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Lions The Gain Line

James While


As part of Rugby Unplugged's British & Irish Lions New Zealand Tour 2017 coverage, we bring you weekly Test analysis on Warren Gatland's squad, exclusively from journalist and Rugby Writer James While.


Test 1 Lions 2017 Test 2 Lions 2017 Test 3 Lions 2017

Test 1 Lions 2017All Blacks v Lions T1

Eden Park, Auckland - 24 June 2017
KO: 19:35 HT: 13-8 Att: 48,181
New Zealand T: Taylor, Ioane (2) C: Beauden Barrett (3) P: Beauden Barrett (3)
British & Irish Lions T: O'Brien, Webb C: Farrell P: Farrell

IF ever a rugby match deserved to be called a Test then this was it.

Breathtaking pace, unnatural skills and an ability to strike with thunderclap speed defined the All Blacks performance as they overcame a spirited and dangerous British and Irish Lions by 30-15.

In the final analysis, New Zealand were worth their win and their margin was one built upon their domination of contact and breakdown, combined with unerring technical accuracy in tackle and ruck.

All Blacks v British Lions T1 HT 2017

It truly was one for the rugby purist. Before the game, we heard all about the physicality of the Lions and the power of their blitz defence and with some delicious irony, the All Blacks chose to attack this key strength, as if their physical honour had been challenged, with waves and waves of direct carries and offloads coming straight off the immaculate Aaron Smith.

The sheer accuracy of the Kiwi ability to finish a move will be one of the key foci of Warren Gatland’s coaching message this week. Nothing encapsulated this more than the Jonathan Davies-inspired break in the first few minutes; a score then would have had the All Blacks down on the canvass in the first round, but somehow, their scramble defence, together with a poor decision from the Lions not to take contact five metres out with options either side, underlined just how far ahead of the rest of the world New Zealand’s rugby IQ is.

The game was won and lost on such fine margins; Gatland, a hooker himself, has a habit of throwing on a new number two when a key line out throw is needed. Ken Owens, colder than a bottle of Steinlager, came trotting on for the disappointing Jamie George and gifted New Zealand their cleanest catch of the day as his throw ended up nearer the Kiwi halfbacks than his own aerially dominant pack.

There were some immensely pleasing things from the visitors too. The Lions back three outplayed their counterparts (the outstanding Ioane aside) and the unit looks a threat from any part of the field, proven when Antony Watson and Liam Williams ignited a 90 metre try from under their posts that looks set to join Gareth Edwards’ 1973 effort in terms of genius, wonderfully finished off by the outstanding triumvirate of Daly, Davies and O’Brien.

All Blacks v British Lions T1 FT 2017

Where were the big differences?

In a column billed as the Gain Line, it’s fitting that this was precisely the difference between the two side.

New Zealand were faster and lower into contact. When bridging over the ball they left no ribs or shoulders exposed to allow themselves to be cleaned out. The Lions failed to counter this - good players find a way, and the great Lion Richard Hill, when faced with George Smith creating this exact problem in the 1st Test Australia 2001, made a decision to allow him to get over the ball but then to take man and ball out together. The Lions won the game with the Saracen getting man of the match, and the Lions back row need to up their thinking levels to something similar in order the compete at that breakdown.

The churlish might also consider that the All Blacks got away with murder defending the rolling maul but the counter argument is if you’re going to collapse a maul, do it as it starts, and the Kiwis used intelligence to take legs away before they could start pumping.

So what next for Gatland’s Class of 2017?

In defeat, they have learned a number of things; that they can break down the All Blacks and smash their midfield off both phase and broken play.

They have learned exactly what level of power and accuracy to expect in a week’s time and they know what they need to fix to combat that.

Gatland will make changes, of that there is no doubt.

The scrummage came off second and we can expect both Best and McGrath to start in Wellington, locked by the form locks Itoje and Lawes coming in for the out of form George Kruis and the anonymous Alun-Wyn Jones.

A change of half back might also be considered but that is a matter of combinations; if Sexton plays then so will Murray, despite Rhys Webb’s last gasp effort to close the score gap today.

