Predicting the Lions tour is very hard because, for example, tomorrow’s match pits a shedload of very experienced players against a team with only one with any Super Rugby experience (Bryn Gatland, Warren’s son) which, on paper should be a cakewalk for the Lions. However, the Lions have just travelled to the other side of the world, have had hardly any time to train together and all the rest of it. Plus, this is a bunch of Kiwis playing at home and playing with absolutely nothing to lose - every pundit in the world expects them to get beaten by more experienced players - and that can make you dangerous. Anyone who watches New Zealand rugby knows that, fundamentally, there is a core game plan that every side plays to, so although this is described as a provincial barbarians side they will gel better than a lot of barbarians sides simply because they all understand what the players inside and outside them are likely to do. Honestly I expect the Lions to win, but I won’t be shocked if they don’t.
After that, we have a batch of matches against the Super Rugby franchises, some of which will be full strength and some of which will be weakened by All Black call ups, the New Zealand Maori and three tests.
Anyone who thinks these will be a pushover needs to watch again. Apart from when the play each other, the New Zealand Super Rugby franchises have lost precisely 2 matches in the first 12 rounds of the tournament. The worst New Zealand franchise has more points than all five of the Australian franchises and eleven of the twelve “African” sides, of which one is actually Japanese and the other is Argentinian, but ten are actually from South Africa. The best of these this year, the Crusaders, has not lost a match, despite having played big chunks of the season without their recognised names: Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock, Israel Dagg and the like have all been injured for big chunks of the season, and their replacements have stepped up admirably.
And therein lies the ultimate conundrum. After 2015 the All Blacks lost hundreds of caps of experience and everyone expected them to look weaker. A crop of new superstars appeared, including the next World Player of the Year who serious commentators are already suggesting might be better than Dan Carter and, apart from a little blip against Ireland, they looked stronger than ever. Some of the players that offered that continuity are now injured but their replacements threaten to be doing better than them, to have that X-factor that makes them global superstars of the sport, if not global sports icons in the way Jonah Lomu was.
The Lions will pick up injuries and head knocks over their matches. This is the way of modern rugby and it doesn’t imply any dirty play. There are a lot of games in a tight schedule, players will get hurt. While the All Blacks don’t have 40+ cap veterans to call on, and the Lions do, the Lions are already in a position where they don’t have a serious contender for “best in the world” at every starting position, the All Blacks often have three or four players that a fair-minded commentator would include in the discussion, even if some of them haven’t been picked yet. To illustrate the point, in the 12 and 13 shirts, the Lions have four really high quality players competing for those 2 shirts. In a recent online discussion about the starting 12 and 13 All Black shirts there were 7 names we couldn’t just dismiss out of hand on form and experience. When we tried to say “would we swap any of these 7 for any of the Lions 4?” we concluded no, we think the 7 Kiwis were all better, although several of them have no test caps (yet). So if all the good Lions get there, Gatland will feel happy, but if they’re a bit banged up, the replacements are a big step down in quality.
I think the tests will be a 3-0 sweep to the All Blacks. I think the Maori will win too. The other matches, I think the Lions will win 3 of them. Losing 7-3 in New Zealand is a lot better than anyone else has managed this year.
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