Jim Kayes runs an eye over the best of the British and Irish Lions’ likely tourists.
Sir Clive Woodward’s at it again. In 2005, on the eve of the British and Irish Lions’ first rugby test against the All Blacks in Christchurch, Woodward said he had “a warm feeling” about the match. The All Blacks sent shivers down all Lions fans’ spines with a comprehensive 21-3 win that set the tone for a test series white wash.
Fast forward 12 years and Woodward is playing prophet again, this time declaring the Lions “could be a very special team indeed”. His confidence comes from England securing another dramatic Six Nations win, this time against Wales after edging France in the first round. Ireland were also impressive as they thrashed Italy, running in nine tries in an entertaining display of running rugby. And Scotland could have, perhaps should have, beaten France to back up their first round win against Ireland.
But what does it all mean for the Lions, and will Warren Gatland’s men live up to Woodward’s billing as a special team? Perhaps, but they will have to stay fit, and the tough schedule Gatland’s embraced may count against them in the war of attrition.
I’ve teased a couple of mates (Welsh and English) that the Lions will win just two of their nine games – the opening match against a Provincial XV and then one of the games against the five Super Rugby teams. If Steve Hansen does the sensible thing and releases his All Blacks, the bruised and battered Lions will lose to New Zealand Maori, four of the Super teams and the All Blacks. It’s not far-fetched, but the opening gambits of the Six Nations have caused me to take another look at the Lions.
I was surprised at the overall attacking mindset on display and Woodward’s right in that England have impressed with their resilience and resolve, staying calm despite being down on the scoreboard, keeping the pressure on and waiting for their chance. It was there for all to see when Wales centre Jonathan Davies butchered a clearing kick that allowed wing Elliot Daly to score the late match-winning try for England.
As always, England have an impressive pack, and rather stodgy backs, but that won’t be the case with the Lions. Ireland and Wales both have sparkling attackers in their back lines, beginning with the halves combinations of Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar at Wales, and Ireland’s Conor Murray and Paddy Jackson (who showed a real willingness to hit the line and pass). Outside them Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose were in fine form for Ireland while Davies and Scott Williams had a tighter tussle against England, but looked good nonetheless. England have Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph in their midfield, but they weren’t a patch on their Welsh and Irish counterparts.
Gatland also has a smorgasbord of loose forwards to pick from with Wales and Ireland again leading the way. Ireland’s CJ Stander is good with the ball (three tries against Italy showed that), Sam Warburton is a tackling machine for Wales and opensides Justin Tipuric and Sean O’Brien are top notch, as is England’s Maro Itoje. None of the four countries has a No8 to match Kieran Read in full flight, but Read needs to get back to that sort of form first if he is to give the All Blacks an edge.
Where Gatland may struggle is the back three – and fullback in particular. England’s Mike Brown is a bit of a Chris Latham-like draft horse who loses the ball in the tackle far too often. Ireland’s Rob Kearney is handy, at best, and though Leigh Halfpenny is valuable to Wales as a goalkicker, he provides too little punch to the backline. It leaves Scotland’s Stuart Hogg who is in great form, but can’t do it all himself, especially against an All Blacks side that loves to counter attack. Man-for-man, the All Blacks back three will have it all over anything the Lions can offer.
The pressure will also be an issue for the Lions. Pressure from a tough tour, a long season, from injuries, from inter-country squabbles – and that’s just off the field. On it they will have to cope with the pace of the All Blacks’ game, their relentless willingness to attack and a belief that if they hold on to the ball for long enough, the points will come.
Wales, England and Ireland are showing some of those attributes (Scotland too though they still frustratingly run out of patience and kick the ball away) and it may be that the Lions sneak a game or two more than just two. But I’m still expecting Woodward’s prophesies to be wrong again. This may be a special squad, and a Lions tour is always a special thing, but I still believe this year’s Lions will leave New Zealand just as Woodward’s did in 2005 – beaten in the tests.