The British & Irish Lions have arrived in New Zealand intent on avenging a 3-0 drubbing on their last visit in 2005. Who’s likely to be lining up in Black against them, and how will they fare in the tour matches?
THE ALL BLACKS
While Steve Hansen has yet to name his squad, incumbency and Super Rugby form suggest that, subject to fitness issues (see below), it could well look like this:
Forwards: Dane Coles (Hurricanes), Codie Taylor (Crusaders), Nathan Harris (Chiefs); Owen Franks (Crusaders), Charlie Faumuina (Blues), Joe Moody (Crusaders), Wyatt Crockett (Crusaders), Ofa Tu’ungafasi (Blues); Brodie Retallick (Chiefs), Sam Whitelock (Crusaders), Luke Romano (Crusaders), Scott Barrett (Crusaders); Kieran Read (Crusaders, captain), Liam Squire (Highlanders), Jerome Kaino (Blues), Steven Luatua (Blues), Sam Cane (Chiefs), Ardie Savea (Hurricanes), Matt Todd (Crusaders)
Backs: Aaron Smith (Highlanders), TJ Perenara (Hurricanes), Tawera Kerr-Barlow (Chiefs); Beauden Barrett (Hurricanes), Aaron Cruden (Chiefs), Lima Sopoaga (Highlanders); Ryan Crotty (Crusaders), Sonny Bill Williams (Blues), Anton Lienert-Brown (Chiefs), Malakai Fekitoa (Highlanders); Israel Dagg (Crusaders), Julian Savea (Hurricanes), Waisake Naholo (Highlanders), Ben Smith (Highlanders).
THE WALKING WOUNDED
There are a number of caveats to the 33 above, most notably skipper Kieran Read who recently broke his thumb and may not play again until the first Test. Dane Coles hasn’t played since 18 March, is now showing concussion-like symptoms, and no time frame has been given for his return.
Others currently on the injured list, some of whom have had lengthy layoffs, Kaino, Squire, Scott Barrett, and Todd. Nehe Milner-Skudder, another with a long term injury, appears to have run out of time.
There’s sufficient loose forward depth to cover most of Read, Kaino, Squire and Todd: Akira Ioane and Brad Shields are playing well in Super Rugby, and Ardie Savea has made a seamless move from seven to eight. If a stand-in captain is needed then both Cane has the experience and standing within the team to deputise.
The All Blacks’ real worry has to be Dane Coles, who is by far the top hooker in New Zealand. Next cab off the rank is probably Rici Ricitelli who looks a good prospect but ideally wouldn’t be in the mix for at least another season or two.
THE TOUR MATCHES
The Provincial Unions (3 June in Whangarei) is made up of at least one player from each of the 14 Mitre 10 Cup Unions not currently with a Super Rugby squad, plus one player from the amateur ranks. That honour goes to Wanganui legend Peter Rowe who actually retired at the end of 2016 (but presumably took little coaxing to lace the boots up again).
The Lions should win this easily enough – anything less than a comprehensive victory would signal impending disaster – but would underestimate the opposition at their peril. This will be the pinnacle match of many careers, and there’s always the outside chance of someone not previously on the higher honours radar making a name for themselves.
Each of the five Super Rugby teams gets a crack at the Lions. It was initially reported that the Blues (7 June), Crusaders (10 June) and Highlanders (13 June) would have their All Blacks available, but a Test against Samoa has now been scheduled for 16 June, so it may well
be that only the Blues will be at full strength, and with their Super Rugby playoff hopes dashed there’s a theory that they may decide to send a less than full strength side to Apia to play the Reds on 2 June and make beating the Lions their priority.
Assuming few if any of their All Blacks are available (Ben Smith has already ruled himself out, despite a clause in his contract giving him the right to play) it’s hard to see either the Crusaders or Highlanders having the firepower to take the Lions down but a full strength Blues would certainly be capable of pulling off a famous victory.
The Maori All Blacks (17 June in Rotorua) will also be affected by the timing of the Samoa Test, but not to the the same extent as the Crusaders or Highlanders as there are few Maori in Hansen’s likely 33. Even if Hansen doesn’t release any of his squad, the Maori will remain a formidable opponent and have every chance of repeating their 2005 victory.
The Chiefs (20 June) and Hurricanes (27 June) will definitely be without their All Blacks as these matches fall on the Tuesdays before the first and second Tests. But that works both ways as the Lions won’t want to risk starting any of their Test lineup, and while some will have to pull bench duty you’d think they’ll only get game time if absolutely necessary.
Wins v Provincial Unions & four Super Rugby teams. Losses v Maori All Blacks and Blues.
In Part Three: the Test series.