Authors: Rio Sports
The British & Irish Lions sealed victory against the Maori All Blacks with a try that was spawned by their relentless defence which resembles the pressing game favoured by many of the top football clubs.
Damian McKenzie – the Maori fly-half who is one of the most threatening runners in Super Rugby, where he operates mostly as a full‑back – received the ball in his 22 and was quickly closed down by the second-rows George Kruis and Maro Itoje 12 minutes into the second half, even though he was standing deep.
McKenzie chipped in a hurry. With nobody able to chase in an onside position because he was so deep, he needed the ball to bounce. Instead, it was caught by Conor Murray, who spread play. A chip to the line and a scrum later and Itoje forced his way over for a try that took the Lions out of sight.
It was typical of McKenzie’s night. He had scant possession to work with as the Lions dominated at forward and won the penalty count, only once receiving the ball in the tourists’ 22, but they pushed him so deep that the Maori’s attacking game dissolved in the rain – and a fixture that in the past had been problematic turned into the biggest victory of the tour.
It was in one sense canny scheduling by New Zealand, one week before the first Test giving the Lions opponents who had not been together for long and whose training had been disrupted by the All Blacks camp. For once, it was the Lions who had the advantage of familiarity.
The Lions have not revealed their full hand to New Zealand, but the All Blacks know what is coming. There will be no attempt to match the offloading, quicksilver game of their opponents and the pressure exerted on McKenzie throughout on Saturday was a sign they will look to sabotage the supply line.
The further back they can push the New Zealand outside-half Beauden Barrett, forcing him to kick in haste rather than strategically or throw passes that are not measured, the more they will defuse the All Blacks. It is one thing to do it to the Maori and another to the team that have sat on top of the world rankings for the last nine years, but the more time Barrett has in possession, the more likely it is that the Lions will lose.
One of McKenzie’s last acts on Saturday was to run from his own 10m line after a ruck. Again, he was standing deep but the Lions were on him quickly, sealing off escape routes, and the outside-half was turned over. Defence will be the Lions’ best form of attack.
All of which is why Itoje is in line to start the first Test. At the start of the tour, the experienced Alun Wyn Jones looked the favourite to partner George Kruis in the second row, but his being named on the bench for Tuesday’s match against the Chiefs is more than a clue he will not be taking the field at Eden Park.
Itoje was invariably where the action was on Saturday, winning three turnovers, hounding ball-carriers and carrying himself. He is a forward who has an instinctive understanding of where he needs to be and the Lions cannot afford to leave him out.
England started Itoje at blindside flanker in this year’s Six Nations, but after he was slow to get up from scrums against France – whose No8 Louis Picamoles profited from the Saracen’s inexperience in the position – he retained the No6 shirt but moved back into the second row, swapping scrum positions with Courtney Lawes.
Jones is a warrior whose face bears the scars of battle. Itoje has the calculation and composure of someone much older and if Barrett, who will be a more difficult target than McKenzie because he moves around, does not know much about him now, he will by the end of Saturday.