Six games down, four to go. Next up for Warren Gatland’s Lions squad is the big one as all eyes turn to Eden Park in Auckland for the first of three tests against the All Blacks. A tour where not everything has run as smoothly as the British & Irish tourists would hope, the Lions go into Saturday’s match off the back of an eventful few weeks, which has whetted the appetite even more for what is sure to be an intriguing test series. So with that in mind what have we learnt from the 2017 tour so far?
New Zealand’s strength in depth plentiful
Four years ago in Australia the Lions enjoyed an easy run of things in the warm-up games before the test series with a number of convincing victories. Of their seven non-test matches on tour, Gatland’s side suffered just one defeat – to the Brumbies (12-14) – and averaged over 30 points a game. In comparison, this year hey have already suffered two defeats from their first six warm-up matches. This is in no small part down to the greater strength in depth that New Zealand rugby possesses. Steven Luatua (Blues) and Malakai Fekitoa (Highlanders) were both integral performers in their respective sides’ victories over the Lions, yet neither player has been included in the All Blacks 33-man test squad to face the tourists, whilst the New Zealand Maori line-up contained a number of All Blacks internationals and other players who would walk into most international teams but still can’t force their way into Steve Hansen’s current side.
Tourists building momentum at the right time
After a shaky start to the tour Warren Gatland’s side are beginning to find their feet at just the right time. Opening up with an unconvincing victory over the Provincial Barbarians and a shock defeat to the Blues was by no means ideal preparation and going into their third match on tour against Super Rugby leaders Crusaders the pressure was on. A much-improved display saw the Lions secure a deserved 12-3 win and seemed to have got the tour up and running, only for the tourists to let slip a 22-13 lead and lose to the Highlanders in Dunedin. With the test series fast approaching many were beginning to write the Lions off, yet Gatland’s men produced their most convincing performance of the tour with a 32-10 win against the Maori All Blacks restoring confidence a week out from the first test. That result was followed by an equally emphatic victory over the Chiefs in Hamilton yesterday as the Lions once again racked up a big score. Having struggled to show much attacking rhythm in the first few games on tour with just two tries scored in their opening three matches, the attack has slowly but surely come together to register a much-improved effort of nine tries in their last three outings. The defence has also improved as matches have gone by with the defence being in a particularly miserly mood recently, conceding just one try across two games against the dangerous attack of the New Zealand Maori and the Chiefs. Going into the first test on Saturday, New Zealand may remain clear favourites but their opponents seem to be peaking right on time.
Spoilt for choice at Seven
If it was one position on the field which will not overly concern Lions head coach Warren Gatalnd it is the No.7 jersey. In tour captain Sam Warburton, Welshman Justin Tipuric and Ireland’s Sean O’Brien, the Lions have three of the best open-side flankers in world rugby and players that no doubt New Zealand will be wary of. The debate over who should be given the openside berth has been a long-running one amongst Lions supporters. Justin Tipuric’s excellent displays for Wales kept Warburton out of the No.7 jersey for the Six Nations although the tour captain showed his worth packing down at No.6 playing some of the best rugby of his career. Ireland’s Sean O’Brien has had a frustrating season with injury but is a proven performer at test level having caused New Zealand some big problems with his monstrous ball-carrying in Dublin last autumn, and was integral in filling in for the injured Warburton in the decisive third test in Australia four years ago. The first three games saw Gatland give each of his star sevens a chance to impress from the start with Tipuric and O’Brien looking particularly impressive in their outings. Having just returned from injury, Warburton looked rusty in his first game back against the Barbarians but looked to be regaining fitness and form against the Highlanders, where he carried and tackled strongly as well as scoring a try. With Warburton and Tipuric having worked effectively for Wales in the Six Nations, there is the chance that Gatland could go with two sevens, although that may affect the balance of the back-row and with Peter O’Mahony playing as well as he is, that may be an unnecessary risk.
Discipline the key for Lions
The Lions may have stuttered through some of their opening matches on tour, however for the large part they have been the stronger-looking side in each of their warm-up matches. The fact that they have already suffered two defeats on this tour is as much down a lack of discipline from the tourists as it is down to their opponents strengths. Against the Blues they conceded 13 penalties, whilst a week later they conceded a total of 12 penalties as they went down 23-22 to the Highlanders in Dunedin. Both games saw the tourists’ opponents come from behind late on to snatch victory, with the penalties against the Lions allowing the two sides to secure vital territory and keep in touch on the scoreboard. It is no coincidence that in victories over the Crusaders and the Maori All Blacks, that the Lions kept their own penalty count down to single figures. At any level of rugby conceding penalties is a formality, however it is the frequency with which sides concede penalties that often decides the outcome of matches at test level. Against a stronger and more cohesive All Blacks side, if the Lions are to stand any chance of coming out on top they must concede as few a penalties as possible as not to allow New Zealand to get a foothold in the match.
Fringe players keeping test stars on their toes
With just a few days to go before the first test in New Zealand, the players that took to the field to face the Chiefs in Hamilton yesterday would know that it is unlikely that they will face the All Blacks this weekend. No doubt these players would be disappointed to miss such a game having set their sights on making the test team, but the match in Hamilton also represented an opportunity for the midweek team to showcase their talents and prove to the coaching staff that they are good enough to force their way into their plans ahead of the 2nd and 3rd tests, with changes likely to be made regardless of the result in Auckland on Saturday. Having suffered narrow defeats in their other midweek games a 34-6 victory over the Chiefs was just what the entire Lions squad needed going into the test series following an equally impressive win against the New Zealand Maori last Saturday. The tourists produced their best attacking display of the tour so far especially in the second half when the backs cut loose to devastating effect. A pick-and-go score from winger Jack Nowell in the first-half opened the try-scoring for the Lions, before a successful rolling maul from the Lions pack resulted in the Chiefs conceding a penalty try early in the second half. A botched line-out from the Chiefs in the Lions’ 22 was then seized upon as the Lions showed quick hands to get the ball out wide before racing down field where Nowell eventually ran in for his second try of the match, and the scoring was complete when full-back Liam Williams weaved his way through the Chiefs defence before offloading to Jared Payne to run in a fourth try. Whilst the Chiefs were poor by their own high standards, Gatland and his coaches will have no doubt been delighted by the response from players on the fringes of the test squad. The Lions defence was once again rock-solid, the pack dominated up-front at set-piece time and most pleasing of all the backs showed more attacking adventure and imagination. All those present on the pitch produced strong displays, with Dan Cole, Courteney Lawes and Justin Tipuric in particular starring in the pack whilst the back three of Elliot Daly, Jack Nowell and Liam Williams were deadly in attack. Expect these players to play a big part in the test matches to come.