This Lions tour has been fascinating on a number of levels. We all thought that the Crusaders and the Maoris would post significant try-scoring threats and possibly inflict defeats. How wrong we all were, including the Kiwi experts. In fact neither side carried the ball across the Lions try-line, a wonderful pre test statistic.
Does it matter ? Gatland says it’s the Test Series (of course) and everything else can be written off to preparation. In fact the Maori game was so comfortable for the Lions that you wonder whether there was something untoward about the whole contest as they could have won by 50 points.
The truth is that the Lions have yet to face any game breakers who can put them under tactical pressure but perhaps that’s just the New Zealand way, as well as their main players being held back. The other truth is that the big match Lions players have stepped into the two major challenges to date and seen them off.
I said before that the combination of a Saracens front five and some Irish hard edge in the front and back row could be a winning combination. Now Sexton has found his form along with Farrell and Murray, the Lions are going to be super competitive. Te’o has surprised me positively and is now passing out of contact, also good news for England.
But is it enough? The New Zealand gloating has tempered somewhat, and is replaced by nervousness. There is a steel in the Lions defence which they will not like and it could yet become the killer weapon.
On the field, Halfpenny has surprised me and he will be really tested if he starts on Saturday. Given the weather forecast he may be critical with the boot but Farrell is equally good. I was really pleased to see Jack Nowell finally show his true colours, possibly too late for the Test but Daly will surely play a part.
From a rugby talent perspective, Anthony Watson surely plays fullback but I suspect conservatism wins out as well as the tactical imperative, being described as ‘defend to win’- although it will need to be much more than that. Farrell will have to play 10 because his passing is more direct and suits Te’o and Davies, bringing them through to break the gainline.
The issues for the B&I Lions are the back three and back row. If I was the All Blacks (!) that is where I look for weakness because there is an issue of mix and balance.
Importantly, and especially after Tuesday, Lions have the momentum. The whole squad will be buzzing as they enter the most important fortnight of their rugby lives. I feel that whatever the result of the series, each side knows they will have to exceed anything they have achieved before to have success. To the victor the spoils, but this is as big as it gets in any sport in any country and at any level.
1/ The furore about cheapening the Lions Shirt with ready made replacements… All I know is that my unavailability for the ’89 tour remains an abiding sadness in my rugby life and it really is the pinnacle for any player, no argument. Gatland has had so much adversity to overcome that I understand his actions. We win the Series and this will be forgotten as an exceptional circumstance but I do feel for the likes of Launchbury.
2/ How good were England and Scotland last weekend – learning the lessons of RWC 2015 and now both sit in the top four in the world. Rightly so.
Meantime, watch the sparks fly in France after losing twice to an experimental Springbok team as Bernard Laporte seeks to find a World Cup winning squad. Memories of England 2005…..