AUCKLAND – The All Blacks may be known for champagne rugby, but their forwards proved they can get “down and dirty” during their physical 30-15 victory over the British and Irish Lions in the first Test on Saturday, coach Steve Hansen said.
The tourists pack had been expected to provide the sternest examination of the world champions in the opening game of their three-match series, but Hansen’s tight five dominated the collisions, held the ball for long periods and forced the Lions to make an enormous amount of tackles.
While Lions coach Warren Gatland observed that the All Blacks “didn’t come out and play champagne rugby,” Hansen told reporters: “You don’t become the number one side in the world for as long as we have been without a very good tight five.
“I always find it amusing when everyone tells us they’re going to beat us up in the tight five.
“We’re not just a team that plays flashy rugby, we are a team that can get down and play... dirty rugby, and I mean down and dirty in the most respectful way,” he added after his side repelled a ferocious challenge from the visitors.
“If your tight five operate and do their job, then everyone else can play. I think we won that battle, but that doesn’t guarantee we will win that next week. We need to front up again.”
The world champions were superbly led by captain Kieran Read, who drew special praise from Hansen, but locks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock and flank Sam Cane were also heavily involved in nullifying the Lions’ forward threat.
The All Blacks’ ability to get over the gain-line and behind the Lions close to the ruck also cancelled the threat of their suffocating defensive screen out wide, which had been especially effective over the last 10 days.
“We felt that we could hurt them if we could get in there (behind the defensive line) and take away their line-speed,” Hansen said.
“I think it was more our ability to play off nine and get behind them that really hurt them and took away what they wanted to do.”
Hansen added that while a superb scrum from the All Blacks had set up Rieko Ioane’s first try in the 56th minute, which effectively was the moment that sealed the game, it had been a steady accumulation of pressure that was crucial.
“Once we started to look after the ball and stopped offloading, we built some pressure time after time,” Hansen said.
“They had to make a lot of tackles, and that fatigues you and that’s when you make mistakes.
“That was the critical part of the game.”
Meanwhile, All Black vice-captain Ben Smith and centre Ryan Crotty are injury concerns for the rest of the series.
Fullback Smith failed a head injury assessment during the first half, while Crotty limped off later with a hamstring injury and will definitely miss next week’s Test in Wellington.
“Ben Smith failed a concussion test and he will go through the protocols,” Hansen said. “Ryan Crotty has pulled his hammy, so we already had Jack Goodhue in as a replacement to help him out with his ribs.
“Jack will be staying with us, and we will try to get Ryan ready maybe for the last Test if we’re lucky.”
Hansen said earlier on Saturday that hooker Dane Coles had been ruled out of the series due to fitness issues after he had been unable to train since March with knee and calf injuries, and then concussion symptoms.
The Lions play the Hurricanes on Tuesday before the second Test next Saturday in New Zealand’s capital.
The series concludes on July 8 with the third Test in Auckland.