There is nothing like a Lions tour to get the juices flowing, particularly as this Lions squad can genuinely challenge the All Blacks if (and it is a big if) they play to their potential. That said, we heard this back in 2005 when Sir Clive Woodward marched into Auckland with his advisers and PR spinners and look where that got us.
Warren Gatland can breathe a sigh of relief when flying into New Zealand this week knowing that his squad is mostly intact after the finals around the British Isles were completed over the weekend. However the two casualties are potentially significant with Ben Youngs staying home to support his brother and fellow Lion Tom, whose wife has tragically been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Billy Vunipola is a massive loss and such a shame given the potential match up against the world’s best number 8 in Kieran Read.
Nevertheless this is a squad, which has by and large been approved by all rugby personnel, both critics and armchair fans, over this side of the pond. I cannot remember a Lions squad, which has such few controversial selections. There is a mixture of power, pace and skill laced with genuine talent and a topping of gnarled experience. So who makes up this squad and which players could be in the first XV come the first test in Auckland?
England and Wales dominate the squad with Ireland supplying a healthy remainder although one has to feel very sorry for Scotland who only provide 3 players. Putting aside Gatland’s alleged bias towards his Welsh team, he has picked the right leader in the shape of Sam Warburton. Warburton was the best backrower in the Six Nations and is bang on form to take on Sam Cane and give Lions some parity at the all-important break down. He is not a man, who gets emotional, but he leads with his actions and people follow. Despite Zin Zan Brooke’s comments about a lack of mongrel, Toby Faletau will probably pack down against Kieran Read. Openside is a lottery but don’t be surprised if James Haskell muscles his way in. He is a joker and can drink with the best of them but he can also play and was outstanding against the Wallabies last summer.
The engine room is intriguing and this is where the Lions can perhaps gain an edge over their rivals. The money currently would be on George Kruis, whose reputation keeps rising with every performance and veteran Alun Wyn Jones, whose experience could be crucial in the close quarter battles. Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje stand by to launch themselves off the bench. The front row is another area where the Lions could have an advantage with the skills of the exciting Jamie George at hooker hunking down with burly Irishman Jack McGrath and the dynamic Mako Vunipola.
Conor Murray as long as he is fit is a shoe-in for scrum half with Mr. Angry, Johnny Sexton partnering him in the crucial stand off position. Sexton will need to have a blinder as Owen Farrell could rightly consider himself the unluckiest player in world rugby to miss out. For the sake of balance, which is the only reason why Farrell may not start, Robbie Henshaw and Jonathan Joseph could make up the centres, mixing Henshaw’s power and off-loading abilities with Joseph’s silky running lines. The back three should have Stuart Hogg at full back, he was the stand out player in the Six Nations and is always looking to attack. Liam Williams who was Wales best player in New Zealand last summer could be on one wing with Jack Nowell on the other. George North would be everyone’s choice, but has struggled for form and Nowell is a tricky customer who can wriggle through the tightest of spaces, a useful trait to have against the larger forms of Julian Saeva and Waisake Naholo.
This is the beauty of the Lions as it is perfectly feasible that the XV everyone expects will be totally different once the series starts. The collective talents of rookie prop Kyle Sinckler, whose thunderous gallops have thrilled crowds at Twickenham, and the muscular Ben Teo, who fits the bill of ‘Warren-ball’ perfectly if Sonny Bill Williams makes the All Black XV could well force themselves in time for the first test. CJ Stander is another one to be watched, with a tireless work-rate from the back of the scrum and an eye for the try line. Often it is the least expected who star on a Lions tour, think back to Martin Johnson, who nobody knew on the 1993 campaign. Then there are the young guns led by Maro Itoje, Anthony Watson, Kyle Sinckler and Robbie Henshaw. Their burgeoning reputations could be further enhanced come the end of the summer.
This is a brutal tour with all New Zealand Super XV franchises in the itinerary with All Blacks available for selection. The Lions have to be up to speed once the all-important first test comes along because they have a chance. New Zealand are notoriously difficult to beat once they get the rustiness out of their systems in game one and if the Lions do not prevail in Auckland then the series is as good as ever. They must take advantage of the fact that Messrs.’ Kieran Read, Dane Coles, Jerome Kaino, all key players, will have had little or no rugby. They are super stars but human, and will struggle to get up to their usual world-class capabilities if selected for the first test. As much as we want to see running rugby from the Lions, this is not a comfortable style for Warren Gatland. He will look for power on the gain line, utilizing men like Maro Itoje, possibly Ben Teo and Mako Vunipola with Sexton and Murray launching bombs into the sky to suffocate the All Black back three. Connor Murray is arguably the most important player on the Lion side, as he has to keep Aaron Smith quiet and be pinpoint accurate with his kicking. There is no margin for error when you have Julian Saeva, Ben Smith and Israel Dagg to counter.
It would be unwise to bet against the All Blacks on their home turf. They are an incredible team who just keep getting better and to be honest seeing the Lions win two tests at least is near nigh impossible. But with key players like Read and Coles battling to be fit in time, there is an inkling of a chance for the Lions to take the first test. Do that, then the pressure goes right back on Steve Hansen’s team and no matter how good they are, no one builds pressure like an expectant New Zealand public. The head says 2-1 to the All Blacks but if the Lions can take down the All Blacks in the first test then just maybe Warren Gatland can do something, which has not been done since 1971, and win in New Zealand.