Bob Skinstad on First Test: All Blacks were sublime but Lions will still improve. Starting Tuesday.

LONDON — New Zealand’s All Blacks showed over the weekend why they rule the rugby roost when handily defeating the touring British & Irish Lions. But the scoreboard might have flattered the home team – with better finishing and a little more luck, it would have been a lot closer. Former Springbok captain and World Cup winner Bob Skinstad takes a look back at the weekend’s action; looks ahead to the Lions match against the Hurricanes and tells us what the touring team will be working on ahead of the all-important second test on Saturday. – Alec Hogg

Well, it’s a warm welcome to Bob Skinstad after an exciting first test. I suppose, exciting for the first 60 minutes, Bob and then well, the All Blacks were just too strong.

Well, you know all credit – the All Blacks were just amazing. I really felt the Lions took it to them in various aspects of the game and the All Blacks had answers every place that they asked questions, so it was wonderful rugby from the All Blacks. They need to really up their game if they’re going to improve on that performance, but then so do the Lions if they want to come closer and win anything near a semblance of pride etc. back for the beginning of the second test.

You’ve played in test series’ many times before. Do you get better when you’re on tour, in second best?

Bob Skinstad

Well, I think horses for courses etc., you would hope that the guys keep improving and I think with the Lions, the extraordinary thing about this Lions team is that they can get better because they can alter the combinations. They have different kinds of players for different kinds of environments. So, I think the Lions will improve, definitely. I think the All Blacks will struggle to be better in terms of basic skill levels. They were just sublime; the little touches from Kieran Read, the one-percenters, as we call them that we saw there have made the biggest difference. I genuinely believe, there were probably ten or eleven points between those teams, but the All Blacks managed to turn on the heat just almost at will and that’s what caused all the pressure on the Lions.

Incredible skills that we saw from Kieran Reed on the one hand the Faletau on the other side, the guys who play your old position.

Well, I mean, Kieran Read’s far and away the best rugby player in the world at the moment. He had six weeks off and I was secretely thinking, you know, I’m not sure how he’s going to get to test match level, but in a way it was whether the other 29 players on the field could get to his level. He was just incredible in terms of aggressive defence. He stole some very good balls, covering on defence and then his attack just being part of that linking loose forward role. He was just sublime and I really think that there’s going to be a big wedge of distance between him and the next best performing loose forward in the world at the moment.

So, Bob if you are Gatland, the Lions’ coach, how do you prepare for the second test, given that you have a 15 point beating and it could have been much worse were it not for the last-minute try?

Yes, you know, I mean there are two things Gatland has. One, he has more pressure than we realise because he has a game on Tuesday night and we’ll go through that and that’s why these Lions tours are so unforgiving. But the other thing is, he has the men on the tour with him, you know, he’ll treat it like a war. He’s lost this battle, how can he regroup, how can he move in and do something that can help him get an edge for the second test? How can he try and salvage some form of victory out of that game and that’ll be in consultation with all of his other coaches, it’ll be in terms of preparation, it’ll be strategic as well as physical, like what do we do to get these guys out of an environment where they’re not necessarily prepared and ready? How do we get them onto the top of their game?

2017 British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland

That’s all to do with little nuances; little things that he needs to bring to the table with all his experience. So, I really think it’s a job, Alec, that he has to do now, but I think it’s one that Gatland is good at. We’ve seen him, he’s a wily customer, and he’s done well. He has an awful record against the All Blacks, unfortunately for Wales and for the teams that he’s coached, but so does everybody else. There isn’t a coach in world rugby that has winning record against the All Blacks.

It was astonishing to hear that the last time the All Blacks had lost on home soil was against South Africa in 2009.

Well, that’s right and it was a tremendous game then. I think the last time they lost at Eden Park, was even further back, 1994 when the French bamboozled them with the length of the field try to win. So, I mean, this is not a team that you go over and you luck a victory against, you’ve got to grind one out, you’ve got to take 100% of your chances and to be honest, I looked at the stats this morning, as ex-players to. We pore over things like rugby stats, which is a bit silly, but it’s quite fun and in the first 15 minutes of each half, the All Blacks outscored the Lions 23:0, so you have to understand that those crucial times of the game, the All Blacks were super dominant. In the other times of the game, the Lions actually floored their way back into the game, but did it show on the scoreboard or even in the way the game was managed, clearly not.

