Thinking ahead to the other side of the Lions tour, even without the tough schedule, I have to say I’m not optimistic. We’re four weeks into the Super Rugby season. Three sides are unbeaten. Two of them are from New Zealand. Of the three sides with 15 more more competition points all three are from New Zealand (there are five sides with between 10 and 14 points four are from South Africa, one of those the other unbeaten team, that’s had a bye) and, unsurprisingly, if they finals were held this weekend, we’d see four Kiwi teams in the finals again. More worryingly, perhaps, the only sides that have beaten any of the New Zealand sides are another New Zealand side. Even perennial slow starters The Crusaders (hardly anyone, even professional commentators, can remember when they last won their opening match, although they did, because they had a perfect season somewhen) won their opening match, beating one of the Aussie big guns and in a match where they struggled to field a team thanks to injuries they came from behind to beat another in the final few minutes, and currently have 4 wins and 16 points. That’s even more impressive when you realise that between surgeries, injuries and more, the team they fielded last weekend had one All Black instead of the scattering of 8-10 that they can usually field.
Evidence from Australian TV viewing figures suggests that the Aussie public are, in general, not watching their teams play but are turning on to watch the Kiwis play because the matches are more exciting and regarded as better. Even when it’s dry in Australia and pouring with rain all over New Zealand (as it was last weekend) the Kiwis are perceived as playing a better style and quality of rugby.
Now, there’s time from now to June for injuries to hamper the All Black selectors. There are places where they’re thin on quality in depth and while Super Rugby develops those players, if you take out Whitelock, Retallik and Romano they start to look a very thin in the second row. Taking nothing away from Ireland’s performance in Chicago, two of these three were absent and the All Blacks didn’t perform as expected. Coincidence? With Luatua off after the money, there’s no direct cover for Read if he’s injured. Several of the flankers could slide in there for the remainder of the match, and Super Rugby has some good Eights, but none with direct test experience. Likewise, with Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Smith both off, their depth at 9 and 10 looks a bit thin (although talent from Super Rugby will emerge there for sure as that seems, somehow, to be an easier transition that it is for a lock, I think the speed steps up, but the power demand doesn’t change, for forwards they have to perform faster but also harder all the time).
[If Read is injured, one approach that might scare the entire world would be playing Kaino, Cane and Savea, Cane is a decent jumper as is Kaino, Kaino is good on the back of the scrum and Savea could pack down on the blind side, and Cane and Savea both fetching, Kaino and Savea both carrying close, Cane roaming wider, it’s possibly not as good as Kaino, Savea, Read and it’s not as clear cut but it’s a scary thought.]
Thinking about who the Lions players will be is interesting, and it will occupy many fans and pundits thoughts until the official announcement and then until they fly off. But stacking them up against their opponents - New Zealand is always a daunting place to go. This year at least as much as any other. You can ask, in all seriousness, who you’d replace in the All Blacks squad with a member of the Lions squad. You can argue, with justification, that since Nonu and Smith retired the coaches haven’t quite settled on their best 12 and 13. They’re going to be working out combinations of Sonny-Bill Williams, Fekitoa, Lienert-Brown, Moala, probably Jordie Barrett (Beauden’s larger but younger brother) and Tamanivalu. I haven’t seen them all play yet but if they’re all fit and well, I’d tentatively pick Williams and Lienert-Brown from that list. They both seem to have time, be able to make metres, make plays for others, certainly make their tackles. I think the younger Barrett offers more of a second kicking option if that’s wanted. But, would you pick any potential Lions 12 or 13 over any of those? You might pick Farrell to go with Barrett at 10 for his kicking (although Barrett has got better this season) but otherwise no. Moriaty at his best is really impressive, but better than Read? Not yet. Warburton is highly respected in New Zealand, but not necessarily better than Cane or Savea. And so it keeps going. Add to that the fact that buy and large this is a settled team and I have a feeling it could easily be another blackwash and possibly a hiding.
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