Richie McCaw says the Lions will struggle to contain the All Blacks’ X-factor players, adding that a northern belief that they’re superior in the forwards is flawed.
The two-time Rugby World Cup-winning skipper says the All Blacks scrum will be at least as good as what the British and Irish side can muster and that locks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock are world class.
“They are superb in all those things you associate Northern Hemisphere rugby with and can do some damage physically, that’s why, from an All Blacks perspective, the Lions will find it tough.”
But McCaw says where the Lions will really struggle against his former team is with the brilliance of the All Blacks backs and, while he highlighted Hurricanes first five Beauden Barrett, he also cast a blanket over the collective “X-factor”.
That was there to see once again over the week as the New Zealand teams completed yet another clean sweep of their Super Rugby competition, scoring 34 tries to their opponents’ 17. The Hurricanes have scored a whopping 63 tries, which is really no surprise given Barrett’s form.
He continues to astound, but his efforts against the Stormers will give Lions coach Warren Gatland even more to ponder as Barrett showed pinpoint kicking as an attacking option. He also showed a temperament and swagger not really seen since Carlos Spencer was in his pomp.
Down a man and hanging on to a five-point lead in the final few minutes, Barrett whacked a cross kick almost on his own line. Julian Savea caught it, surged down field, found Ngani Laumape who scooted over for the try. It’s hard to prepare a defence for that sort of audacious play.
“Our backs, at their best, will cause the Lions all sorts of headaches,” says McCaw. “It’s what makes us a step ahead of the rest, but you can’t rely on that, you have to earn the right for these guys to show their skills. The Lions will try to stifle us, so that battle up front will again be key.”
The Lions will come to New Zealand with an enhanced sense of their forward prowess. It was the same in 2005 when they arrived talking up the ability of loosehead prop Andy Sheridan and deriding the All Blacks’ set piece.
Sheridan was schooled by All Blacks tighthead Carl Hayman when New Zealand Māori beat the Lions in Hamilton and, if that hadn’t popped their balloon, it was shredded in the first test in Christchurch.
Ali Williams embarrassed their lineout as the All Blacks pack dominated in almost every facet as the Lions were beaten 21-3, a performance every bit as one-sided as the 18-point margin suggests.
The All Blacks had gone into the test aware of the hype around the Lions’ pack, recalls McCaw. “We knew it was going to be a challenge but we cleaned up in the lineouts and didn’t give them a show – it was a pretty good performance to kick things off with.”
There are injury concerns to key forwards ahead of the Lions series but Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino should be ready to play the first test. That can’t be said of Dane Coles, who has missed most of the Super Rugby season with a calf, then a knee, and now a calf and concussion issue.
Even when he is cleared to play, Coles will need a few weeks to get up to test match fitness. If he doesn’t get there, the cupboard is a bit bare. Crusaders hooker Codi Taylor is an able replacement but there are no strong choices after him. Coles’ Hurricanes deputy Ricky Riccitelli is probably the next best.
If they do have to shuffle the cards in the pack a bit, McCaw’s confident the All Blacks have the depth to cope. “They’ll be excited and well prepared, and they’re going to have a few weeks to watch the Lions before the first test.”
Eyeing the prey before the big game hunting kicks off on June 24.