Lions bluffing about expansive gameSave
By Gregor Paul
It's true that the British and Irish Lions, as they have said, want to come to New Zealand and play some rugby. Just not much and definitely not in their own half.
It's true that, as they have said, they will want to express themselves - be encouraged to do so - just not in the same ways the All Blacks will. They will run with the ball - but not so much into space, more into contact to commit defenders, control the collisions and set up the next phase on their terms.
Interpretation is everything when it comes to assessing what this Lions tour is going to look like on the field.
Adventure and creativity means one thing in the North and another in the South and whatever coach Warren Gatland says between now and the first game on June 3, his Lions side are going to be built on the twin pillars of possession and territory.
Low risk rugby is Gatland's modus operandi. He is the master at building simple, direct game plans that create pressure by relentless, precision execution at the set piece, organised rush defence where his teams get off the line fast and they chase kicks hard and hammer away in the collisions.
It's not a wildly ambitious way of playing, but it smothers opponents, bottles them up to the point where frustration can set in and silly, impetuous decisions are made in response.
Gatland's made the formula work with Wales and the personnel he has picked are the biggest clue it's what is coming from the Lions.
The tight five is loaded with bruisers - athletic bruisers who are all set-piece efficient. Super efficient.
A few of them, Courtney Lawes, Maro Itoje and Rory Best, carry the ball well but continuity isn't high in their thinking when they do so. They aren't coming to learn the finer art of playing with the ball - they will be here to win it, hold it, nudge forward and then release it.
The predominant option for the Lions numbers nine and 10 - most likely Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton - will be to kick. Gatland will want to see variation in that: a mix of contestable bombs, turning the All Blacks and putting the ball out.
Whatever the type of kick the objective will be clear: to force the All Blacks deep into their own territory and to create the prospect of the Lions using their set-piece and physicality to win kickable penalties.
When the Lions do move the ball, it will mostly be to crash it up the middle. Gatland is taking five midfielders, four of whom are essentially big men, who carry hard and straight, get over the gainline and recycle.
These will be the go-to plays and eventually, by attrition, some space may open up deep in the All Blacks' territory and that's when the Lions will push the ball wide.
And as much as the personnel selected alludes to the gameplan, so too does history. As All Blacks coach Steve Hansen observed about Gatland: "I've never seen him do anything else other than that. I guess we need to be prepared for what we normally get and prepare for something different as well. All come out when he selects his test team.
"He's done most of his coaching up north got a particular style he likes which works for him up there using big ball carriers up front, big midfielders to carry. It tells you what his mindset is, how wants to play, if he shoves Ben Te'o to No. 12. You will see Ben carrying strong up the middle a la Jamie Roberts for years for Wales."
- Rugby World Cup