BRITISH & IRISH LIONS NEW ZEALAND TOUR PREVIEW - PART 3 - Green and Gold Rugby
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BRITISH & IRISH LIONS NEW ZEALAND TOUR PREVIEW – PART 3

BRITISH & IRISH LIONS NEW ZEALAND TOUR PREVIEW – PART 3

The British & Irish Lions have arrived in New Zealand intent on avenging a 3-0 drubbing on their last visit in 2005. Ireland’s historic victory in Chicago last year and England’s back-to-back Six Nations titles auger well, but how will they actually fare?

A BRIEF HISTORY

New Zealand is the Lions’ least-successful hunting ground. Ten previous tours (excluding the 1908 Anglo-Welsh) have resulted in just one Series win back in 1971. Overall they’ve won five and drawn three of the 35 matches played and gone win-less in four series.

Lions fans will rightly be buoyed by Ireland, who famously beat New Zealand for the first time in Chicago last year, and England, back-to-back Six Nations Champions (and only denied a repeat Grand Slam by Ireland), providing the bulk of the touring party. The reality, though, is that neither will count for much when hostilities commence.

TEAM NEWS

The big news out of the Lions camp was the late withdrawal of their wrecking ball No. 8 Billy Vunipola, around whom Gatland appeared to have built much of his game plan. It follows that a new or at least modified game plan will need to be found. A number of players, including captain Sam Warburton, are arriving with little or no game time and may have to be used in more of the tour matches than Gatland would have wanted.

Over in camp All Blacks it’s all about whether captain Kieran Read and hooker Dane Coles will be fit in time. Read would be a major loss but there’s cover in Akira Ioane or Ardie Savea, and Sam Cane is clearly being groomed as a future captain and has stood in for Read in the past. The loss of Coles, though, would be much more damaging as he’s well ahead of potential replacements Codie Taylor or Nathan Harris. Already sidelined for six weeks he’s looking increasingly unlikely to make the first Test, but Hansen has stated he’ll be picked with a view to being available later in the series.

KEY BATTLEGROUNDS & PLAYERS

The scrum battle will likely be won by the team that falls least-foul of the match officials. All three fancy themselves as scrum experts and appear at times to get into a mindset that player “x” is responsible for whatever’s going wrong and penalising accordingly.

The loss of Billy Vunipola is a huge blow to the Lions’ chances. Likely replacement Taulupe Faletau is a fine player but won’t inspire the same level of trepidation in the All Blacks camp. Having contained Faletau and Warburton three times last June, they’ll back themselves to do it again.

In the inside backs it’s looking increasingly like the Ireland pairing of Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton will line up with Owen Farrell for the Lions against Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett for the All Blacks. Their choice of 12, though, is far less clear-cut with the steadiness and organisational skills of Ryan Crotty or the explosiveness and offloading skills of Sonny Bill Williams being the options.

The clashes in the outside backs will be no less engrossing. Stuart Hogg has been the player of the Six Nations two years running, and is pushing Ben Smith hard as the world’s best 15. It’s likely the All Blacks will opt for a “blow them off the park” wing combination of Julian Savea and Waisake Naholo which could leave them vulnerable if the Lions’ kicking game, the kick-chase in particular, is on point as neither is a noted defender.

The All Blacks are renowned for playing not just “the full 80″ but however many extra minutes the game might run. Several seemingly lost matches have been won at the death – Ireland in Dublin in 2013, Australia in Brisbane in 2014 to name but two. There’s a suspicion that the Lions may not be able to go the distance, physically or mentally.

THE PROSPECTS

So much depends on the Lions’ injury toll in the non-Test matches. Gatland expects to call on six to ten replacements and has already lost one of his cornerstone players. One feels that it wouldn’t take too many more injuries to start exposing their depth. The All Blacks by contrast have remarkable depth everywhere but hooker and of course have only the Tests, now including Samoa eight days prior to the Series starting, to worry about.

Traditionally the All Blacks are at their most vulnerable early in a series, hence the scheduling of the Samoa Test to blow away any cobwebs. The Lions’ best chance of a win is probably in the series opener. Win that and a series win is very much on. But a first-up loss, especially a large one, is unlikely to be salvageable.

THE PREDICTION

All Blacks 3-0 and by increasing margins.

  • Tomthusiasm

    I’d like to see TJ starting over Aaron Smith, although Smith has been playing very well, I just like the physicality TJ brings and feel he can play well behind a beaten pack, if need be.

