It is difficult for Warren Gatland to glean too much information from the Lions opening performance in Australia because the opposition was so bad, a fact which shames the Australian Rugby Union. They are filling their own boots from the proceeds of this tour, but not the boots of the teams that the Lions will face outside the tests. That gives Gatland a problem because some players look a million dollars against bad opponents, but struggle when they go up a level.
But Gatland knows he has no choice but to draw conclusions from faulty evidence. On the plus side the Lions coach will have been pleased with the performance of his back three. This looks close to the unit that will start the first test.
They were solid in defence and outstanding at running off the midfield inside ball, either directly or in support. And Leigh Halfpenny’s goalkicking took the breath away. Australia will be terrified of conceding penalties and that may work to the Lions advantage at the breakdown.
Brian O’Driscoll still looked every bit a test starter. He dropped one ball – and was filthy with himself as they say in Oz – and he should have finished another move in the corner but lacked faith in his own gas. But overall there was a creative intelligence that the Lions will badly need in midfield, particularly as Manu Tuilagi is so lacking in rugby insight.
Johnny Sexton made a largely positive start, although I would still like him to push flatter on occasion. If only he could spend a month with Stephen Larkham. But his kicking for the wings was neatly done and most of his distribution was first class.
One reason why Sexton may be unwilling to commit to the gain line is the erratic nature of Conor Murray’s pass. The scrum-half had a poor evening. Too many passes came out with a wobble, too many checked his fly-half’s movement and Murray’s choice of when to run was also flawed. There was a noticeable rise in tempo when Ben Youngs came onto the pitch.
The front row was uninspiring with the exception of Vunipola who again added pace and penetration when he came on without detracting from the scrum. Rory Best missed a couple of throws, a tendency which will keep him out of the tests and Dan Cole grumbled, trying to tell all and sundry why he was unable to dominate.
The back five of the forwards was like the match, exciting at times but flawed. Jamie Heaslip carried magnificently and Sean O’Brien also starred on occasion, but you did wonder if Heaslip is a bit of a flat track bully. Too many of the back five forwards failed to make an impact when the Lions were defending on their own line and Tom Croft’s lack of tackle technique was exposed.
The Aussies will have noted that the Force twice scored from tap penalties close to the line. It is fashionable these days to set a scrum or kick for a lineout, but I have no idea why the trend is so slavishly followed. A quick tap is very hard to defend against when a team is on the retreat.
The Force showed that the Lions have a lot of organisation to do with their defence around the fringes. Gatland and his Lions made advances out wide, but there is a mountain of work to do with the big men ahead of the first test.
Which Lions stood out to you? Comments below…