A Lion’s pride?

The Lions strength is in the collective whilst the All Blacks are without doubt the most talented group of players assembled in the professional era (if not ever, they’d certainly give Gareth, Barry, JPR and the gang a run for their money) and in a high pressure, one off game you have to imagine outrageous talent is more beneficial. 

However the individual talent can only shine if the forwards collective effort affords them enough possession and momentum to do so and, statistically at least, the All Black pack have had the better of this series so far, but last time out the Lions managed to generate that most precious of things, quick ruck ball in the opposition’s 22.  And here’s where it gets interesting, Romain Poite is the man in the middle and he makes some pretty strange decisions at rucks, at the recent Top 14 final he hardly penalised any tacklers for not rolling away and this lead to a succession of turn overs and not a whole load of tries (just 1 for each team). Poite is also not the greatest when it comes to working out who committed what offence at scrum time so this promises to be a game with a lot of penalties and turnovers in it, probably not what the All Blacks are after.

Even so the All Blacks are still favourite to win comfortably and without the assistance of some pretty unfortunate circumstances they would have won last week (Sonny Bill Williams arriving just as a tackled Anthony Watson was struggling to escape from a defender’s clutches has to be a once in a lifetime sort of coincidence) but for quite a few of the Lion’s players they will feel that they can play better and they will all want to prove that the criticism they have suffered as a touring party is wholly unreasonable. 

The bookmakers have apparently made an All Blacks win by 11-14 the most likely outcome but that seems to be a fairly large gap given the Lions motivation and fact that Poite is likely to award both teams a similar number of penalties (12 to Clermont who had a dominant scrum and 10 to Toulon who had Liam Gill at the breakdown in the Top 14 final).

The Lions made 6 clean breaks to the All Blacks 1 last week and despite being down a player for about 60 minutes the All Blacks still had 61% of the possession! The Lions will need to get the ball to Anthony Watson, Taulupe Faletau and Jonathan Davies if they’re going to pose an attacking threat and they must kick well out of hand because the new All Black back 3 of Dagg, Jordie Barrett and Julian Savea will round and straight over the top of defenders if they get any space at all. 

Last week really did illustrate the stark difference between the coaching set up’s too as Gatland trusted the starters for as long as humanly possible and eventually they pulled through while Steve Hansen showed no signs of hesitation, when decisions needed to be made he threw the subs on (all 8 had a run out, compared to the Lions 2 tactical ones and 3 forced). The intensity of this whole series will take a toll at some time and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the management of the players will lead to who wins the series. Bringing back an angry Julian Savea after 2 weeks on the side could be a master stroke by Hansen, but a rested Ken Owens and CJ Stander could explode in the last 20 minutes for the Lions. 

Ultimately the Lions have outperformed most expectations with a few commentators questioning if they’d even win a game with less preparation time than they’d have wanted. I can’t see anyone else beating the All Blacks in New Zealand this year, or maybe even for the next few years and watching other Rugby Championship teams so far this year I’d be surprised if any of them get within 25 points of the All Black machine. I’ve gone for a 1 point win to the All Blacks, but pressure does funny things to people and with 99% of their team (Jordie Barrett might still be knocking about in 12 years and Anton Lienert-Brown, Ardie Savea and Scott Barrett have got outside shots too) knowing they’ll never play the Lions again it’ll be one hell of a pressure cooker! 

2nd Test, last chance. 

Everyone is bored of the phony war of words, even Steve Hansen (and to be fair to the grumpiest man in the world it has mostly been the Lions moaning about how sneaky the All Blacks are. Or just Lions “fans” or press pack moaning about how it’s not like the old days whilst seemingly forgetting that Wales and the occasional Irish man largely dominated the 70’s).

The Lions have swapped Kruis for Itoje and gone with Lawes & Stander (who has put in some man hours on this tour, and he’s not fully fit either!), Lawes for some added umph and presumably Stander so Faletau can go to 6 when Warburton fades after about 50 minutes. Jack Nowell gets the nod on the bench presumably cos he can slot in at 13, 14 or 15 if need be (bet Rieko Ioane can’t wait).

