If the Lions take a close look at the match statistics from Eden Park, they will head to Wellington this week convinced they have what it takes to level the test series with the All Blacks. But there is just one thing those statistics won’t show, writes Scotty Stevenson, and it is the difference between these two teams.
Forget ruck percentages, lineout success, kick retention and all the other numbers that can be extrapolated from the first test match at Eden Park. Don’t be fooled by the rhetoric around protecting halfbacks (like they need any more) or blocking, or sealing off the opposition ball at the breakdown. There is one thing that separates the All Blacks from the Lions: trust.
No matter what kind of team spirit the tourists have been able to stir among themselves in the opening few weeks of this great adventure, the fact remains they are a side of constituent parts, yet to display the kind of cohesion that makes the whole greater than the sum. They are a problematic equation yet to be solved in action.
Trust is the diamond the All Blacks have honed through pressure and through time. How else does one explain Aaron Smith’s decision to take the quick tap penalty, right under the nose of his captain? How else does one explain why Codie Taylor remained in the tramlines, not on the off chance that Smith would do that, but because he fully expected him to do that.
Conversely, after Taylor somehow took that final pass three millimetres above his shoelaces and dived over the line for the opening try, Lions winger Elliot Daly, who had turned in field rather than stay out on his man, immediately looked across at his team as if to say, “what the hell was that?” In a world of trust there is no room for accusation.
Trust is the difference between offloading in contact, and dying with the ball. Trust is what allows Kieran Read – falling forward with a Lions player between him and Aaron Smith – to throw a one-handed pass that ultimately led to a try to Rieko Ioane. Earlier, the Lions had opened the All Blacks up down the left hand edge only to take the wrong side from the resulting ruck. On finally heading open, Ben Te’o eschewed a two-man overlap and took the tackle. At that point Talupe Faletau, stationed in exactly the same spot Taylor had been in the first half, clapped his hands in frustration.
Faletau could hardly be blamed for being infuriated. The game was, at that very moment, in the balance. The Lions – as they had been in the opening two minutes of the match – had the momentum and the belief. Frustration, however, is the enemy of trust. With that clap of the hands, Faletau’s trust in the team dissipated in the drizzle.
Trust is what allows the All Blacks to have plan A, B and C. With the exit of Ben Smith, Beauden Barrett simply slid back twenty metres and carried on. With the exit of Jerome Kaino, Ardie Savea slotted into place on the side of the scrum and proceeded to pound the Lions line with his trademark leg drive. With the departure of Moody and Franks, Crockett and Faumuina didn’t just fill the gap, they redecorated the room.
In one five minute period, those last three names combined to force two successive breakdown penalty plays. No one in the All Blacks side expected anything less from them. TJ Perenara then entered the match and deftly won a breakdown turnover for good measure.
Perhaps most telling of all, replacement first five Aaron Cruden’s first kick of the game directly led to the Lions’ great try. Liam Williams picked his way through the oncoming chase line with dexterity and poise, neatly accepting the path cleared for him by an impressive Ben Te’o retreat that prevented Sonny Bill Williams from getting a hand on the Lions fullback. The rest of that play is one for eternity’s highlight reel, with Sean O’Brien the man to ultimately have his name on the score sheet.
What stands out, though, is this: not one All Black turned to Cruden to apportion blame. Not one accusatory stare was cast, not one hand clap of frustration punctuated the moment. Cruden lined up with the rest of them as the conversion was taken, and put it all behind him. His pass to Rieko Ioane for the first of his tries was a confident miss-ball past the more experienced Anton Lienert-Brown, to the youngest member of the team.
Warren Gatland, in the post-match interviews, pondered what the world’s media would have said about the Lions had they played with the same bludgeoning style the All Blacks showcased on Saturday night and won the game. It’s an interesting diversion, but it is a pointless comparison.
That the All Blacks trusted themselves to play that way is the reason they won the game. That the Lions don’t yet trust themselves to play the way they are capable of is the reason they did not.
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