By the end of their tour, the Lions will have played everything New Zealand has to offer. If they’re to beat the All Blacks, they’ll have to be be better than the best of Super Rugby, given that Kiwis make up five of the top six teams. So, if given the chance could the Lions win Super Rugby?
Nobody questions the fact that rugby differs across the equator. It’s been easy so far to see the clash of styles on tour and their respective worths.
The Lions certainly looked like a match for the league’s top team. They brought an intelligent approach to AMI stadium that saw them nullify the Crusaders’ major weapons.
Conor Murray’s seventeen box kicks pegged them back into an astonishing 35% territory and an excellent chasing unit kept even the Israel Dagg, who lead the AllBlacks last season both in tries and metres made under control and camped in his twenty-two.
On average the Crusaders make 93 tackles and score 4.7 tries a game in super rugby, but the Lions put them on the back foot and forced them into 136 tackles and for the first time this season 0 tries.
The Crusaders game was proof the Lions have the talent to win, but having lost the other two of three games against Super Rugby opposition, they lack other necessary elements to their game.
Coaching convention tells us three seconds from the tackle is long enough for a defence to reset. In the Lions’ two losses, we’ve seen them struggle in loose play resulting from relentless attacking speed. Conceding game winning points from what Rob Howley called “rugby chaos”.
Bringing pace to the line didn’t break the Lions open, not even close. Andy Farrell’s defensive unit did well to make 89% of tackles to the Highlanders’ 82%, but tackle accuracy alone doesn’t stop southern hemisphere attacks.
While the Highlanders’ didn’t break the Lions’ defence, their blistering speed brought it to breaking point consistently, and often enough to force a penalty count of 12. No team can control a game when conceding double digit penalties, not even the Lions, and without control they couldn’t win.
Against the Crusaders, the Lions dominated every controllable aspect of the game. Perhaps helped by soggy and slippery conditions they owned the ball with higher possession and territory, ran the line out, squashed the Crusaders at scrum time, and controlled the tempo. Leading them to a comfortable win over Super Rugby’s best team.
Against the Highlanders, and indeed the Blues, they sat as a solid defensive wall, tackled anything that moved, yet were run ragged in loose play.
They lacked a platform from which to launch their pack’s strength, power, and precision. The Lions 66% success at scrum time compared to the Highlanders 100% left a lot to be desired. While their lineout continued to be almost flawless, they lacked the foothold in the game they need to control proceedings.
Could the Lions win super rugby? Yes. Would the Lions win in the southern hemisphere playing southern hemisphere rugby? No. Their only way to conquer the best of Super Rugby is to control all that’s controllable. Be flawless in their set piece statistics, increase their attacking accuracy, and be as infallible in discipline in defence as we saw them in Christchurch.