But it’s not about the playing personnel it’s all about the officials. Garces is not afraid to brandish the cards which no ref has really done until now on this tour. The weather could make for tricky playing conditions too so one misstep or ill timed challenge in the air could see someone taking an early shower. If it’s a Lions player it could be fatal and Beauden Barrett will love picking apart a depleted Lions defensive line. Obviously I’ll be hoping it isn’t a Lion, but even if the All Blacks lose a player they’re still likely to win, unless that player is one of their talismanic Lock forwards (but they’re unlikely to be competing for up and under’s). The Lions tight 5 will need to produce a gargantuan effort in order to free up the back row to do their thing. A good gauge of how well the Lions forwards are doing is how far away from the rucks Taulupe Faletau is, when he’s freed up and able to play in the wide channels he can be a real threat to defences, but if he has to help out in the dark and dirty stuff then it’ll be because the forwards in front of him are struggling. 
My heart says Lions by 5 in a nail-biter, but I don’t really trust my heart to make these sort of decisions so it’ll probably be the All Blacks by 17. We can only hope there isn’t too much controversial officiating, although 1-1 going into the 3rd Test would be a mouthwatering prospect! 

I love New Zealand, well sorta. A bit. Ok, maybe not. 

I haven’t actually watched New Zealand batter Samoa by 78 points yet, but I can have a jolly good guess at how it went down. Virtually all All Blacks games are the same – they play error free rugby and it completely freaks out the opposition who then proceed to make error after error and before you know it Steve Hansen’s fellas have waltzed out to an unassailable lead.  And that’s one of the main reasons that I love New Zealand (the other is because Steve Hansen is the grumpiest man in sport. The coaching box could be filled with stripper’s and class A drugs and he’d still look like Wayne Bennett had just spilled his pint of Speights!), Sir Clive Woodward, Sir Ian McGeechan or any Knight of the realm who hasn’t played rugby for 40 years will gush over the intricate attacking formations or where Sonny Bill stands as they pack down an attacking scrum, buy it’s far more basic than that. The fact that the entire population of the land of the long white cloud are seemingly gifted enough to make Test rugby look like a game of touch in a local park is irrelevant, the All Blacks have the ability to concentrate for the entirety of a rugby match and for some reason nobody else does. Today Samoa had 54% of the territory and 55% of the possession and still didn’t score a single point! Now baring in mind I still haven’t seen it, so I’m assuming here, what mostly happened was Samoa committed turnovers and New Zealand scored tries with either 3 passes or 1 kick because they’re that ruthless. Samoa did commit 13 turnovers in the game but New Zealand committed 12 of their own, but Samoa don’t have the unfeasible amount of talent that the All Blacks do and once they missed 2 penalty kicks and went 12-0 down the confidence completely evaporated and the rest is very much history. 

This result has been met with much doom and gloom by Lions fans and reporters alike but frankly the All Blacks would have met with more resistance in a training session so old smiley Steve won’t be best pleased, particularly bearing in mind the Lions have got to face up to the Maori All Blacks tomorrow and that will be brutal. 
The only one area where the Lions could have an edge is in the forwards and if (that’s an absolutely huge “if” by the way) the Lions are to stand any chance of winning the first Test they will need to be near perfect tomorrow. Rieko Ioane has already lead the Lions a merry dance on this tour and while he won’t have Jack Nowell and his imploding self-confidence trying to stop him this week the 20 y old won’t need much time and space to add to his try tally against the tourists. 

Knowing how predictable the Lions attacking tactics have been so far they’ll want to run down Damian McKenzie’s 10 channel but anyone who tries that too often will only end becoming the meat in an Elliott Dixon and Charlie Ngatai sandwich and the Lions have already got enough injured players. Ngatai versus Ben Te’o should be fascinating, if only because Ben Te’o running into anyone is fascinating, if Ben remembers to strap on his passing hands tomorrow then Jonathan Davies might be able to give Matt Proctor a few issues but you don’t get to be a Hurricane if you can’t soak up a bit of physicality. 