Is there way that they can take something out of it from the British Lions’ perspective?

I definitely think there is. I think the All Blacks had a wonderful little attacking nuance and we’ve seen it from the Crusaders. Not to get too technical, but instead of attacking with a one-off runner or a second ball runner, they had players passing the ball very close to contact and it got them over the advantage line, a lot more than the Lions got over the advantage line, so I think the Lions can use that. They can then maybe split some of the defenders because the All Blacks got a double tackle almost every time the Lions carried the ball and it is so hard.

I mean, you know, just the physics of it, a hundred kilo man running into a hundred kilo man, with momentum you might go forward, but if you’re running into two hundred kilos of man, even with momentum, you’re going to go backwards, so you have to try and get over that advantage line more. Every time we saw them break the line, the lines looked dangerous. You know, when they scored that beautiful try, I think you have to understand that the All Blacks haven’t had a length of the field try scored against them like that since Ireland beat them or since South Africa beat them. So, that was enough to undo the All Blacks, you need to do more of it.

All right, so Gatland goes into his next game on Tuesday night, a little bit deflated no doubt. Will he be playing any of the test combination on Tuesday night or are these definitely not the B team?

You know what, he won’t be playing against the test combinations, but he will be playing against the test match level players, so even if you just look at the back three of the Hurricanes, Jordie Barrett, who was involved in the squad, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Vince Aso, who’s currently I think the second leading try scorer in Super Rugby. So, that’s the battery on the one side and then they’ve got old Julian Savea, just the most successful ratio of matches to tries ever scored for the All Blacks.

Australia Rugby Union – Australia’s Scott Fardy fails to tackle New Zealand’s Julian Savea during the second half. REUTERS/Jason Reed

It doesn’t get any easier, does it? Then they have a very difficult front row to play against, Jeff Toomaga-Allen and Ben May are the props, but I don’t know much about Ricky Riccitelli. There’s an All Black on the bench for the Hurricanes, Cory Jane and there’s an ex-South African, actually, Wesley Goosen, who’s played a number of games for the Wellington team and the Hurricanes and he was of South African origin. They call him “Goose-en”, but we’ll still call him Goosen for this interview.

So Bob, that game coming up against the Hurricanes – it’s really tough now to grind out any victory in New Zealand as we have seen. How do you see this match stacking up?

Well, look I think it’s going to be a cracker of a match. I mean, you look at the Lions team and most of the players didn’t start, in fact, none of the players started on Saturday, so they’ll be fresh, they’ll be raring to go, they’ll be wanting to say to Gatland, “Listen, use me, I’m ready, I can come in and make a difference”, you know. Jack Nel is at fullback, Tommy Seymour’s on the left wing. Jonathan Josephs and Robbie Henshaw are the centre combination. George North was glowering, we could see, on last Tuesday night. He really wanted to be part of it on the test match, but you know, well done to Elliot Daly and Anthony Watson. I thought they both had very good games.

Then the loose forwards, well in fact, Dan Biggar is at ten, you know, he’s still an option, Greg Laidlaw, one of my favourite scrum half’s, he’s still an option, CJ Stander, Justin Tipuric, James Haskell, I mean this is not a poor team. I think this team will be better than the Hurricanes. The interesting thing for me now is actually more that these players are going to want to play out of their skins on Tuesday and give the coaching staff a selection headache.

Is it possible though – could you get a great game by James Haskell or a CJ Stander, forcing their way into the test team?

Yes, I think you could. You have to look at – Gatland’s going to be saying to himself, “Did I choose the right loose forwards?” You know, Faletau was very, very quiet. O’Brien can’t get over the game line or match on his own, just like I’ve said to you now, if he’s running into two players, so he might think to himself, “Maybe let me swap that out with someone who can slow the ball down a little bit”, which means that Justin Tipuric suddenly has a chance. CJ Stander is a good ball carrying number eight. Faletau, like I said, was a bit quiet, maybe there’s a chance for him to have a look at, do we think that we’re going to see more from different lock combinations, maybe. Iain Henderson and Courtney Lawes are starting in the front. We saw Maro Itoje come on and he was very physical, so we might see Itoje start.