    • I like the physicality too, but recently Peranara has been tipping closer and closer to getting pinged for shouting back at the ref rather than talking all the time. I thought he was pretty lucky last week not to get penalised for it. Aaron Smith seems to have got his on and off pitch behaviour back under better control.

      And there’s an argument that bringing on an abrasive, more physical scrum-half as a replacement, when the other side are already tired, has more impact. Those potential tacklers are a half-step slower, the holes a bit bigger and he can have a bigger impact.

      • Tomthusiasm

        I see what you’re saying, but that’s the same mentality that would’ve kept Barrett on the bench. As far as TJ’s chatter, the ref has to nip it in the bud. Perenara has played well and deserves to remain the incumbent, imo.

        • Yes, kind of. Barrett got his chance when Cruden was injured and proved he was good enough, fast enough and skilled enough to make everyone miss him and make the rest of the backs play to a different level and when Cruden came back, despite Barrett’s dodgy goal kicking, he couldn’t force Barrett out.

          Perenara got a similar chance at the end of last season after Aaron Smith’s peccadilloes and, for me, didn’t do enough to take over as the starting nine rather than the replacement nice. I prefer the smoother passer first and the more physical scrum-half second, and that would make it Smith then Perenara if I was picking the team.

          That said, that pick will be really tough. I wouldn’t object to seeing Perenara in the 9 shirt, unless his temper boils over and he gets sin-binned for speaking back to the ref.

        • Tomthusiasm

          I think they’ll start Smith, and Perenara won’t have the captaincy so he should go back to the standard level of chat for a halfback!

        • Keith Butler

          Nice choice for Hansen to have. Two best scrum halves in world rugby at the moment IMO with Connor Murray not far behind them. SHs have always been lippy but TJ takes it to a new level. Would love to see Nigel Owen ref TJ . He has a certain way of putting them in their place that is priceless. Let the fun begin.

  • Brumby Runner

    Won’t matter how good the Lions’ kicking game is, they will all be fielded by Smith, Barrett or Read and defense will immediately be turned into attack. I expect the ABs to clean sweep the series and as you say by ever increasing margins as they get their combinations back and working.

    Would Nagame be a chance at 12? Is he in the squad?

    • Brent Craig

      If you mean Laumape (Hurricanes) I’d say he’s a chance if SBW or Crotty pull up lame at any stage. If Ngatai (Chiefs) then no, too many ongoing concussion issues there (won’t play tonight & doubtful for next week, too).

      • Brumby Runner

        Thanks WOB. I did mean Laumape but couldn’t find the squad details before I posted. Pity about Ngatai – he was looking the goods before his concussion issues.

  • Keith Butler

    I don’t think this Lions team will be the walkover many NZ fans are predicting. Could quite easily see it going 2-1 to the ABs though. Given the lack of preparation time I can easily see Gatland sticking with units, at least for the 1st test. An all Ireland front row, with an all England front row as replacement will be pretty formidable. Followed with Murray, Sexton and Henshaw. Overall, I reckon the packs will be evenly matched but it’s in the backs that the ABs will hold all the aces. Mind you, if the Lions can shut down Barrett the way the Crusaders did, and not kick to the back three, then who knows. Despite what others may say taking your shots at goal will be important and The Lions having place kickers who are consistently above 85% success will be an advantage. Can’t wait for the fun to begin. Looking forward to some cracking rugby from both sides.

    • Brent Craig

      Good points. FWIW I think the margins will be 1st Test 3-8, 2nd 7-12, 3rd 15ish. First two obviously close enough that the Lions could sneak one, but other than possibly the scrum, which depends very much on who gets reffed the strictest so may balance out, I just don’t see where the Lions have a clear advantage.

      • Keith Butler

        The only advantage the Lions definately have are in their goal kickers and that area will rest on player discipline and how the refs go at scrum and ruck time. I’d prefer games to be won by running in tries but at the end of the day in a close fought game neither the Lions or the ABs would complain if they won on a penalty.

  • mikado

    I’d go with that prediction too. Hopefully the rugby will be great and who knows, maybe the Lions can pull off an upset.

    I take it that in the second photo the guy with the spear is re-enacting the Brian O’Driscoll tackle of 2005? (joking…)

  • BigAl

    Think you are underestimating the Lions. I’m going for a 2-1 Lions series win!

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