Can the Lions tame the All Blacks?
It’ll take the very best of Britain and Ireland to conquer the southern hemisphere heavyweights
Every four years, something truly special happens in rugby union, as the best players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales take a break from knocking seven bells out of each other to don the famous Lions red jersey. They unite to head to the southern hemisphere to take on either South Africa, Australia or New Zealand in a multi-test tour that harks back to the golden age of amateur rugby.
This summer, it’s the turn of New Zealand – otherwise known as the best team on the planet. Lions’ head coach, Warren Gatland (a Kiwi himself), has recruited 41 players to do battle: 16 from England, 12 from Wales, 11 from Ireland and, contentiously, only two from Scotland. Their ten-match tour kicks off on 3 June and culminates in a mouth-watering best-of-three Test Series versus the All Blacks, starting on 24 June. And with Sky Sports, you can watch every minute of it, exclusively live.
Former Lions coach Jim Telfer famously referred to these tours as the “Everest” of a player’s career, not because of the conditions, but because of the sheer scale of the challenge. Since the first tour in 1888, the Lions have won only once in 11 series against the Kiwis… and that was in 1971. Forty-six years later, what must they do to triumph?
1. Catch the All Blacks cold
Given the best-of-three format, winning the first test match – something the Lions managed in 71 and on their victorious tour of Australia four years ago – is utterly essential. With six warm-up matches against the best provincial and club teams already under their belts by 24 June, the Lions should be firing on all cylinders (assuming they’ve avoided picking up injuries to key players). By contrast, the first Test will be New Zealand’s first match of any description for six months, offering the tourists an ideal opportunity to secure a crucial opening win at Eden Park.
2. Harness the luck (and tactics) of the Irish
Ireland was the last team to beat the All Blacks – albeit on neutral ground in Chicago – last November. The stunning 40-29 result was the first time they’d ever beaten the Kiwis, ending their record-equalling run of 18 consecutive wins in the process. How did they do it? They certainly had luck on their side, with early injuries disrupting the All Blacks’ rhythm. But the men in green were also tenacious, relentless and, most importantly, ambitious, opting to play on the front foot and going for tries (each worth five precious points) rather than simply attempting to contain their opponents and eke out points via penalties (worth only three).
3. Dominate the set piece
Northern hemisphere sides typically excel at scrums and line-outs, mainly because our soggy weather and cabbage-patch pitches lend themselves to a conservative style of rugby based around set pieces. If the Lions can gain an advantage in the scrum and win their line-outs (via English man-mountains Maro Itoje and George Kruis), it’ll provide the perfect platform for their backs – lightning-fast Anthony Watson, powerhouse George North and the lethal Stuart Hogg – to do serious damage and potentially rack up plenty of tries.
By contrast, if the Lions’ scrum is back-pedalling and their line-out faltering, the All Blacks will be out of sight before the haka’s stopped ringing around your living room. Side note: it’s definitely worth tuning in ten minutes before kick-off to watch this legendary, chill-inducing, pre-match war dance ritual.
4. Pack the bench with powerful finishers
The All Blacks always finish strong. Always. In Chicago they almost clawed their way back from 25-8 down at half time, and more often than not they handsomely outscore their opponents in the second half. However, this Lions squad, led by returning tour captain Sam Warburton, is widely regarded as one of the finest and deepest ever assembled.
With an embarrassment of riches at his disposal, Gatland (below) should be able to unload some heavy artillery off the bench when his starters begin to tire. Expect to see big – and we mean thunderous – second-half impacts from barrel-chested hooker Jamie George, rampaging prop Mako Vunipola and ferocious back-row forward CJ Stander.
5. Put the boot in
Goal kicking – either for three points via a penalty, or for two points via a post-try conversion – is one of the few areas where the Lions have a clear advantage over New Zealand. Of those likely to be kicking for the posts, Ireland’s Johnny Sexton, England’s Owen Farrell and Wales’ Leigh Halfpenny – who nailed 40 out of 45 kicks in 2013 – are three of the most deadly marksmen in the game. And for anything further out, England’s Elliot Daly – the Happy Gilmore of kicking – can blast it over from well over 50m out.
All Blacks’ kicker Beauden Barrett on the other hand is better known for his blistering pace and scything running game. If the Lions can nullify him by keeping defenders in his face at all times and earn convertible penalties in the right areas, they can claw their way to victory, three points at a time. That’d do Gatland just fine.
Published by Virgin Media on 24 May 2017.