The All Blacks, despite their win, may actually be asking themselves a few more questions than the Lions. They’ll be concerned how their line out was effectively cleaned out and they’ll also take great cognisance of the new style of officiating from Jérôme Garcès, who will look for a cleaner breakdown and positivity at scrum-time, and they’ll know the Lions will being playing for their both personal and team reputation next weekend, and will expect a wave of red to hit them hard.

In the final analysis, the Lions know above all that it’s their own indiscipline that has cost them dear this tour, and they’ll leave Auckland as wounded but proud Lions, with respect earned from both the New Zealand team and the country alike.

Sort that out, get the pack competing in contact, play for 80 minutes and the Class of 2017 may well just reverse this result in Wellington.

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To revisit how the match happened minute by minute & video highights, click here:

All Blacks v British Lions Test 1 Lions 2017




Test 2 Lions 2017

All Blacks v Lions T2 2017

Westpac Stadium, Wellington - 01 July 2017
KO: 19:35 HT: 9-9 Att: 38,931
New Zealand P: Barrett (7) Red Card Sonny Bill Williams
British & Irish Lions T: Faletau, Murray P: Farrell (4) C: Farrell Yellow Card Vunipola

THE mark of quality performers is their ability to step up and produce the big statement when it matters, and on Saturday the British and Irish Lions took their stock from zeros to heroes as they overcame the world’s finest team, the All Blacks 24-21 in a torrential game that saw controversy, commitment and creativity in equal measure.

All Blacks v British Lions T2 haka 2017

This was a game built upon precision by both sides in horrendous weather, a titanic battle at the breakdown, and of course, the dismissal of Sonny Bill Williams for his shoulder charge on Anthony Watson after 25 minutes.

If Sonny Bill Williams, if Beauden Barrett, if Mako Vunipola, if Kieran Read etc., etc., There are so many ifs and buts in the modern game of rugby, but no fair judge of the game would ever deny the Lions were deserved winners.

Going into the Test, the British and Irish Lions were palpably aware of their lack of impact at the breakdown. Looking at the contact area, the speed of the Kiwi ruck, combined with the lowness of body position, caused the Lions a lot of issues.

Put simply, the All Blacks are quite brilliant at transferring the ball at the moment of contact, thus negating head on hits as the Lions are forced to change direction to tackle. This means that the hit takes place at an angle, making it easier for the Kiwi carrier to gain the crucial metre of momentum and ‘post long’ at the ruck (the carrier creating a longer ruck, making it harder for the opposition to jackal and steal).

Warren Gatland, a man not known for habitual gambling, tends to go big when he decides to have a flutter.

He discarded Peter O’Mahony, a line out irritation for the Kiwis in the First Test, and the outstanding Ben Te’o, who shut the All Blacks midfield down for 50 minutes, and went with the disruption of Sam Warburton in defence and the distribution of Sexton and Farrell in the centre, and boy-oh-boy, did his fancies romp home.

Warburton’s skill in slowing the speed of ruck down was consummate. The continual cries of ‘Hands off 6, roll away red 6,’ from the outstanding referee, Jérôme Garcès showed just how the Tour Skipper irritated and probed away at the breakdown.

This resulted in All Blacks receiving a speed of phase ball that was glacial by their standards, meaning their carriers started statically and on the back foot running into the powerful Lions rush defence and either losing ground or gaining none.

However, at half time, the Lions had failed to dominate the scoreboard; put simply, the All Black defence coped admirably with the loss of a player, using the touchline and a drift defence to keep the Lions narrow, but, on the flip side, were kept in check by not having the extra carrier in the wide channels to create the overlap.

All Blacks v British Lions T2 HT 2017

As the pressure mounted and fatigue set in, so holes started to appear in the Kiwi defence for the Lions to exploit and, in the 3rd quarter, they finally made their extra man tell on the blindside wing with Anthony Watson igniting a cross-field move finished brilliantly by the tireless Taulupe Faletau in the opposite corner.

