Marc Hinton: Crusaders' big squeeze shows Warren Gatland's Lions the way forward
OPINION: Were you watching, Warren? More to the point, were you digesting that Crusaders performance?
It's hard to figure that a man as smart as British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland wouldn't have seen the Crusaders' clinical 20-12 dismantling of the Hurricanes in the latest round of Super Rugby for exactly what it was.
That is to say not just a tactical masterpiece and fabulous piece of execution of a game-plan, but a blueprint on just how the touring Lions might defeat the All Blacks during their looming three-test series in June and July.
The Crusaders, on a wintry Saturday night at Christchurch's AMI Stadium, were confronted by a Hurricanes outfit bearing many (though not all) the attributes of Steve Hansen's All Blacks.
They had won six straight prior to their Saturday night reality check, and done so by scoring an average 39 points per victory and unleashing a pace of game, and width of attack, that opponents simply had no answer to.
The Hurricanes had simply blown teams off the park with their creativity and speed of thought and execution, and had done so by allowing Beauden Barrett to pick sides apart with his triple-threat attacking game -- the ability to run, pass or kick with equal devastating effect.
Because Barrett is so adept at making quick, accurate decisions, and acting with decisiveness, team-mates outside him, such as Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso (with a collective 21 tries), and Julian Savea, Cory Jane and brother Jordie had reaped the rewards by turning opportunities into points. Their game, behind a serviceable pack which understands its role, was flowing beautifully.
But not on Saturday night. In case you weren't paying attention in the Super Rugby clash of the season so far, Barrett – the best player on the planet – was a non-factor because the Crusaders simply squeezed him of opportunity.
Barrett had more handling errors (3) than he had line breaks (0) or tackle-busts (0) and was restrained to a manageable two offloads and just 6m per carry in a match bereft of his imprint. That devastating, probing crosskicking game of his was nowhere to be seen.
The Crusaders snuffed out the Barrett threat by dominating the contest up front. They smashed the Canes in the scrum (winning four penalties from this phase alone), dominated the territory battle (62 percent), edged the possession game (52 percent), carried stronger (6.8m per run against 5.8), tackled better (89 percent efficiency against 86) and were more dominant in those hits.
The Hurricanes simply got nothing going because they were not allowed to.
And in a piece of coaching genius the Crusaders turned the tables on their Kiwi conference rivals by hitting them with their very own tactic, and using the crosskick transfer to open opportunities out wide.
Talk about fighting fire with fire.
It all worked a treat as the Crusaders kept the potent Canes tryless, improved their season-long win streak to 11, and effectively consigned the defending champions to the tough prospect of having to make their playoff surge on the road.
So what can Gatland and his Lions learn from the Crusaders? And, more importantly, can they inflict the same sort of clampdown on the All Blacks when it matters during their upcoming series?
The lessons are obvious. No matter how good a team is they can't operate without quality, front-foot ball. Smash them in the scrum and you go a long way to winning the contest. Take a side away from their preferred style and you take them out of their comfort zone.
The challenge for the Lions will be winning that forward battle to apply the necessary squeeze on the All Blacks.
The Canes pack, with just one All Black in its midst, was clearly vulnerable. The Crusaders eight recognised this, and went for the jugular. The blood on the floor was not theirs.
However the All Blacks eight will have no such weaknesses. Besting them will be a whole different level of challenge.
But the Lions must try. They must attempt to inflict the same sort of death by suffocation that the Crusaders did to the Canes on Saturday night. It is their only hope.
They will have a pack big enough, muscular enough and gnarly enough to at least give it a try. And they have the blueprint now for exactly how to go about it.
As the Lions gather for a training hitout at the start of this week in Wales, don't be surprised if the Crusaders-Hurricanes game tape is compulsory viewing.