All Blacks coach Steven Hansen said the surprise tactical switch of playing the British and Irish Lions at their own game did the trick after the world champions swept to victory in the first Test on Saturday.
Two tries from unexpected wing selection Rieko Ioane broke the game open in the second half as the New Zealand romped home 30-15, with the visitors’ score boosted by a try on full-time.
Rival coaches Hansen and Warren Gatland agreed before the long-awaited Test that it would be a battle of contrasting styles, with the free-spirited All Blacks known for their running game and the Lions favouring forward power and kick-and-chase.
But after a fruitless first 10 minutes for the All Blacks they overcame the much-vaunted Lions defensive line-speed by employing the tourists’ close-quarter tactics, with scrum-half Aaron Smith directing play.
While Ioane’s first try, midway through the second half, put the result beyond doubt, Hansen believed the turning point came much earlier.
“It was more our ability to play off nine (Smith) and hurt them, just getting behind them and taking away what they wanted to do. That was more the turning point,” the coach said.
“Once we really looked after the ball and stopped trying to offload and do the stuff we’re known to do we built some real pressure by doing that time after time.
“I don’t know what the tackle count was but they had to make a lot of tackles and in the end that fatigues you, and when you’re fatigued you make mistakes and that’s really the turning point. That was the critical part of the game.”
When the All Blacks switched to playing tight they put on 10 points in five minutes.
At half-time they led 13-8 and the score blew out to 30-8 before Rhys Webb scored a consolation try for the Lions on the stroke of full-time.
A disappointed Gatland had to admit his Lions were outsmarted by a superior forward pack and the All Blacks’ decision to abandon their running game.
“They played very well up front. They did a good job of stopping our line speed. They came really hard off nine which got them some front foot ball and were very aggressive at the breakdown,” he said.
“The All Blacks haven’t played champagne rugby, throwing the ball all over the place. In fairness to them they were very direct up front so we need to make sure we are better in those areas.”
The Lions, who haven’t won a Test series in New Zealand since 1971, need to win in Wellington next week to keep the three-match series alive.
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