Bob Skinstad: Spring back in #Lions2017 step, skipper Warbuton returns against Highlanders

LONDON — The 2017 British & Irish Lions roared back over the weekend with a victory against the odds over the previously rampant Crusaders. That win makes the tourists lively contenders in their once-every-12-years test series against the world champions, New Zealand’s All Blacks. Former Springbok captain and World Cup winner Bob Skinstad reflects on the game he feared the Lions would lose – and tells us what to look out for the next big game for the tourists against the Highlanders on Tuesday. – Alec Hogg

Well, it’s over to Bob Skinstad who’s going to give us some insights into a tour of New Zealand by the British and Irish Lions that’s suddenly has come to life.

Well, it has, hasn’t it. Alec, we spoke last week about the Lions getting some slow momentum and wanting momentum and why. Everybody was worried about the Crusaders team, chock-a-block full of All Blacks, a real super rugby speed to their game etc and the Lions managed to grind out a win. I think they’ll be delighted with the momentum.

Is it showing us the way that the Lions are going to be playing in the future because they’ve gone there to win the series, not necessarily to look spectacular?

Well that’s always the big debate. I think the kind of rugby the Lions can play is still really exciting. They’ve got electric ball carriers, they’ve guys with real speed out wide. I mean, I think there were a couple of players who came on there and really played well. In a test match with a little bit of space or a mistake from the All Blacks they could score length of the field tries. So, this was a defensive grind-out win but I think it’s an indication that they can do that. Whatever they do they’ll need to limit the All Blacks scoring tries anyway, so they’ll be really pleased that they shut out the Crusaders, who score a huge number of tries in their domestic tournament and they’ve got a lot of very, very explosive, attacking runners.

Bob Skinstad

And some, well quite a few of them, who are going to meet the Lions likely, in the test series.

Oh, absolutely. We saw Israel Dagg who had a very good game, very good in the aerial ball and that kind of thing, and he wasn’t able to breakdown the defences. Jordan Taufua and Matt Todd are open-side loose forwards in the Read/McCaw combination, who’ve played Crusaders with those guys for a couple of years now. They weren’t able to break down their defences, so you’ve got to say that the Lions will be pleased with what happened for them.

Bob, what happens from here as far as the All Blacks are concerned, when they look at this performance? Might they be reassessing their tactics?

Well, I don’t know if they’ll be reassessing. I think the All Blacks play a certain style of rugby. It’s always close to what we see from the Crusaders. A lot of the influences that we’ve seen over the years have come from a very strong base of one of the provincial teams. Right now, they’ve got four very strong teams, and the Blues are starting to play better, so we will see a unique style of the combining of those because that’s what the All Blacks do but we will see a lot of what we’ve seen already.

So, of the Lions on the weekend, against the Crusaders, who has put their hands up for a test place?

Well, you’ve got to commend the front-row. I think they did exceptionally well. They scrummed beautifully, really put the Crusaders under pressure, so the whole front-row and then maybe even backing up to George Kruis, who was calling the lineouts. A very big, strong game from him, hugely defensive, which was fantastic to see. O’Brien was huge as a loose-forward as well, carrying the ball. I think Toby Faletau had a really-good game. So, it’s hard to say which ones are putting up a hand more than just being selected for the squad but against that team there were some games there from the forwards, which were definitely of ‘Test Match’ intensity. Then you’ve got to look at the backs, I mean Conor Murray and Owen Farrell bossed that game. Defensively they were outstanding. The Crusaders employ a very tight, rush defence. They could get their lovely passes out to the outside-backs to get over the advantage line. Davies was very good. Liam Williams was good, he was under a cloud after a yellow card, so again poor old Hogg was starting to get into the game. He got an elbow from his own player, he cut his eye open, so he’s had some real bad luck this tour, but I still think there’s a window open for him but those are all the players that I thought were fantastic. Then we saw some good performances of the combinations as well, which was great. It was exceptional to see Johnny Sexton come off the bench and play very well with Farrell again. I think if he can attain that kind of form. That’s very different to what we saw in the opening game and it will be great for the coaches to have some combinations there at 10 and 12.

From the South African perspective, CJ Stander has his work cut out to get Taulupe Faletau out of that test starting line-up.

Yes, he does. I mean I think CJ Stander is a great player. I mean they’ve played against each other, remember, in the Internationals, Wales and Ireland and CJ Stander was outstanding. Faletau has been very good for a number of years, so I think, I wouldn’t say it’s quite an embarrassment of riches yet but I think the players who we expected to stand-up, the bigger the task got are starting to stand-up and I think that’s fantastic.

So, what about the game in the week, against the Highlanders, another very tough encounter?

