as well would protect things a little bit better.
At the same time that does potentially affect the kick-chase, which against the All Blacks you can’t really afford.
Kelly Brown — the forward
Conor Murray is the best box-kicker in the world, so there’s no doubt that any side playing against him wants to try and squeeze him and put him under as much pressure as they possibly can.
Having played against him, his technique is such that it’s very difficult to get to on the charge down. So, what I’ve seen some sides try and do is to come from both sides of the ruck to try and put even more pressure on him.
I don’t think that the All Blacks have gone out there to try to injure him, but that is the risk. Because if you come from the blindside and you get it wrong, as Jerome Kaino probably did, just as a consequence of the angles that you’re coming across him you are going to go through his standing leg.
So it is dangerous. I don’t think the intention is to hurt him but if you get it wrong there is a danger you could do his knee or you could screw his ankle.
All sides are trying to do is make him feel under as much pressure as they possibly can in the hope that his box kick won’t be as accurate as it is if he’s got all the time in the world.
‘We need to put him under more pressure than he’s ever felt’ — that’s what sides are trying to do and that’s what the All Blacks are trying to do. But if you get it wrong, as a consequence of the angles, it is dangerous.
On the flipside, if you say ‘OK, it’s up to the kicking team to block on that side’, all that does is put one more person from the kicking side into the ruck. So as a consequence there’s one less person on the chase. And if the other team counter-attacks there’s one less man there too.
So, the All Blacks may think ‘it’s something we’re going to do, if you want to stop us you’ve got to put a man there’. If you put a man there, then there’s one less man in the kick-chase so there’s more space on the kick chase for their back three.
But, if someone gets it wrong they’ve got to be penalised and they’ve got to be punished because it’s dangerous play. If that non-kicking foot is planted in the earth there is a good chance that scrum-half is going to get injured.