But the job wasn’t yet done and, as Steve Hansen threw on Aaron Cruden and TJ Perenara, Gatland introduced McGrath, Sinckler and Lawes. The replacements had a significant effect for both sides as the Lions took their physicality to new heights with power from all three of their fresh forwards.

Conversely, Aaron Cruden blew two or three chances for New Zealand, most notably in the last ten minutes where an ill-judged openside cross kick was chosen when a four on two overlap would have seen the Kiwis walk a try in.

The stage was set and Jamie George isn’t one to step away from a challenge; the rumbustious Saracen thundering on to a pop pass to beat Wyatt Crockett. The Lions barrelled TJ Perenara out of the way of a sniping Conor Murray who scampered over for the moment of his illustrious career to take the score level.

With 5 minutes to go, the human wrecking ball Kyle Sinckler leapt to snare an unsympathetic pass and was sliced down, illegally, by an incredulous Charlie Faumuina. It is an anomaly in the laws and the big Aucklander was inconsolable as Farrell drove the final stake through the All Black heart to seal an historic and defining win for the tourists.

All Blacks v British Lions T2 FT 2017

Looking forward to the decider, it’s fair to say this is the Test Match of the Century. Probably the best 46 players on the planet going head to head, winner takes all.

To suggest the Lions can’t improve a winning side is fatuous. Expect to see Jack McGrath starting with a rumour that Jack Nowell could replace his fellow England wing, Elliott Daly.

The Lions will want to step up the physicality another notch, and Courtney Lawes may very well start, either on the flank or at lock.

This match will define careers and it is the biggest game that many good judges can ever remember.

But rugby is a game of sportsmanship and integrity; the manner with which New Zealand reacted to the loss is exemplary and defined humility.


As the greatest of all Lions, Willie-John McBride observed in 1974:

“Well of course, before the game it matters greatly who’s to going to win.

“But after the match, it matters not at all who has won.”

Amen to that.

New Zealand15 Israel Dagg (63) 14 Waisake Naholo (12)  13 Anton Lienert-Brown (11) 12 Sonny Bill Williams (35) 11 Rieko Ioane (3) 10 Beauden Barrett (51) 9 Aaron Smith (60) 1 Joe Moody (26) 2 Codie Taylor (17) 3 Owen Franks (92) 4 Brodie Retallick (62) 5 Samuel Whitelock (86) 6 Jerome Kaino (79) 7 Sam Cane (42) 8 KIERAN READ (98) (C) BENCH: 16 Nathan Harris (6) 17 Wyatt Crockett (60) 18 Charlie Faumuina (48) 19 Scott Barrett (6) 20 Ardie Savea (14) 21 TJ Perenara (31)  22 Aaron Cruden (48) 23 Ngani Laumape*

SCORERS P: Barrett (7) Red Card Sonny Bill Williams

British & Irish Lions15 Liam Williams 14 Anthony Watson 13 Jonathan Davies 12 Owen Farrell 11 Elliot Daly 10 Johnny Sexton 9 Conor Murray 1 Mako Vunipola 2 Jamie George 3 Tadhg Furlong 4 Maro Itoje 5 Alun Wyn Jones 6 SAM WARBURTON (C) 7 Sean O'Brien 8 Taulupe Faletau BENCH: 16 Ken Owens 17 Jack McGrath 18 Kyle Sinckler 19 Courtney Lawes 20 CJ Stander 21 Rhys Webb 22 Ben Te'o 23 Jack Nowell

SCORERS T: Faletau, Murray P: Farrell (4) C: Farrell Yellow Card Vunipola

Referee: Jérôme Garcès Asst Referees: Romain Poite, Jaco Peyper TMO: George Ayoub

* * * * * * *

To revisit how the match happened minute by minute & video highights, click here:

All Blacks v Lions T2 2017




Test 3 Lions 2017

All Blacks v Lions T3 2017

Eden Park, Auckland - 08 July 2017
KO: 19:35 HT: tbc Att: tbc


Referee: Romain Poite Asst Referees: Jérôme Garcès, Jaco Peyper TMO: George Ayoub




*KO time is local

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