The only way the Lions can win this one is if they can starve the Maori’s devastating backline of possession and as the All Blacks showed this morning World class teams can win when they lose the possession battle. My Superbru prediction was the Lions to win a nail-biter by 1 point and that’s not completely out of the question but I’m starting to lean more toward the Maori now. Potentially this game could be the springboard that propels the Lions onward to the Test series with a spring in their step, a real belief that everything is working as it should and it could serve as a warning to the All Blacks that next week won’t be so easy. Alternatively, if the Lions can’t fully concentrate for 80 plus minutes it could be a harbinger of just how far ahead New Zealand rugby players are psychologically (and that’s why I really don’t like them that much after all)

Alas Smith and, well Smith

If we learned 2 things on Saturday they were that Peter O’Mahony is a superhero undercover as a rugby player and that when you have to wait 12 years to play against the Lions even a team captained by Sam Whitelock can get stage fright. Alun-Wyn Jones might have been the captain on Saturday but O’Mahony has this uncanny knack of doing incredibly important things at incredibly important times and when a Lions scrum descended into an unsightly kerfuffle he made a bee-line for the biggest Crusader on the pitch just to prove a point. The Crusaders unbeaten run came to a juddering halt as they failed to score a try against a determined Lions defence and only managed a single penalty kick as they were downed 12-3. The Lions however also failed to cross the whitewash and whilst stifling defence and hoofing over penalties from anywhere near half way will put away a few Super Rugby teams it’s not going to strike fear into Steve Hansen and the All Blacks. 

But they’re not playing the All Blacks for a week and a bit so there’s still time to iron out a few kinks (even if us pessimistic Welsh fans can see a pattern emerging, Rob Howley and “attack coach” are concepts that combine as well as engine oil and water do). A distinctly second string Lions get the chance to play in the green house that is the Forsyth-Barr stadium tomorrow and (if they can afford it) the local students will scream the house down. The conditions inside the swanky indoor stadium should provide the likes of Jack Nowell, Robbie Henshaw and Jonathan Joseph with an opportunity to show how they ended up being selected for this tour in first place. The Lions forwards should frankly rollover the Highlanders pack as they are comfortably bigger (somewhere around the 10 stone mark) and while the Highlanders have got some beef on the bench the Lions have got Dan Cole and Jack McGrath to bolster the front row and they both tip the scales at 18 plus stone! 
The Highlanders will be without All Black mainstays Aaron and Ben Smith and while Lima Sopoaga and Waisake Naholo will be looking to make the most of any ball that falls their way (Tommy Seymour will definitely be on the receiving end of Sopoaga’s trademark kick passes and Jared Payne better hope his calf is 100% or he could end up looking very silly trying to cover the backfield). Liam Squire will be a big miss in the Highlanders’ back row as both a carrier and a fetcher at ruck time and while Gareth Evans and Luke Whitelock are both tough as nails and will work their collective socks off they are both over a stone lighter than their opposite numbers Haskell and Stander. Richard “Barracuda” Buckman is one of my favourite Super Rugby players, but he’s more at home in the Centre’s than at 15 and one of my other favourites Matt Faddes isn’t even in the Highlanders squad as Glasgow Warriors bound Tevita Lee gets a rare start.
It won’t be easy for the Lions and if they get drawn into trying to play expansive, fast, open rugby then the hefty pack will definitely be a hindrance and not a help and if it becomes a try scoring competition Naholo, Li and the explosive Fekitoa (who could headed to Toulouse next season) in midfield will do real damage.  Both props on the Highlanders bench can make an impact; Aki Seiuli recently scored 2 tries in a Super Rugby match and Siua Halanukonuka scored a rather impressive try when he rumbled 30 metres down the middle of the field a few weeks back! But the Lions have Alun-Wyn Jones, Owen Farrell and Elliott Daly on the bench should a late rescue mission be needed.

The first 2 tour games were decided by 6 points and the last by 9 but this should be the highest scoring so far and I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t end up as a points-fest. Lions by 12 for me

Wildly optimistic. With just a dash of realism.

I read a tweet that said six of the Lions starting against the Crusaders could start the 1st Test, but that seems unlikely. Six of tomorrow’s starting pack alone could realistically start the 1st Test! And probably 5 of the backline lining up tomorrow could be 1st Test starters too, so Gatland means business and as the jetlag begins to fade so do the potential excuses.