George Kruis is on the bench for this game, so maybe he’s not playing Saturday. I think it’s going to be delicate. You cannot change too much and hope that a new team will suddenly win this test for you because it’s about getting the right combinations together and then spending some time with each other, but you have tweak it, you’ve got to say, “What else can we do to beat these All Blacks, where’s my superstar performance going to come from? Is it from someone who’s already played, is it from a guy who was on the bench, or is it from someone who hasn’t played yet?”

Put yourself inside the Lion’s camp now, you have lost the first test, you’ve had a scratchy start to a couple of good games, but a few that have gone the wrong way for you, how do you approach, first of all, Tuesday night’s match and then the big game on the weekend?

Well, I think that one of the great things about international sport, that it’s a huge challenge all of the time and these guys are full time professionals. I think they’ll go and they’ll say, “Wow, let’s blow away the Hurricanes on Tuesday night. Let’s work on all the positives of our test match and let’s get prepared and let’s do something that nobody’s done in the history of the world. Let’s come from behind and smash New Zealand in New Zealand”. You know, I think they have so many positive people, positive players, positive individuals contributing to this group of players that there’s no ways they’re going to be sinking to the lows of negativity.

I mean, I remember even in the much maligned Clive Woodward led tour, I think it was in 2005, when they had Alistair Campbell and about 400 management, you know all the players rallied together and played much better in the third test. So, I think we’ll definitely see a big performance from the Lions against the Hurricanes on Tuesday night and then we’ll also see a big contribution from those players into the test match team. The guys who get involved will really think, “Here’s my chance to shine” and that’s what’s so amazing about these Lions tours, I think it’s great.

Bob, looking back at the last weekend game, again if you’re coming out against the Hurricanes (you want to see where the weak links were in the Lions team), is there any obvious player who is really going to be struggling for their place on their performance last Saturday? In other words, one player, that if you’re in the mid-week team, that you can think well, I’m in that position, this is my opportunity?

You know, it’s a tough one Alec, because to single out a single player here is really tough, but you’ve got to look at the tie five. You know, they were torqued up all week about how they could potentially dominate the All Blacks and put in a physical performance and the All Blacks were too big and too strong for them. I mean, they scrummed them off the ball twice and they nicked a couple of the lineout balls from an attacking position of the Lions. So, you’ve really got to say to yourself, “Well, that’s got to be a concern”.

Is it the combination, so was it the fact that George Kruis didn’t necessarily combine and get supported well enough or is he someone that’s expendable in the lock position or is it a case of the front row weren’t together enough? Did Jamie George stand up and perform like we wanted him to or should we look at Ken Owens or Rory Best? So I would say, definitely focus on the try five. I think defensively the Lions were goodish. I don’t think the All Blacks ran all over them, I think the All Blacks had had two – let’s discount Loane’s second try because that was a lucky bounce and he’s got an incredible pace. You know, so suddenly it’s an eight-point game. Now, where else did the Lions mess up, and for me it was more in the finishing than anything else.

I think in the opening three minutes, they had a chance to score a try similar to the one that we saw and they didn’t score it, you know and the All Blacks then went spent seven or eight minutes on attack, got a penalty and then got a try, so you’ve got to say to yourself, you know, is it the whole team finishing ability or was it the individuals and I think they’ll lean towards saying the whole team and more combinations, but I don’t’ think they‘re going to turn around and say, “Well, that guy is to blame for our whole loss”.

So they might feel for themselves that they’ve left a couple of tries out there.

Big time.

Had they got those the scoreboard would’ve been different and everything to play for in the second test. Bob, we can’t finish this interview without looking back on the Springboks, 3:0 against France and very impressive. Are they looking now like a combination that could give the All Blacks a good run for their money?

