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Bob Skinstad: Tactics for final Test as Lions v NZ becomes historic decider

LONDON — World Rugby champions New Zealand were expected to romp to an easy victory over the British & Irish Lions – but after last week’s victory for the tourists their proud record is suddenly on the line. Former Springbok captain Bob Skinstad has been giving us the inside track throughout the Lions tour and like most rugby fans, can hardy contain his excitement ahead of the deciding test on Saturday. Here’s his unique perspective that will turn armchair amateurs into overnight pundits. – Alec Hogg

Bob Skinstad is with us now to talk about the decider, the final test of the 2017 Lions’ Tour to New Zealand. A decider that perhaps many didn’t think was ever going to happen. It looked like the All Blacks were going to run away with it.

Well we’ve always alluded to the fact that there were some possibilities if they all came together the Lions could snatch one of the victories and you know what, it was a wonderful match to watch. I was in South Africa, I was round at a mate of mine’s house, parent’s kids running around and all that kind of thing and we were literally glued to the screen. I’m delighted for the Lions that it’s come right. I’m sad for Sonny Bill Williams and the red card incident. There was also a yellow card, etcetera but I really think it helped the legacy of what this tour is. The legacy of what the Lions are about, etcetera and suddenly it’s really given this touring team a bit of hope, a glimmer of hope that they could be the ultimate comeback story.

Just to go back a little bit on the game, on the test match last weekend, the second test. When you lose somebody that early in the match, as the All Blacks did with Sonny Bill Williams being sent off. As the captain of the team what does one do?

Sonny Bill Williams

You always have a strategy. You always have an understanding of who’s going to play where. I was a bit confused because the All Blacks looked like they wanted to scrum with seven men and we know that the Lions have been competitive there. Then they had Laumape come on and scrum and they covered a short side. They played with less backs, depending on where they were on the field. I think they probably would have just reverted back and Kieran Read would have said look, we’ve been through this. They can’t say that they haven’t had experience in it because of Super Rugby but there certainly is a case for saying that the All Blacks haven’t had it because they haven’t had it for 50 years. Colin Meads was the last guy who got sent off for the All Blacks in 1967.

Bob, you say that they’ve had experience in Super Rugby, so if it’s 50 years ago that an All Black was sent off. Presumably, in the All Black training sessions, they might not have worked out what would happen if they only had 14 men or would they have?

No, I think they would have had a plan. They would have worked to a plan. There’s always a ‘what if’ scenario and to be honest, the reason I mentioned it is they looked a little bit frantic, I think you’re right, if it doesn’t happen that often it certainly is something that you don’t train that often for but Kieran Read, for me, looked very together. He looked as if he was in control of the situation. In fact, he was very vocal about trying to even up the score. Every time there was a high tackle or someone was taken out in the air after that. He was over saying ‘hang on red cards have been given out for less in this game.’ So maybe a bit of a panic, maybe a bit of chink in the armour but I think they would have practised it to the extent that they knew how defensively they were going to play. It did kerb them on attack though. It is really hard when such a pivotal player like Sonny Bill Williams, who carries the ball up and does a lot of your set piece setup moves is not there anymore and the other players have got to play 10% better, put 10% more of themselves into every ruck and tackle because you’ve got a man down.  

How important is it to have 15 v 15 rather than 15 against 14?

It also depends how you play. I think if you can keep possession away from the team who’ve got an extra player then it’s not like having doubles tennis and losing your partner and suddenly you’re right arm and left arm. Rugby is a game of nuances and different set-ups. Just think casually about a rugby lineout in the middle of the field. If you’re missing your 12, defensively you are worried but you can easily fill that gap with a loose forward. You can easily manage the defence from an inside-out point of view so that you close the opportunities like that. It’s just we’re all used to playing 15 v 15, I suppose.

So from the Lions’ perspective, they’re going to be looking at this and saying ‘we really played a full All Black team – we came from behind and we won the game, so let’s go and do the same on Saturday.’ The All Blacks presumably would be gearing themselves up by saying ‘okay we played with a handicap last week.’

Absolutely, the beautiful thing about the All Blacks media is immediately after the game the announcement from Allblacks.com was ’14 manned All Blacks succumbed to the Lions.’ The Lions’ media statement was, ‘A dramatic victory for tourists.’ You’ve got to look at it in the context of what’s good for you but I definitely think that. They were 9 points down and more, it could have been more in that second half and came back not only just kicking their way into the game but scoring tries and held the All Blacks tri-less for the first time at home since, I think 2012 or 2011, where there was a really hard-fought game won by penalties. An amazing achievement by the Lions. It was really top draw stuff in terms of commitment and sticking to their battle stations.

Also, the first win by a foreign team on New Zealand’s soil against the All Blacks since 2009, since the Springboks back then. Was this something that we can exaggerate because it was 15 against 14 or is it something that really was as big an achievement as the history books would suggest?

