Rugby: Lions dreaming about soft All Blacks

By Gregor Paul

Jerome Kaino of the All Blacks performs the haka during the Rugby Championship match between the New Zealand All Blacks and Argentina. Photo / Phil Walter.
Jerome Kaino of the All Blacks performs the haka during the Rugby Championship match between the New Zealand All Blacks and Argentina. Photo / Phil Walter.

Somehow the British and Irish Lions appear to have got it into their heads that the All Blacks are vulnerable to a physical onslaught.

The idea that the All Blacks can be successfully attacked at the set-piece and in the nastier, more confrontational parts of the game is one that has firmly stuck in Northern Hemisphere minds.

They don't seem to be able to budge on that - as the make-up of the British and Irish Lions tour party would confirm.

The Lions might as well just come out and say it, that they don't think the All Blacks' pack can ruck as well as they can run, or jump as well as they offload or tackle as well as they step.

There is ample respect for the All Blacks' mobility, athleticism and skill levels, but the Lions obviously don't feel that the All Blacks' forwards pose a similar confrontational, relentless threat.

Which is probably just fine with the All Blacks who will be more than happy to let the Lions believe there is a soft underbelly waiting to be attacked.

Owen Franks, Dane Coles and Joe Moody will be equal parts perplexed and intrigued that the Lions want to take the fight straight to them.

These three will be delighted to scrum all day. They are willing and able soldiers in the contact zones and Franks, especially, hasn't come second in a collision for many years.

As for Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick...it's hard to recall an occasion in the last three years where these two have been dominated. Hard to remember a game in that period where they weren't knocking people off their feet, stealing possession and thundering up the middle of the park along the most direct routes.

Whitelock is probably the world's best aerial forward - both in his defensive and offensive abilities to win kicks offs and lineouts. Retallick would stack as the world's best all round lock with his ability to execute his core roles and yet also contribute around the field.

They are, in short, the world's best second row pairing and two of the toughest, most physical men to ever lock the All Blacks' scrum.

And this is what makes some of the thinking about the impending Lions series a little hard to fathom. The battle is being painted as one between the stifling nature of the Lions against the free-wheeling All Blacks.

Tied up in that is the implication that one side is exclusively graft and grind, the other more a triumph of style over substance.

It's a convenient picture to paint as it sells the series well: puts the two sides in opposing corners and allows everyone to feel that what looms is a conflict of style extremes. There is an element of truth to that but it's an exaggeration of how things really are.

It fails to portray the All Blacks for what they really are - which is a team, like every other, in that their success is built on the contribution of their pack.

They haven't re-written the long-standing rule of rugby that test matches are won and lost up front.

Pick any of their best performances in the last 18 months and the common theme will be the dominance enjoyed by their pack.

The World Cup quarter-final; the World Cup final, the destruction of Australia in Sydney last year and the record victory against South Africa in Durban.

In each of those tests the pack destroyed everything in their way. Sydney was maybe the best example. The Wallaby lineout disintegrated, their scrum was crushed and they couldn't win or keep the ball against a unit that was focused, disciplined, dynamic and accurate.

It was a performance that established the power and intimidatory nature of the All Blacks' forwards and everyone in the Northern Hemisphere might be missing the essence of this All Blacks' side if they think they are only about the magical running lines of Beauden Barrett and Ben Smith.

The sweeping movements, continuity plays and breathtaking pass and catch steal the show when the All Blacks play but that bit only happens because the forwards have delivered where it matters.

The Lions, in believing they can exploit a weakness at the set-piece, may be clutching too hard to Ireland's victory in Chicago last year.

No question the men in green dominated the All Blacks that day - beat the pack up and won all the key battles.

But it has to be remembered that the All Blacks were minus Retallick and Whitelock that day and were also missing Luke Romano who had been forced home due to a family event.

Ireland took their chance against a weakened All Blacks side that didn't play well. But the picture the Lions should spend more time studying is what happened in the re-match two weeks later.

Whitelock and Retallick returned, the All Blacks got their attitude right and came out hard and won the test 21-9. It was a performance that left former Lions coach Sir Clive Woodward in no doubt about why the All Blacks are the world's number one team.

"The first three minutes from New Zealand against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium took my breath away and left us all in no doubt that England, for all their improvement, have a long way to go before they can match the All Blacks," wrote Woodward in the Daily Mail.

"Stung into action after their shock defeat against the Irish in Chicago, New Zealand responded with the most intense, aggressive and ruthless passage of rugby I have ever seen. An irresistible three-minute burst of excellence and controlled fury that, currently, only they can produce. It was an opening to a sporting encounter that coaches in all sport could benefit from watching."

- NZ Herald

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