Charlie Inglefield assesses a potential first XV for the Lions and the need to improve their execution in attack if they are to stand a chance on Saturday.
This is becoming a well-worn statement given the Lions scratchy form over the last couple of weeks, but I will say it anyway, the win over the Maoris was crucial. Primarily for morale and more importantly believing that they can turn over the All Blacks in this eagerly awaited test series.
Not surprisingly Warren Gatland has copped a fair bit of stick from his fellow countrymen and some friendly fire as well given the controversial additions to the squad from the Wales & Scotland tours. To get this one out of the way, I agree with the likes of Stephen Ferris in saying that a Lions jersey should be earned on merit not because you are in the same country as the Lions squad. That is not to disrespect the guys who have come on tour, particularly Finn Russell, but why the likes of Joe Launchbury and Mike Brown have not been called upon is beyond me.
However I digress and Gatland would have been very happy with the team’s performance against a fancied Maoris team in this unofficial 4th test. The Lions have upped their level considerably since the Blues match and even in defeat against the Highlanders they showed some much needed improvements in attack.
What the Maoris match showed us was that the Lions forwards led by the likes of Kruis, Faletau and Vunipola are bang on form and are ready for the All Blacks pack. What will be an ongoing concern is the amount of chances the Lions are butchering. With due respect to the Blues and Highlanders, the Lions should have closed out both matches especially if they had taken their opportunities. To beat New Zealand you cannot rely on Leigh Halfpenny’s boot from the tee. What is guaranteed is the All Blacks will score tries so the Lions will have to score them as well. At the moment, I am struggling to see where the tries are going to come from.
That said there are definitely signs that this Lions team can really challenge the All Blacks in Auckland on Saturday. The pack went well in tough conditions and most of those who started will be in the first test line-up. Some surprises as well, with Peter Mahoney at the top of tree. He is not bred from the Kieran Read set of skills for a backrower but he puts his body in places he shouldn’t be and he is a leader as his captaincy showed against the Maoris. There is the very real scenario of Mahoney captaining the Lions in the first test, given that his fellow Irishmen, Sean O’Brien making a compelling case to keep captain Sam Warburton out of the starting line-up. This is the beauty of a Lions tour with unheralded players stepping up to the plate and into the test team.
The backline is taking shape with Johnny Sexton probably doing just enough to keep Owen Farrell out of the team at stand-off with Connor Murray a shoe in for his battle against Aaron Smith. Centres are less clear but personally I would like to see Jonathan Joseph and Ben Te’o starting. Te’o has been the best back on tour and his likely battle with Sonny Bill Williams is worth the admission fee alone. George North has not set the world alight but neither has any other winger in the squad so he should be in with the electric Anthony Watson on the other flank. It is a shame that Liam Williams has had a shocker on this trip, as it would have been great to see him at full back. So Mr. Dependable, Leigh Halfpenny will hope to recreate his excellence from the 2013 tour of Australia.
A possible team for the first test:
- Mako Vunipola
2. Jamie George
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Maro Itoje
5. George Kruis
6. Peter O’Mahony (capt)
7. Sean O’Brien
8. Taulupe Faletau
9. Conor Murray
10. Johnny Sexton
11. George North
12. Ben Te’o
13. Jonathan Joseph
14. Anthony Watson
15. Leigh Halfpenny
The bench will be massively important if Lions are to prevail against the All Blacks. Liam Williams, Owen Farrell, Alun Wyn-Jones, Sam Warburton, Ken Owens and Dan Cole could be called upon.
As for the All Blacks well they look in fine fettle given the bashing they gave Western Samoa last weekend. They look sharp, motivated and deadly with the likes of Beauden Barrett, Sonny Bill Williams and Ben Smith looking especially good. Gatland has kept a brave front but he would have been hoping for a glimmer of weakness in their performance and there was none.
So, who will win? After the Blues match, I would have said no chance for the Lions but since then most individuals have raised their game culminating in that win over the Maoris. Regardless of what happens against the Chiefs, Gatland will know that he has a team who can take on the All Blacks. Whether that is enough to win remains to be seen. The heart says yes but the head says no and I think the All Blacks will win by 10-15 points.