Definitely as big an achievement. South Africa have had opportunities to beat the All Blacks there. We’ve had games, Bismarck du Plessis got a red card against the All Blacks in a very tight game at Eden Park 3 or 4 years ago, after 2 yellow card type incidents. I don’t see anybody writing sob stories about how unlucky the Springboks were. It’s all about the New Zealand win, so from whence it comes, praised by the Lions and their fans and a little bit of a bitter pill to swallow by New Zealand and their fans and that’s what rugby is about. I don’t think that in the annals of history people are going to go down and say well this game was only won or lost because of a card.

But are they that good, the Lions? Are they the best side to go to New Zealand in 8 years?

Well, I certainly think they caught the… It’s the combination. They caught the All Blacks at a vulnerable point when they were a good side who had the opportunity to win. That’s why I mentioned the Springboks over there they had an incredible opportunity to go overseas and win ad Eden Park and they didn’t. They made some mistakes, so I think the Lions’… For me, what I’ve loved that’s coming out of their camp is that they’ve said ‘we’ve had a victory and that’s nice but we want to win the series.’ So they haven’t put it up there and said right we’re the best team to tour New Zealand, and let’s all put that on a plaque and let’s get ready to go home.’ They’ve contextualised it, they’ve internalised what it felt like to beat New Zealand and I think they’ll use that to motivate themselves on the weekend, which makes it all the more exciting.

Gatland said that the team is getting better. Do you think they can go up 10 – 20% from last week?

Yes, I think they can. They still made a few mistakes, some of the aerial catches. They knocked the ball on a little bit when they were in good possession situations, in good territorial positions on the field. They’ll be really pleased if they can eradicate those mistakes. I love the combination of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell. We all felt before they toured that there was going to be a good combination and then Sexton wasn’t on top form in that opening game against the Auckland Blues, so it changed. I thought Davies was outstanding and yes, I think these players can all step up. I’ve really seen commitment levels and ability levels from the Lions that you would expect at this level, and more. I think it’s wonderful.

So take us through the Lions’ team for this grand finale on Saturday.

Well, amazingly the entire 23 man squad is identical to the side that beat the All Blacks 24-21 in Wellington. I think I was reading yesterday the last time a Lions’ Test side was entirely unchanged was between the second and third tests in New Zealand again but in 1993. So that’s an extraordinary chance that Gatland’s got to have the same 23 players together. They now know each other inside out. They’re within sight of a potentially glorious victory and they don’t have to make changes. They can go through another week of solid lineouts, scrums, tackles, defensive management, etcetera. It makes a huge difference.

And the All Blacks?

Well, the All Blacks have had to make a few changes. I think we all know that Sonny Bill Williams, I think it was 4 weeks out, so they’ve had to change and move around in the backs. Barrett is still there, fed by Smith, Laumape comes into 12 and Anton Lienert-Brown is at 13. Possible loss of form or faith, I’m not sure which one, in Waisake Naholo, means Israel Dagg goes to the right wing, which I think is where he started the Test Series, and Julian Savea comes in on the left wing. The big news, however, is the Test debut or starting debut for Jordie Barrett, the ‘boy wonder’ he’s the youngest of the three Barrett brothers but they, all three brothers are involved in the test match 23. You’ve got to say how proud Smiley Barrett, their father, must be. Starting that Test match with all three of their sons involved in the 23.

Well, Smiley, as you call him, will certainly be thinking this is the strongest All Black team that has ever gone onto the field but what do you think compared with the team that lined up last week?

I think the packs the same, the pack didn’t get bullied, the pack were very good, Retallick and Whitelock, nicked a couple of lineout balls off the Lions and I thought Kieran Read was brilliant again. Sam Cane probably not his most industrious game but then Ardie Savea came on and did well. Jerome Kaino very good, so I think they’re a good side. I do think Dagg on the right wing makes them stronger because Barrett is like we said, he’s the ‘boy wonder’ but he’s 6.6ft, he’s got pace to burn, he can kick it from all corners of the Park. I suppose a much longer range kick than his brother but almost as accurate and they share the kicking duties at the Hurricanes and then Julian Savea earns a recall, which will send some shockwaves through Auckland because Rieko Ioane is obviously their ‘boy wonder/kid wonder’ who is scoring all the tries in Super Rugby but Savea has replaced him on the wing and he’s got 46 tries in just 53 tests, so a hungry Julian Savea is a pretty dangerous prospect.

So what are the tactics going into this decider?

I think you’ve got to remember there’s a number of things that the Lions did very well. They were defensively very sound. They didn’t let the All Blacks cross or breach their line, so that stoic defence I think we’ll see a lot of but you can’t do it in your own half, so they’re going to have to kick themselves out of their own half and then press their defence, so we will see a bit of an aerial battle again. We will see some territorial decisions being made by the Lions. I think they might drop Sexton and Farrell to either side of rucks and scrums maybe so that you’ve got kicking options. Elliot Daly as we know has got a massive left boot and he can get them out of trouble as well, so I think the Lions will try and stay conservative in the main and they’ll try and use what has been a fantastic counter attack and attacking flair to break open the All Blacks. The All Blacks, in my mind, will realise that they have to win this game like they did the first Test. They have to score too many tries for the Lions to match them, so I think we’re going to see some running from relatively deep. We might see Anton Lienert-Brown and Laumape switching around, doing some under and over lines. Crashing over the game line and then second phase hitting a Beauden Barrett to a Jordie Barrett at pace on the outside, feeding a Savea. I think we’ll see the All Blacks trying to play some attacking phase rugby.

