Lions unlikely to withstand what All Blacks can muster
Kiwis have the better strike moves and an ability to strike from anywhere at any time
New Zealand v British and Irish Lions
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland.
Kick off: 8.35am.
TV: Sky Sports 1, 7.30am (follow on our liveblog from 7.45am).
All has changed, changed utterly. The media pack has doubled, red jerseys abound in the streets, and though the traditional Auckland rain has arrived even the NZ Herald has jumped aboard.
‘Invasion of the Red Army’ screamed their front page headline above a picture of same, in heralding a tour which will inject €18 million into the regional economy alone. The All Blacks versus the Lions, rugby’s greatest series, has only been 12 years in the making. There’s a sense something epic might be about to happen.
As Clive Woodward was wont to say, this should be massively full on. The hope is that it will be more full on this time. Looking back, it’s almost hard to credit that the All Blacks won that first Test in Christchurch by only 21-3.
The 48-18 win in the second Test in Wellington, with Dan Carter in his pomp and contributing 30 points, remains more vivid. (And with his pace and vision, Beauden Barrett could scale those heights).
Twelve years ago the composition of the first Test team was a matter of wild conjecture and ultimately based on past achievements. This Lions selection was largely predictable save for the back three, and is therefore based on form.
They have an experienced core mixed with some undoubted freshness. As a squad they have made serious advancements. Their scrum, lineout and maul have all become hugely potent. Their breakdown work has been very accurate.
That won’t be enough to beat the back-to-back world champions in their own lair, and it is the choice of Liam Williams at fullback alongside Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly which signals the Lions’ intent. The Lions wouldn’t have picked such a trio unless they had a licence to counterattack, which was evident in the win over the Maori.
As Ireland showed in Chicago, Warren Gatland recognises the Lions are going to have to do something they have never done before; score more than 20 points in a Test against the All Blacks if they are to register a sixth win in 31 Tests as the British & Irish Lions.
In other words, they are going to need to score at least two tries, given Ireland needed five tries to win 40-29 in Chicago. Otherwise, the All Blacks would be on a run of 23 successive wins.
To put the Lions’ task into further perspective, the All Blacks have won 46 Tests in a row on home soil since South Africa beat them in Hamilton 2009. Furthermore, the All Blacks haven’t lost at Eden Park since France won 23-20 in 1994, and have won 36 Tests in a row there.
“I think the more you talk about it, the more it becomes an issue,” said Gatland. “It’s like everything; those sort of records are there to be broken and at some stage it’s going to happen. Some people take 100-odd years to break a record and then they get lucky enough to do it.”
The pressure is on the All Blacks too, for this is a unique challenge for Steve Hansen.
“I was thinking about that earlier today actually, that very thing, and it’s right up there,” admitted Steve Hansen.
“World Cup’s a knockout tournament and the difference with the Lions is you get three goes. If you stuff the first one up you get another one. And it’s the same for both teams, isn’t it? It’s exciting and you can feel the enthusiasm and the real hunger in the hotel with the players. That doesn’t guarantee to win the thing but it does guarantee that your attitude is right, and we know that if our attitude is right and we get our clarity right then we’re a good side.”
Indeed, and therein lies the rub.
The bench could swing it either way, and here the Lions look as well loaded as the All Blacks. Maro Itoje might have merited a start, but he is being kept back to match the All Blacks’ impact off the bench one ventures for the last half an hour or so. Hence, perhaps in part, O’Mahony is captain ahead of Alun Wyn Jones. Perhaps also, in this decision, lies an indication that barring injury O’Mahony is more likely to remain in the starting team.
One series win in 11 says it all. Yet in everything they’ve done over the last three weeks and six games, and in this selection, the Lions have given themselves a fighting chance. Playing the Super Rugby sides, taking a couple of defeats on the chin, has hardened them in a way rolling over provinces never would have achieved.
Aside from their defensive and forward cohesion, they look better equipped to cope with a high tempo, and adhering to Gatland’s mantra for staying alive to quick throws and taps. In the 77th minute last Tuesday, when the Chiefs full-back Shaun Stevenson took a quick throw to himself close to his own line, he was nailed by Rory Best, who was slapped on the back by Iain Henderson and James Haskell.
That penny appears to have dropped.
Were the Lions to achieve set-piece supremacy in the rain, and their line speed keep the All Blacks reasonably in check, who knows? Their trump card may be the back three, but the Lions’ rush defence will be its ace in the hole.
The key may be whether the Lions’ defensive line speed and tackle accuracy can stifle the All Blacks rumblers, Brodie Retallick, Kieran Read and co, get them over the gain line, and whether the spoiling at the breakdown of Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony et al, can slow down the hosts’ ball.
But even then with only one romp against Samoa to dust off the cobwebs, these All Blacks have the better strike moves, and an ability to strike from anywhere at any time like no other team in the professional era.
NEW ZEALAND: Ben Smith (Highlanders); Israel Dagg (Crusaders), Ryan Crotty (Crusaders), Sonny Bill Williams (Blues), Rieko Ioane (Blues); Beauden Barrett (Hurricanes), Aaron Smith (Highlanders); Joe Moody (Crusaders), Codie Taylor (Crusaders), Owen Franks (Crusaders), Brodie Retallick (Chiefs) Samuel Whitelock (Crusaders), Jerome Kaino (Blues), Sam Cane (Chiefs), Kieran Read (Crusaders, captain). Replacements: Nathan Harris (Chiefs), Wyatt Crockett (Crusaders), Charlie Faumuina (Blues), Scott Barrett (Crusaders), Ardie Savea (Hurricanes), TJ Perenara (Hurricanes), Aaron Cruden (Chiefs) or Lima Sopoaga (Highlanders), Anton Lienert-Brown (Chiefs).
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales); Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby, England), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets, Wales), Ben Te’o (Worcester Warriors, England), Elliot Daly (Wasps, England); Owen Farrell (Saracens, England), Conor Murray (Munster, Ireland); Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England,) Jamie George (Saracens, England), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster, Ireland), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, Wales), George Kruis (Saracens, England), Peter O’Mahony (Munster, Ireland, captain), Sean O’Brien (Leinster, Ireland), Taulupe Faletau (Bath Rugby, Wales). Replacements: Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales), Jack McGrath (Leinster, Ireland), Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins, England), Maro Itoje (Saracens, England), Sam Warburton (Cardiff Blues, Wales), Rhys Webb (Ospreys, Wales), Johnny Sexton (Leinster, Ireland), Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon, Wales).
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa).
Overall record: New Zealand v British & Irish Lions: Pl 30, New Zealand 23 wins, 2 draws, Lions 5 wins.
Highest scores: New Zealand – 48-18 (Wellington, 2005). Lions – 20-7 (Wellington 1993).
Biggest wins: New Zealand – 38-6 (Auckland, 1983). Lions – 20-7 (Wellington 1993).
Betting (Paddy Power): 2/9 New Zealand, 33/1 Draw, 7/2 Lions. Handicap odds (Lions + 11 pts) Evens New Zealand, 25/ Draw, Evens Lions.
Forecast: New Zealand to win.