It is a tough encounter. At this stage of the tour everybody has now had a start and the coaches will be happy that they’ve all had a chance to put their hand up and perform in the Lions’ jersey, which is so important. Gatland spoke about that before he left but I think the momentum is building. That win against the Crusaders was very good, the defence and the game management. The Highlanders, however are another massive test and they’re going to take it on like that. So, you’ve got to look at who they’ve picked. They put Jared Payne at full-back. Jack Nel had a real tough game against Loane for the Blues. Unfortunately for him, it just means that Waisake Naholo, who was a World Cup winner with the All Blacks now replaces Loane and Jack Nel plays against him. So, really tough. Whoever, whether it’s him or Tommy Seymour who come up against Naholo, they’re going to have their hands full but Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar start together. They’ve both played for Wales together, obviously. Robbie Henshaw and Jamie Joseph again, the centre combination, so I think they’ve got a really good team. A big factor that everybody is talking about is Sam Warburton because did O’Brian do enough to be the test match starting loose-forward or is Warburton, who is captain, on Tuesday night going to keep his skipper position. Sure, there’s conjecture about it but what a great opportunity for Gatland to see who stands up when the fire gets the hottest.

And as far as the Highlanders are concerned?

Just last week the Highlanders were playing the Crusaders and they’ve got the disappointment in their season of being ready to beat them or draw with them in the last seconds and there was a drop goal, which actually flicked them out of that game. So, if you look at what kind of rugby the Highlanders can play, you’ve got to say that with their three All Blacks back, who’ve been all released to play, it’s an absolutely outstanding provincial team that can take them on, so from the back you’ve got Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa, Tevita Li on the left-wing, Lima Sopoaga, Kayne Hammington, I haven’t seen enough off but he’s the new number 9, who everybody is talking about, and then they’ve got a really tough loose trio, Dylan Hunter, Luke Whitelock, with Gareth Evans at 6. I think all of the guys who are playing there are going to prove a big task to just knock over. I don’t think, my gut feel is I don’t think they’ll be as tough a test as the Crusaders but remember, it’s a different Lions team, so as this tour hots up for the Lions, there’s more pressure on them now to perform in the bigger games and now the Highlanders, it’s Tuesday night, which is very different. Wednesday is a lot easier, you’ve got a day to have a break, then a day to recover, loosely into the captain’s practice and then you’re there. Tuesday, I mean tomorrow is your final preparation day, so it’s absolutely game upon game, and the tour is just getting harder and harder. I think it’s a great opportunity. I love some of the comments coming out of that part of the world. Everybody is saying it’s a strong suite of forwards, but for all of these young players, it will be the biggest rugby day of their careers and it’s a special moment in any rugby player’s life, so they’re giving the touring Lions the respect they deserve and I think it will be a massive game. The last time they toured New Zealand, the provincial team was Otago, and the Lions won 30 – 19, so the Highlander’s coaches are all anticipating a massive occasion at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

Are you expecting a similar score line?

Well, I don’t know. You know for me this Lions’ back-line have got maybe a little bit more attacking flair about them for now. Maybe not as robust defensively, so I definitely think we’ll see some tries. I don’t think we’re going to see the Lions retreat into their shell but I do think we’re going to see them try and up it defensively, and I do think we’re going to do some tries. I would say the Lions will probably look to be very good defensively, keep the Highlanders in their half and then try and score from some driving mauls, etcetera, if they can. Open them up through the middle, some inside passes, so I would expect a try or two, and I think the Lions might have 5 or 7 points on this team.

Bob, so far, you’ve almost had two squads in the tour, with the Lions playing a different team in every game, or alternating. Are we likely to see, after this game that they start coming together into a Saturday team and a midweek team?

2017 British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland

Well, I think this is the last time we’ll see the mix. Very interestingly, Warren Gatland said he wasn’t going to do what Graham Henry did many years ago, in that he actually split up the teams completely. He had one touring midweek team and one touring weekend team and I don’t think that’s very good for morale. I do believe that there’s players there, who know they’re not going to play a test match. You might be sitting as the third choice fly half. I would imagine Dan Biggar, as much as he believes in his game. He probably knows that Owen Farrell will have a chance to start a test match before him. If not all three, then at least the first one, so him giving something to the team, just means that he’s there. He’s contributing, carrying bags when the other team are training, he’s running as hard as he can when he’s attacking against the other team, so I don’t think we’ll see them split in any more form than just being a split, as in selection on the weekend. I really think that the power of the touring Lions is all about one coalition of the willing. A bunch of players together who want the best of the squad. We saw Brian O’Driscoll be dropped in the Australian test match series. He didn’t sulk, he didn’t shout about it, he lamented the fact that he wasn’t playing and said of course he wanted to play but nothing would stop him giving 100% of support to the player that replaced him. I think that leans a lot to what the Lions are all about.

Ahead of the weekend’s game, the thinking in New Zealand was that this Lions team weren’t really going to give the All Blacks much of a run. Has that changed?

I think they’ve allowed Gatland now to take some credit for grinding out a win. I read something about Keith Quinn, who’s a commentator over there and I felt it was a little bit puerile, you know. It as ‘Oh, Warren Bull wins against the Crusaders.’ And I actually thought, I went back to him on social media and I said, “Well a better headline would be Lions grind out win against unbeaten ‘Super Rugby’ team’ because let’s celebrate the positives here. I mean, what an amazing opportunity to celebrate touring rugby, so I think we’re getting a slight swing. There are a few Kiwi journalists, Jim Kayes for example, and they’ve said ‘okay, credit where credit is due – that was a tough bolshie in your face win by the Lions. Maybe we’ll see more of that come test match time.’ So, I think the grudging respect is growing and the longer the general public believe the Lions have got no chance, the better for Warren Gatland and the Lions because they can then prepare under the cover of night for these massive test matches. Make no mistake, when the test matches arrive these Lions players will not give a single inch. I love what they can do as a collective.