So you’ve almost got this all-out attack and stoic defence. It sounds a bit like the 1995 World Cup Final, the New Zealanders had the all-out attack and the Springboks won through a similar kind of stoic defence. Would that draw inspiration from a game like that, the Lions?

I think the Lions will look at any time in history where they’ve been brave and strong enough to win away from home. The final test in 1993, for them, was a big one. The last Lions’ tour in Australia turning it around and winning, going away actually in that final Test against Australia, so they will draw on that. I have no doubt that there will be some great men making some great statements and great speeches. The testosterone levels in the changing rooms will be on the Richter scale, so we’re going to see a big clash of big, strong teams ready to make an impression. I’m really excited because the Lions have managed to, I think in comparison to the All Blacks, they’ve managed to stay defensively sound but also have some lovely deep counter attacks. Their tries have been just wonderful to watch. Faletau’s try this weekend, also Connor Murray’s try – they all started from breaks. Jamie George ran a lovely under-line. Murray was smart enough to make the step and go. Faletau got the ball wide after a length of a field run, so I think it’s going to be rugby that we’re looking forward to watch. I don’t think they’re going to beat themselves to a pulp and then limp home with a penalty. Someone is going to take the game by the scruff of the neck.

So Bob, the night before, when you need to sleep, you need to relax, you need to get ready for the game tomorrow but surely the butterflies would be fluttering away. You’ve been in this kind of situation many times before how do you actually prepare for it?

It’s a good question. It’s tough you know, the only thing that is in their favour is that it’s a night game so you can stay up late-ish. If the butterflies are active you can stay up late-ish and then sleep in a little bit so that you’re not up late and then up really early and tired after a long day. I would imagine that both teams would be up and about, maybe watch a movie or something relaxing the night before. Maybe even get together in forwards and backs groups and have an activity or a dinner or whatever it is together to take their minds off it. Then wake up at their leisure and have various refuelling type of times, depending on your body type, etcetera and when they think you should eat. So I think the guys are used to getting pressure at that level now. It becomes part of your lifestyle, so it is going to be one of the biggest games. They’ve mentioned in the press that it’s like a World Cup Final for all these Lions’ players, which means that if you look at the squad it will probably be close to the biggest game a lot of them will ever play or will have played. I think to be part of world sport is a great privilege anyway but to be part of the big occasions is what it’s all about.

Is there a media blackout on them? Are they allowed to access their cell phones and television, YouTube, Twitter, etcetera?

It’s a good question, Alec, I did read an article about how they created a social media committee, the Lions. I think the All Blacks have been pretty good at managing their press. They are very well managed, very well monitored team, in terms of external communication, etcetera and it goes through certain channels. I think they would be monitored. I don’t think we’re going to get any loose Tweets from any of these players that will serve to be an incendiary motivational sticker to put on the change-room wall for the coaches and the players tomorrow. I think they’ll be pretty low key and out of the media until the end of the game.

And you do that as a player, you find some reason or something that the opponents have said and blow it up for your own team?

Oh, yes, the management and coaches often use that. Having spent 10 years now in the media and trying to walk a very fine line of communicating the benefits of the game but not necessarily directly attacking players. You realise how hard it is not to say the wrong things. We’ve seen Gatland and Hansen have been in a complete war of words. They probably haven’t had 5 minutes of talking to each other but they staged this war of words between themselves and their larger than life characters through the media. It is definitely something where you could go and take 10 weeks of media comments about the Lions, a whole bunch of media comments about how they can’t score tries. They’re not worth it. They’re going to get a 3 – 0 whitewash. They’re useless, Lions’ should disappear, etcetera. Then compare that to this week’s media about what a series, amazing men from the North coming down here to take on the All Blacks and travelling fans. I think it’s lovely to think about how the ebbs and flow of that media would affect them but I definitely think the smart players and the managers would use the stinging words of media and opposition to goad them into a performance that they will need if they’re going to win this Test Match.

So that’s the final question, of course, putting your neck on the line. Which way do you think it’s going to go?

Bob Skinstad

Look, I think every smart person in the world would bet for the All Blacks, Eden Park which is their fortress, and they are a very strong side. I’ve just got an inkling though that the Lions will stay in it and stay close enough to make it an incredibly interesting one. If they do, I’ll be shouting for the Lions from 30 minutes to go, all the way through. If not, let’s hope that the All Blacks show their class and their style and score some tries.

So those are the two types of games, the All Blacks could run away with it on the one hand or the Lions could kind of hang in there and who knows, come up with a knockout punch at the end.

Exactly and I hope it’s option two and it stays tight all the way through.

Bob Skinstad, former Springbok rugby captain, Rugby World Cup winner, it’s always been a privilege chatting to you right throughout this series. Thank you for enlightening us and for giving us the unusual view from the insider, as someone who’s actually been there before and done a lot of this. It really has been a privilege. Thanks, Bob.

That’s great, thanks Alec and much appreciated.

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