Reflecting on the first Test at Eden Park the result was obviously a disappointing one in the end, but I say that because there were a lot of positives to take out of the game. Although, inevitably not enough to actually win the Test match itself.
It was very competitive for large periods of the game and while there were some excellent individual performances, the majority of those came from the men in black.
They almost turned everyone’s predictions regarding certain parts of the game on their head. Everyone thought the Lions would have the upper hand upfront, and New Zealand would do so in the backs. In fact it was the opposite.
The Lions forwards were individually outplayed. That is not to say the Lions did not play well, but where the previous matches suggested the Lions had an advantage in the scrum, the All Blacks ended up marginally coming out with the upper hand there.
Plus as efficiently as the Lions were able to win their lineout ball, they could not get their driving game going.
The pace of the game suited New Zealand a bit more because the Lions kept turning the ball over, and if you are going to beat the All Blacks you simply have to hold onto the ball for long periods of time - certainly longer than the Lions managed - while keeping those unforced errors down. Because of that the Lions were under pressure for long periods of time and it cost them.
Doing their analysis this week, what will have frustrated the Lions the most will have been giving away 14 points by switching off mentally. Allowing the All Blacks to take a quick tap for the first try is unforgivable at that level.
Similarly for Rieko Ioane’s first try, as good as an offload as it was from Kieran Read, you have to tie the ball up in there in the scrum. Not finishing off chances has been one of the challenges throughout the tour and it continued at Eden Park.
When you haven’t played together that is probably one of the things that takes a little bit longer to work on, whereas the All Blacks had three chances and scored three times. In the final analysis that proved to be the difference.
Now they have a mountain to climb and while the task is not impossible, you know that the All Blacks are only going to get better given that last Saturday was only their second outing this year.
Aaron Smith was one of the standouts, his control of the game being exemplary, and the All Blacks had to cope with a lot of injuries.
Brodie Retallick too was outstanding, in terms of his work-rate and how he hit the contact. I had not seen that element of his game before and was impressed.
Best of all though was Read. He stood head and shoulders above the rest. To be out for six weeks and then produce that performance, having a hand in everything that was good about the All Blacks, his decision-making, handling, carrying, tackling… he was certainly one of the two dominant players upfront.
The Lions missed Billy Vunipola to take him on and you could see why Read was brought back so quickly from injury.
Turning to the selection for the second Test in Wellington, I was surprised that Maro Itoje and Sam Warburton were not involved from the start in the first Test. That isn’t me talking from hindsight after losing in Auckland. I felt the team needed balance and would have picked Warburton and O’Brien together in the back row.
By the time Itoje came on the game was moving away from the Lions, when it would have better to have it the other way round and to bring on experience to see the game out.
The Lions need to inject something into their performance that will improve them significantly, so I can understand the changes upfront. In behind Ben Te’o can consider himself unlucky. He was a real positive in the first Test, and his defence was superb, stepping in to make a number of crucial tackles.
I was surprised to see him substituted and I’m equally surprised to see him omitted this week, even though the coaches are trying to get their best ball players on the pitch to influence the outcome. Sexton as a straight swap for Farrell would have made more sense.
You have to score tries against the All Blacks, possibly four, to defeat them and win the Test. The selection of both Sexton and Farrell this week with the series on the line is trying to make that happen, and those players like Liam Williams and Anthony Watson at their best can be incredibly difficult to deal with. They can still go more direct by bringing Te’o on if needs be as well. The kicking game was not reckless last week but the Lions also have to look after the ball better. There is also more to come from the forwards.
We will see a slightly different game from the officials with Jerome Garces in charge. I thought the All Blacks got away with some things around the entry of the maul but that is not me complaining, you have to play the referee. When the Lions faced the Chiefs there were more technical offences given by Garces and that will suit them more than the All Blacks.
There is no point now for the Lions to leave anything behind. New Zealand will be better, they were only in second gear really which was a worry. It comes down to whether the Lions can be better in key areas. If they can do that, there is no reason why they cannot level the series, and it would be a shame to not see a decider.