The week before the first British and Irish Lions test against the All Blacks is where we can have another look at the Home Nation’s chargers shifting fortunes in New Zealand.
After five matches the tourists have continued to improve and it now looks like a competitive test series lies ahead. Remember in the first two weeks they have recorded three wins and two losses with the most decisive victories being against the highly fancied Crusaders and Maori All Blacks.
Both the Crusaders and Maori All Blacks games I believe gave us a look at the strengths of the Lions and what their game plan for the test series will look like. A defensively strong performance against the Crusaders and then the suffocating forward dominance against the Maori All Blacks should boost the morale of the touring party. Add to this the incredible kicking accuracy of Conner Murray, Johnny Sexton and Leigh Halfpenny and a map for disrupting the current World Cup Champions starts to emerge.
In the front row it looks like the current form of Mako Vunipola and Tadhg Furlong will see them as the pillars on which the scrum can be built, but the starting hooker is still a toss up between England’s Jamie George and Wales’s Ken Owens. Not much splits these two rakes with their relationships with the line out jumpers probably shading the decision making around who starts in the tests. The second row choices are between the Saracens pair of George Kruis and Mario Itoje with Alun Wyn Jones thrown into the mix also. When Kruis is on the field and calling the line outs I would imagine that the England hooker, George, would be paired with him and the same would apply for the Welsh duo of Jones and Owens.
The question of who plays in the loose forwards will come down to how Warren Gatland, the Lions’ Head Coach, uses Sam Warburton, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony and Taulupe Faletau during the test match. Welshman Warburton, the Lions’ tour captain, is still a little short of a gallop and the awesome form of Sean O’Brien probably sees him get the start in my humble opinion. Although we know how strong the trust is between Gatland and Warburton so he may still start but I think he may be a better starter in the later tests.
The halves combination of Connor Murray and Johnny Sexton who steered the Irish team to victory against the All Blacks in Chicago, USA last year have shown just how a precise kicking game can make contestable box kicks not only an art form but also a viable attacking option against a pressing defence. Scrum half Rhys Webb will play some part in the test series as will the injured Owen Farrell who collects points for fun with his golden boot. The Lions are not short on sharp shooting place-kickers with Sexton, Farrell and Leigh Halfpenny all being world class so if Farrell’s fitness fails this weekend they will be in good hands, or feet, so to speak.
Ben T’eo has made the 12 position his own this tour and looks to be a real handful in both attack and defence. Paired with the muscular and experienced Jonathan Davies only Jonathan Joseph has put any pressure on the T’eo/Davies combination although I would imagine that he will get some game time during this test series.
The back three looked to pick themselves before the tour but with Stuart Hogg, the current Six Nations Player of the Tournament, having his tour brought to a premature end when he broke his cheek bone on Connor Murray’s elbow, nothing at the back is a certainty. Liam Williams and Jack Nowell probably had the best form as wingers coming into the tour but both are still working towards getting near that same high pre-tour form. Halfpenny has had a solid time in the Lions’ Saturday team at fullback and he is yet to miss a shot at goal this tour so he has advanced he selection credentials in the last 14 days. George North, Elliot Daly and Anthony Watson are the other wingers that are in the frame with Williams, Daly and Watson being most versatile as they are able to play both wing and fullback.
So there are my possible selections. As for a game plan I believe they will use the forwards to dominate at set-piece time, especially in the scrums where their Saturday forwards have been so dominant in the Crusaders and Maori All Blacks games. Add in the tremendous defensive pressure which the Lions have in bucket loads and then mix in a precise box kick and laser guided pots at goal and you have a recipe for success.
Now put this group in a tour bus for 21 days and ask them to care for each other like they are one big family and the hard games of rugby, in the land where rugby is a religion, and you can almost start to believe they can pull off what only the 1971 Lions’ team has been able to achieve in history. And that is to win a test series against the All Blacks. The team must believe they can do it and this Saturday will be their best chance as after the 1st Test the All Blacks will improve as the series progresses.
The Lions have only beaten the All Blacks six times, with three draws and 29 defeats, so history is against them. The last time they beat New Zealand was in 1993 in Wellington where they meet again during the second test. Two of the tests are being played at the impregnable Eden Park, Auckland where no team has bettered the Men in Black since 1994.
On paper it looks quite easy to build a team to take out the current World Champions but this article has not even mentioned the home team. We have made no mention of the world class talent that misses out on an All Black jersey let alone the players that get to represent the World Champion All Blacks. Brodie Retallick, Kieran Read and Beauden Barrett are all winners of the prestigious World Rugby Player of the Year while Read is being joined by Owen Franks, Jerome Kaino, Sam Whitelock and Sonny Bill Williams as dual World Cup winners also.
But now the time for name dropping is almost over and the Lions will come face to face with the All Blacks haka this Saturday. I hope you have the afternoon free to yell at the television and experience the spectacle that is a Lions’ test series in New Zealand.