25 Jun 2017

ABs' flexible system proves to be well oiled

1:40 pm on 25 June 2017

Last night's 30-15 win by the All Blacks over the Lions was a victory in more ways than one.

Even though the home side was playing at the fortress of Eden Park, where they haven't lost in 23 years, there were still serious obstacles to overcome - and some points to prove to cynical observers.

Rieko Ioane goes in for his try.

Rieko Ioane goes in for his try. Photo: PhotoSport

After 20 minutes, the crowd watched nervously as Ben Smith walked calmly off the field and up the player's tunnel for a concussion test. Of course, if you'd been following Super Rugby this year, Smith's ongoing problems with his head probably meant he wasn't going to come back.

He didn't.

Then Ryan Crotty pulled his hamstring, forcing the All Blacks to use their inside and outside back reserves about half an hour before they would've been scheduled to come on.

Aaron Cruden and Anton Lienart-Brown fitted seamlessly into the backline, however they weren't just straight replacements.

Cruden played at first five, dropping Barrett back to fullback as he has often done. Lienart-Brown paired up with the impressive Sonny Bill Williams to cover the dangerous duo of Ben Te'o and Jonathan Davies.

Sonny Bill Williams makes a break.

Sonny Bill Williams makes a break. Photo: PhotoSport

While it was somewhat makeshift - the All Blacks staff would've been sweating a little bit about anyone else in the backs getting hurt - the combination brought the game home.

In the 55th minutes, the Lions found out that unenforced changes by the All Blacks would hurt them just as much.

The tactical subbing of the front row proved crucial, producing a scrum for the ages on the Lions' 22 and laying the platform for Rieko Ioane's first try.

The much-vaunted set piece prowess of the tourists cracked and buckled under the power of the fresh legs of the All Black relief contingent, with the ball popping into Kieran Read's hands and up to Aaron Smith.

Aaron Smith celebrates an All Black try.

Aaron Smith celebrates an All Black try. Photo: PhotoSport

From there it ended up with Rieko Ioane, probably the most talked about All Black selection in years.

While there was no doubt at all regarding the 20-year-old's ability, he was keeping Waisake Naholo and Julian Savea off the park and ultimately out of the squad. They are the form winger of Super Rugby and a guy who is just a few tries away from being the all-time leading try scorer for the All Blacks.

Ioane was picked on the basis of playing into a game plan, for much of the first half he was a spectator.

Then he proved why the selectors have so much faith in him with not only that crucial try, but then brutally taking advantage of Liam Williams' error at the back.

After the Lions fullback dropped a TJ Perenara box kick, Ioane swooped through to collect the bouncing ball and then ghosted past Elliot Daly as if the Englishman was running through snow.

All this shows just how much time and effort is put into the All Black system.

The backline can be rearranged at a pinch, it also showed that if world player of the year Beauden Barrett goes down, Cruden is in the right sort of form and headspace to slot in if need be.

The new front-rowers were primed to do a job. The try they created was under penalty advantage so even if Ioane hadn't scored, the All Blacks could've landed a lesser blow with an easy kick at goal to make it a two-score game at that stage.

And the confidence of Ioane can be put down to the careful management and nurturing of his talent. For a guy playing his first test of any real significance, it looked like he'd been there for 50.

* Jamie Wall grew up in Wellington and enjoyed a stunningly mediocre rugby career in which the single highlight was a seat on the bench for his club's premier side. He's enjoyed far more success spouting his viewpoints on the game, and other topics, to anyone who'll care to listen.

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