So, what do we look out for on Tuesday night?

Tuesday night we look out for if the Lions team are able to score tries. You can’t beat the All Blacks without scoring tries. Ireland proved it. They’re the only real, underdog that have beaten them in the last couple of years and they had length of a field tries to score. We’ve got to see if this team, which is starting to become, like you said, the second team of the Lions. If they can unlock some try-scoring opportunities and convert them, then it will give the coaching staff a lot to work with.

And you were talking about the front-row on the weekend. Marlow, back here, he had rave reviews up to this point. He also seems to have a test opportunity still.

Oh, certainly. Listen, I think that’s where it’s going to be the most competitive. The front-rows, I mean if you look at even all the way down to Kyle Sinckler, who’s a youngster. Certainly, debut for Lions, who’s not really properly capped many times for England yet. Marlow, Best, and Sinckler together have had two games together now. We saw how well Owens has done. Best is an amazing leader for Ireland, so I think that front-row has to be positive. The lovely humour of Graham Rowntree, who’s the scrumming coach, it’s all about how tough it is out there and to push anyone off the ball to get a solid platform in the scrums, they are delighted, so I think he’s really feeling that their front-row can contribute.

And the other African connection, with the Nigerian parentage of Maro Itoje, the youngest member of the Lions’ squad. Is he still in the fray for a test place?

Definitely, I think Itoje was massive in his contribution on the weekend. He made a few big hits. He closed up that game. He got a bit of stick from the New Zealand press for celebrating when he created a turnover that almost won the game against the Blues. This time he created another turnover with two beautiful tackles, the second one was a turnover tackle and you could see he was a bit more muted in his celebration but I don’t think you’re going to judge him out of his own action. I think he’s a very committed, fiery player and he’ll be a big contributor. Whether he comes on off the bench or he starts, I think it will be a big decision for Gatland to see what he’s got there.

USO – Saracens – 20151213 – Maro Itoje attacking

So, the team or the test team is starting to shape up now. It’s a big game though over the weekend and still a long way from finalising who’ll be in that side – lots to play for.

Absolutely, you’ve got to play a bit of chess now. You’re going to see Gatland start to get clever with who he plays against the Maori All Blacks. Remember, the All Blacks have got a test match coming up as well against Samoa: Kieran Read is not playing in that. I don’t think Aaron Cruden is now going to be involved in that at all either, so you know, I think Steve Hansen loves putting the pressure on other coaches. He’s always got a sly comment to make. He gets away with a lot because the press lap up everything that he says but I think you’re going to find Warren Gatland and his team, immediate team, start to come into their own and start to push some pressure back onto the All Blacks. Kieran Read won’t have played an international since the end of year last year, and lost to Ireland and that. They’ll start mentioning that, and they’ll really start to try and get under everybody’s fingernails and under everybody’s skin, so I’m excited for the run-in, to see who plays the test matches for each country.

Just to close off, Bob, with the mood in the Lions’ camp. Remembering they went into the game against the Crusaders as the underdogs, only by one point, according to the bookies but even so, they weren’t expected to win. They’ve won it, and the score line is pretty handsome. How will that change?

Absolutely, 12 -3, I love the fact that they took the points and shut out the Crusaders and then carried on playing as if they could still score. I even backed the Crusaders to win that match, because the Lions hadn’t shown me enough yet of resolve and defence, but Owen Farrell was massive, he marshalled his own defences. The Crusaders play a lot like the All Blacks, right on the edge. I feel that the Northern Hemisphere referees are going to favour a close, press defence and if the Lions can get Farrell’s, Lion’s feet right, obviously his father, Andy, is involved in the defence. He’s done so well for Ireland and England in the past, and if they can push that inside-out defence and crush the space that the teams have got, then they’ll definitely choke some of the space that the All Blacks use to get out wide. If they can do that, they’ll be in it and they’ll take all those as the factors against the Crusaders and not the fact that they won by 12 points to 3. Again, there was another cynical comment. Someone said, ‘oh, all these Northern Hemisphere teams you can always divide their score line by 3.’ Sort of intimating that they only win on penalties, so I went back and I said, ‘well, you can also divide your score by 3 and when you do, it’s only 1, and that’s why you lost.’ So, you’ve got to take it in your stride and I think we’re going to see that defensive game and the momentum I spoke about, about the big players carrying the ball. We saw Kruis do it. We saw O’Bryan do it. We saw Stander do it. We’ve seen Itoje do it. We’ve seen Marlow do it. We’ve seen Sinckler do it and Rory Best. They can carry, and when they get over that advantage line they can free up their backs.

So, the mood would have lifted. They’ll have a spring in their step. Watch out Highlanders.

Well, exactly. The Highlanders will be really revved up for this game but so will the Lions.

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