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.
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.
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.
All Blacks 3-0 and by increasing margins.