While I’m not expecting a Lions win in Canterbury I am at least hoping for a bit more purpose and aggression than they’ve displayed so far. Not that roughing up New Zealanders will do anything but make even more determined to publicly embarrass you, but when the back row includes Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien and a frustrated Alun-Wyn Jones is leading the side from the second row alongside George Kruis who will be champing at the bit to establish his Test credentials it’s not unreasonable to expect fireworks. The fascinating thing to me is how the entire pack seems to designed to maximise Taulupe Faletau’s ability carry the ball in open space, the other 7 forwards are all good ball carriers too, but they’ll be hitting as many rucks as humanly possible to get quick ball so Farrell can unleash a backline with strike runners like Te’o, Jonathan Davies and George North and the X-factor that is Faletau. 

Another fascinating area will be which forward pops up at first receiver, Mako Vunipola has done it for England and often plays as a playmaker for Saracens, but Jamie George is a dynamic carrier and good passer, Tadgh Furlong is a powerful carrier as his Sean O’Brien and any of those players carrying the ball should allow Farrell to play a bit wider and get Faletau into more space. 

For their part the Crusaders have amazing ball carriers in their front row too, Joe Moody has got all the skills to play in the backs, Codie Taylor is quicker than most outside backs and Owen Franks doesn’t mind the odd rumble now and again. Luke Romano and Sam Whitelock are arguably the two best Second Row’s in the world at the moment so Alun-Wyn and Kruis will definitely have to work to stand out in this game and in the backrow Jordan Taufua doesn’t know the meaning of “backward step” while Matt Todd will be bitterly disappointed to miss out on All Black selection, so plenty of points to prove all round!

I expect the Lions will finish a close second this week but if they can retain possession better than they have so far on tour they score a morale boosting win. The Crusaders haven’t lost a Super Rugby game all season though! 

Lions get the Blues in Auckland 

The Blues front row weighs in a more than hefty 58 stone (plus a bit of change) and here in lies the problem, without wishing to point out the blindingly obvious, clean scrum ball could be very difficult to come by and for the Lions to score 3 tries they’re going to need at least 5 clear cut opportunities. On the plus side Pascal Gauzere is in charge of the whistle and he’s not renowned for his “interpretations” when it comes to scrum time so Leigh Halfpenny could have plenty of chances to warm up his kicking boots even if the Lions scrum looks to be taking a pasting! 

With Tipuric playing at 7 and the perpetual motion machine that is Maro Itoje romping around the field the Lions may well be tempted to play a wide attacking game (if they manage to secure any ball) but with Biggar at 10 and the 31 year old Jared Payne at 13 (and a blindside who hasn’t looked fit for about 2 months in James Haskell) that could prove difficult. Even trying to throw the ball around against a Blues side with Akira Ioane at 6, Bristol bound Steven Luatua at 8 AND former New Zealand 7’s players Augustine Pulu, Sonny Bill Williams and Rieko “dancing feet” Ioane could be a really dangerous plan.

Personally I’d be happy with a 6-0 win to the Lions and on to Canterbury but I can’t imagine that’ll happen, from a Lions point of view there are a few questions to answer after Saturday’s soporific jetlag-fest not least who will play in the second row with George Kruis come Test match time. Alun-Wyn Jones and Iain Henderson might have got the short end of the stick with the first starts but you’d imagine that Itoje or Lawes have a great shot at nailing down a Test spot already (or both if Gatland fancies 1 of them at 6, but Peter “outta my way” O’Mahony is on the bench. And Ross Moriarty is everything you want to take on an All Black back row). Robbie Henshaw v Sonny Bill Williams could be pretty epic, but SBW hasn’t hit his straps since his return from injury and as a committed Muslim is currently “managing Ramadan” and Robbie Henshaw was wrapped up in Leinster’s end of season tailspin back home, although getting away from Sexton might perk him up. Jack McGrath has a chance to condemn Joe Marler to 5 weeks of midweek games (although Marler’s 3 metre’s in 3 carries on Saturday probably did that). CJ Stander needs game time after Rassie Erasmus said that he was still coming back from injury at the end of the season. 

For the Blues George Moala will be pretty desperate to remind the All Black selectors that he’s still incredibly powerful so Jared Payne will need to get him early or face the prospect of a very angry 16+ stone coming at him at full tilt.  Rieko Ioane will probably be an All Black sooner or later so Jack Nowell’s much vaunted defence will be tested.

