Gatland’s Lions will follow Ireland and look to feed off All Black mistakes

Paul Rees
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Johnny Sexton tries to break the gainline during Ireland’s famous victory over New Zealand in Chicago in November.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images</span>
Johnny Sexton tries to break the gainline during Ireland’s famous victory over New Zealand in Chicago in November. Photograph: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images

John Kingston was in a state of shock when he was invited to stand in front of a camera last Friday night minutes after Harlequins had lost to Exeter at The Stoop. The club’s director of rugby wore the air of a man who, in the words of PG Wodehouse, had searched for the leak in life’s gas-pipe with a lighted candle.

The match had been the most effervescent in the Premiership this season, fizzing with movement, daring, skill and the outrageous. Quins were at their most swashbuckling, one movement containing offloads from their props Joe Marler and Kyle Sinckler bore a New Zealand trademark, and in going on 192 runs in the match covered more than 500 metres with ball in hand and made 230 passes.

Kingston was at a loss to explain not only how his side had lost but failed to secure a bonus point as Exeter, not for the first time this season, resembled one of those contraptions that however much it is twisted one way and then the other, quickly reverts to its original shape. Against most other opponents, Quins would have won by some distance, but the Chiefs, more durable than Wasps, are in England bettered only by Saracens.

It was a match of a kind that used to be seen in the Premiership at the end of a season between two teams with nothing to play for, full of risk-taking and ambition, except the tempo was much quicker and the evening brimmed with intent. The rugby is no less physical than before, but it is less confrontational for the sake of it; teams are more comfortable in possession and it is faster. There is less kicking, in part a legacy of the red cards shown to players who take out opponents in the air, and there is an emphasis on doing everything at pace. Risk is considered to have reward.

Bristol and Worcester changed their head coach during the season as they were confronted by relegation. Mark Tainton replaced Andy Robinson at Ashton Gate while Gary Gold came in as director of rugby at Sixways in January. Both made an immediate change: training sessions became shorter and sharper and focused on playing with pace and intensity.

The results of both clubs perked up and if it were not enough to save Bristol, they will be better prepared if they escape from the Championship next season. A number of the Premiership clubs are following the example of England: the national squad’s open training session at Twickenham last month was conducted at a relentless pace with players not given time for a breather.

Eddie Jones’s concern when he took charge of England that his players needed to play at a far higher pace and intensity than they were used to at club level is dimming. Even Northampton are joining in, if not with the abandon of Harlequins, and now that the Lions squad has been announced, the debate will turn to the tactics they will devise to win the series against New Zealand.

It will not be a repeat of 2013 when Warrenball did for Australia, a style of play summed up in the opening minutes of the final Test when Richard Hibbard thundered into George Smith and the flanker wobbled off for an assessment that seemed to be of his feet rather than his head because he was allowed back on again, and the first two scrums yielded penalties for the tourists, but it will be an updated version.

The Lions will not look to emulate England. Although the Six Nations champions of the last two seasons have the biggest single representation in the squad, half their first-choice pack has been omitted along with their playmaker. Jones has operated largely without a gainline breaker in midfield, looking to use the hands of George Ford and Owen Farrell to unlock defences and the pace of Jonathan Joseph and the wings to take advantage. The edge of the tourists will be mean rather than cutting.

Warrenball will be modified against opponents more skilful, resourceful and assured than the Wallabies were four years ago. The midweek games then were against markedly inferior opponents, but the itinerary this summer will see the Lions take on New Zealand’s five Super Rugby teams along with the Maori All Blacks.

The Lions will be better able to judge the merit of their game plan but in an era of analysts, they will not want to reveal too much before the first Test, which is usually the second most important day on a tour: the first is when the team is announced for the final midweek match before the start of the series, a time when players find out they will not be in the starting line-up on the weekend and how they react to disappointment is defining.

Should Gatland and his coaches be minded to play Billy Vunipola and Taulupe Faletau together in the back row in the first Test, would they try them out the week before or do so only in training? They will want an element of surprise and the Lions are likely to be more expansive in the warm-up matches than they are when they first take on the All Blacks.

England have become a side intent on forcing their game on opponents. Wales and Ireland are, as England found in this year’s Six Nations, more adept at stopping teams playing, seeking territory and set-piece mastery and feeding off mistakes. The Lions look equipped to take the latter course and New Zealand expect them to.

“The game in Europe is different to Super Rugby and the general way we play down south,” said the All Blacks’ outside-half Beauden Barrett. “It’s very forward and set piece-orientated. It’s often a defensive, tactical game. I wouldn’t say it’s hugely free-flowing but real Test match footy, applying pressure, how you’ve seen Ireland play, in particular.”

England’s glorious revolution has come too late for this tour, although the Lions can summon players should Plan B be required, but not for the 2019 World Cup.

• This is an extract taken from the Breakdown, the Guardian’s weekly rugby union email. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.

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