A special mention goes to Kieran Read, surely the best rugby player on the planet. Having been out with injury for a few months and to make his comeback in this kind of test match with the performance he produced was quite brilliant. His two handed pick-up off the scrum to start the move that gave the impressive Rieko Ioane a stroll over the corner was nothing short of exceptional, particularly given the greasy conditions. Like all great players in the biggest games under extreme pressure, Read made the right decisions at the right time.
We talk about current-day sporting geniuses with the likes of Federer, Messi, Ronaldo and Woods to name but a few but strangely rugby players are rarely mentioned in the same breath. His fellow countrymen Richie McCaw and Dan Carter are already in the immortal status and Read will most definitely be there when he hangs up his boots.
The All Blacks were magnificent and especially so up front, where so much of the pre-match hype was centered around. They dominated the collisions were sharp and ruthless in the loose and from 1 to 8 showed skills that any back would have been proud of. The Lions gave everything to the cause and through sheer bloody-minded defence kept the All Blacks out when the floodgates threatened to open. Indeed it was the Lions who threatened the All Blacks line in the first few minutes with only a desperate tackle from Israel Dagg keeping out Elliot Daly.
New Zealand’s intensity in defence swayed the match in their favour, when the Lions had a golden period either side of half time. Having a scored a try for the ages through Sean O’Brien after a glorious Liam Williams run just before the hooter, Jonathan Davies and Anthony Watson made surging breaks soon after but could not get over the line. The rest as they say is history. They never threatened again and the All Blacks took total control.
The All Blacks dominated possession and territory and took their opportunities when the chances came (haven’t we heard this before). The individual battles were won by the men in black particularly in the front five. George Kruis and Alun Wyn-Jones made too many errors and could not keep up with the exceptional talents of Brodie Retallick, who was a close second man of the match behind captain, Kieran Read and the industrious Sam Whitelock. Toby Faletau had a quiet game and could not make any impression on the gain line. Out wide the Lions matched their counterparts but Owen Farrell simply could not get into his stride with Beauden Barrett and replacement Aaron Cruden expertly controlling the pace of the match.
The Lions can hold on to some crumbs of comfort that they can still force a decider when Wellington comes around next weekend. They showed flair and broke the All Blacks line on a number of occasions with Davies, Watson, Daly, Williams and Te’o all having their moments. Up front, Jamie George was tireless at hooker along with Mako Vunipola but the Lions pack were very much second best on the day.
Warren Gatland should be applauded for the team he selected for this first test but for next week he has to be even bolder as there will be no second chances. The merits of Maro Itoje and quite possibly the physical attributes of Courtney Lawes should be considered in the second row in place of George Kruis and Alun Wyn-Jones. I would like to see Kyle Sinckler start in place of Tadhg Furlong in the front row with CJ Stander on the bench to give the Lions a bit more go-forward.
There is an argument to say that Rhys Webb should get the nod over Connor Murray to attack the All Black fringes with Murray’s kicking game to come into play if needs be in the final quarter. An even more left field move is to consider Dan Biggar as a starting ten with Farrell to cover on the bench. It is unlikely that there will be many changes given the week turn-around but the message should be loud and clear to the Lion’s second-stringers on Tuesday that play well and then you are a chance of starting in Wellington.
As for the All Blacks, well they are in rude health, Rieko Ioane’s outstanding display on the wing fully justified Julian Savea’s exclusion. Anton Lienert-Brown and Aaron Cruden both did a terrific job when Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty came off with concussion and hamstring injuries respectively. Steve Hansen has emphatically done a number on Warren Gatland and it is hard to see how the Lions can turn this around in seven days. History suggests that the Lions have no chance and very rarely have the Lions come back to win the last two tests. Add in the fact that they are playing one of the great rugby teams of all time and there are not too many positives to feed off before the second test match.
That said, the Lions must believe. The tries they conceded came from mistakes at reacting slowly to a penalty, a scrum and an error by full back Liam Williams. These can be fixed and I agree with Gatland’s post match assessment that they need to get more physical. They have personnel who can come in and add a bit of ballast to disrupt the All Blacks. Sinckler, Lawes and CJ Stander must be considered for next week with Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar to be in the mix as well. Hats off to New Zealand, they responded to the hype and beat the Lions at their own game. I cannot see this changing next week and the All Blacks should comfortably wrap up the series with a test to spare.