Off the bench Patrick Tuipolotu and Jonathan Sexton will both want to show what they can do and if you’re a Lions forward you don’t want to see Tuipolotu galloping down field after 60 minutes, he’s far too quick to weigh the best part of 19 stone. 

On a totally self-indulgent note Michael Collins looked a very tidy prospect at the Scarlets so I’d love him to have a good game and how he compares to Halfpenny could be very interesting indeed. I’m going with the Blues by 14, but the looser the Lions try to play the more chances the Blues will have to bag some meat pies.

Lions nonsense 

Back in August I picked a wildy inaccurate Lions team but with the 19th of April fast approaching I thought I’d highlight a few players who might be on the plane to New Zealand despite not featuring heavily during the 6 Nations. 

This is very much a dream of mine, but it’s not entirely out of the question, nobody has scored more tries in European competition this season than the Ospreys Keelan Giles and given the All Blacks flagrant disregard for any opponents (who could forget Brodie Retallick having no idea who Courtney Lawes was in 2014) Giles could be just the secret weapon the Lions need. Plus who doesn’t love seeing a teenager make experienced opponents look daft?

On the subject of young players who shine at the Ospreys despite a seeming maelstrom of malaise engulfing the Liberty Sam Underhill might not be far from Gatland’s thoughts. There are a ridiculous number of candidates for backrow places (Ireland alone have about 8 players who fit the bill) but not many of them tackle as hard as Underhill and have the ability to make correct decisions in the backline too. 

Like Underhill my next candidate is playing his rugby on the foreign side of the Severn. Richard Hibbard has undergone a transformation in about the 10 months, he’s shed pounds and he looks to be the fittest player at Gloucester (which is some achievement when they have 6 Kiwi’s in their squad and one of them is John Afoa). He’s also become one of the most accurate line-out throwers in the Aviva too, he was over 90% last time I heard a statistical breakdown, and set piece efficiency will be vital to even compete in the land of the long white cloud.

Back to wingers (and there’s plenty of them to go round too) in terms of British qualified players there are 2 close to Keelan Giles in the European try scoring stakes and they are Chris Ashton (who I think will be going if only to bring a bit of levity to a tour that will be close to 2 months long with the training camp) and Clermont’s very own Nick Abendanon but I think players based in France will struggle to be released because the Top 14 season is seemingly eternal! 

Another winger who is scintillating form is Sale’s Denny Solomona, the former rugby league player isn’t quite the the miraculous “convert” some seem to blindly believe. Having grown up in Auckland Solomona attended and represented the first XV at St. Peter’s College the alma mater of Pat Lam and brothers Peter and Francis Saili (amongst others) so he’s hardly come from out of nowhere to notch up 9 tries in 9 starts! 

On the subject of players born in Auckland who could be popping back for 5 weeks in the summer Ireland’s Joey Carbery brings all the poise you’d expect of an international inside back but he can also play 15 and he could probably slot anywhere along the backline in an emergency. Unlike Solomona Carbery moved from New Zealand when he was just 11, now aged 21 he was selected in the touring party when Ireland travelled to Chicago to beat the All Blacks in 2016.

Another Aucklander who could hoping a business class flight to the other side of the Tasman Sea is Ben Te’o, he did feature heavily during the 6 Nations, but he only started once. Gatland will definitely be interested in the possibility of Te’o renewing his acquaintance with one of his old NRL combatants Sonny Bill Williams (see here – http://thebiglead.com/2014/03/06/new-zealand-rugby-league-match-delivers-most-vicious-clean-hit-of-2014/ben-teo-hit-on-sonny-bill-williams/

And finally, and most definitely most tenuously Simon Berghan has only made 3 appearances for Scotland but the Christchurch born Tight-Head is a man mountain. He’s 6 feet 4 inches tall and tips the scales at just over the 20 stone mark. If Tight-Head wasn’t such a problem area he’d have absolutely zero chance (but Tomas Francis does lack anything that resembles athleticism, Zander Fagerson is about 18 months away from being a top class 3 and Samson Lee hasn’t been at his devastating best this season) so the former Crusader Knights player could be headed home for a flying visit.