I think the Springboks have played beautifully against France, but I don’t think that the French team are as organised or as, let’s say, I suppose as quality aside, as the Lions are at the moment. So no, this team’s not going to knock over the All Blacks by 50 points, but I think we’ve got young, talented, keen, committed players and we’ve got a hugely bright future if we can keep these players together and we can keep the strategy of the standard that we need. There were little nuances in our game that I was disappointed about. I think we have an incredible skill level.

The combinations of skill and strategy are what wins you rugby games, but I also think that it’s nice to have a guy like Brendan Venter there. He has very high standards, he’ll work hard with the other coaches to say, “Well, this is the global standard we need to be aspiring to”, and I think all of the players are good enough to do that. I really think it’s an exciting young squad and I mean, just look at the size and the speed and the aggression of these players. In the second test, Siya Kolisi, for me was just absolutely outstanding.

I’ve said he’s a wonderful player for a long time now and he literally took that match by the scruff of the neck and showed them who’s boss. So, I was really pleased for him and I think there are other players who are doing the same thing. It’s really exciting. Jan Serfontein has suddenly the Jan Serfontein we all thought he was going to be and isn’t that amazing. You know, he was a sort of 22, 23 year old kid, he was a little bit washed up and nobody knew when he was going to play well and suddenly he’s just re-announced himself to the world, so I’m absolutely delighted for him.

It’s A very exciting future for South African rugby, but just to close off with, Steven Kitshoff’s little flip looked very similar to what Kieran Read did in the test against the Lions. Does it happen on a test match day that you’d watch as Springboks, you’d watch a game like the All Blacks and the Lions or do you remain focused on your own?

No, I think it’s actually funny, you’re right. It almost looked like a carbon copy, didn’t it? I think Steven Kitshoff actually – I mean, let’s just go back to HIM. I didn’t mention him earlier, but what a game he had. He came on and just smashed the opposition. Defensively he carried the ball beautifully and then obviously, his skill level was shown, but it’s almost like, for me, Alec, is that sometimes an environment makes the players become who they could be and if that’s the case I’m delighted for South African rugby.

You know, an oppressive environment where the coaches are not allowing the players to be themselves is not good for South African rugby and I think suddenly that maybe it’s just me, but it’s almost like the players have bloomed. So whether he was watching the game in the morning and said, “If I get the ball I’m going to try and do that”, I’m not sure, but I’m just delighted that he felt that he could try something out of the ordinary and that for me is down to the environment and the culture.

Bob, it did look like that and I know you do a lot of work on leadership and focusing on that throughout your career as well. but it just seemed, with the Springbok team that they were very cohesive, congratulating each other. Did you see a similar thing in the Lions setup; are they maybe as much of a cohesive unit as a team as one might have hoped for by this stage of the tour?

Look, I think they will be. Winning obviously, it’s a lot easier to be celebratory when you’re winning, so we saw how they celebrated the tries and the scoring etc. when they won the mid-week games and against the Maori All Blacks etc. and the Chiefs. So, I think that was indicative of the kind of team that they can be, but it’s really tough. I mean that pressure, the cauldron that is Eden Park and the pressure, you know, I mean we saw the delight that they ran the length of the field when O’Brien scored that try that was started by Liam Williams.

So there was real delight there and you’re under the microscope all the time. I think the best teams in the world – I mean; I know you’re also a cricket fan. If you remember back to when Australia was dominating world cricket and the West Indies, ten years before that, high fives and hugs and pats on the back and laughing and you know, all those kind of things, when we’re celebrating the achievements of your teammates, it’s predicative of a powerful culture and I promise you culture trumps talent every single time.

Well, it looks like the culture of the Springboks is now moving in the up and up. Let’s hope that we see better from them, but clearly a big game on Tuesday night which could set the Lions up for some exciting rugby over the weekend; that series is not dead yet, is it?

Yes, exactly, it’s a very exciting game on Tuesday night and then we’ll know what the changes that Gatland makes are and we’ll look and see how we think this Lions team goes about resurrecting the test match part of this tour.

Bob Skinstad, the former Springbok Captain and World Cup winner. Our inside view of the Lions tour of New Zealand 2017.

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