All that is really left, now we’ve seen the teams is for pundits (both professional and amateur) to run their eyes over them and make predictions.
For me the only real surprises in the Lions squad are the back three. In my previous post I picked Alun Wyn ahead Itoje for two reasons - greater experience for AWJ and greater cover off the bench for MI and it seems the greater experience told for Gatland too. I personally picked Owens over George at hooker, but thought it was really close so I’m not surprised to see it the other way.
Gatland gets paid the big bucks so I’m not really in a position to question his choices in any depth but… I’m going to in terms of his half-backs and their replacements. Sexton seems to play at another level when Murray is playing at scrum-half. Biggar, on Tuesday’s performance (and they’ve certainly counted looking at the back three, despite my doubts about the quality of the Chiefs sans most of their All Blacks and Maoris), may or may not be better than Sexton outside Murray, but is certainly better than him outside Webb. But it’s likely that, if Sexton plays at all, he will be playing outside Webb and playing less well than Biggar. Is that a smart choice?
Joseph is, certainly in the English press, being touted as unlucky, but the midfield pairing of Te’o and Davies has really looked solid in attack and defence, at least in terms of creating chances even if the players around them can’t finish them, so it’s no surprise to me they’re together for the tests.
Williams over Halfpenny I’m a little surprised about, although I think Williams is a better fullback than winger. I think Williams is better on attack than Halfpenny and they’re about equal on defence, and with Farrell and Daly on the pitch they don’t need Halfpenny’s boot so it makes sense. Daly and Watson, with Williams at 15, are the form members of the back three in the Lions squad. Nowell might be counted as unlucky but he’s only really performed in one game. I think this back three is the most threatening in terms of form that Gatland could have picked, whether it can actually deliver is a different question.
On the other side, picking Ioane over Julian Savea has surprised quite a lot of people but on Super Rugby form it’s not a hard call. The Bus tends to perform in big matches but Ioane has been in and around the system for a year and the All Blacks are particularly ruthless with their wingers. Lienert-Brown lost out to Crotty in the mid-field which again isn’t a huge surprise, although there was quite a lot of speculation it would be SBW waiting on the bench. Alby and SBW are quite similar in style and Crotty brings something different, as well as someone with a bit more physicality than Alby, giving the All Blacks another crash ball carrier to punch holes and let the rest of the ball players create off him once he’s made that space or created that dent in the line. The return of Read at the base of the scrum is the worst kept secret in the rugby world, and the presence of Scott Barrett and Ardie Savea on the bench gives the All Blacks pack a rather scary looking set of replacements.
And after all of that, on to the match itself. The weather forecast says light rain during the day, probably dying out mid-afternoon and a mild, windy night. There might be dew on the ground. That means it’s not that likely to be conditions to hugely favour a “scrum them off the park” approach as it might have been if there was a downpour throughout. The Lions might feel they have the edge at scrum time, having beaten up on this front row in Canterbury a couple of weeks ago, but there’s a better locking pair, and a South African referee so it might not be so clear cut.
In the lineout, the proverbial tall timber is actually wearing black, Retallick and Whitelock are taller than Jones and Kruis, and Read and Cane are both excellent lineout catchers as well.
At the breakdown, Cane, Read and Kaino should have the edge over O’Brien, O’Mahony and Faletau. That’s no disrespect to the Lions, but we’re talking probably the best three in the world at their position and while all three of their opponents are highly respected no one is sure they’d be the first choice Lions if everyone in the Northern Hemisphere was fit.
One of the things that will be interesting is how the All Blacks attack deals with the Lions defence. I think it will cope just fine. I don’t have all the tools and time to sit and analyse the defence, but while we’re saying “The Lions are learning how to play together” their defence has basically been solid and more importantly consistent (and rather similar to the Crusaders). New Zealand teams have been close to beating the Crusaders (who beat the Chiefs with a last second drop goal for example in a high-scoring match in Fiji) so they have the unpicking of this defensive system and does anyone really doubt they have the skills to execute the plan? The rush defence is vulnerable to several players flooding the same channel and good offloading - we know all the All Blacks can offload and make smart choices about that. It’s also extremely vulnerable when it’s penetrated or on turnovers because it relies on speed and pressure from everyone being in position and advancing together, and a good line break or a turnover both throw prevent that line being set and everyone being in the right place and a solid line of advance. The All Blacks are past masters of exploiting every gap in a scramble defence, it’s why they’re so good at converting their chances. Meanwhile the Lions attack looks more potent but the All Blacks defence, like most of the Super Rugby defences, should offer both good first up defence and good scramble defences. Remember my complaint that the Lions only scored when they had a man advantage against the Maori? All their other points came from penalties and while the All Blacks are not averse to giving away a penalty or two, their defensive systems are better established than the Maori’s and they often actually play better and score tries rather than concede them during periods when they have players in the sin bin.
I’m not brave enough to predict a score but I honestly can’t see the Lions winning. When they have the ball we haven’t seen their attack look good enough to score tries against a full-strength, properly organised defence. The All Blacks defence will be full-strength, stronger than anything they’ve seen so far, and organised beyond belief. So the Lions will revert to taking points in multiples of three. The All Blacks aren’t averse to scoring the odd penalty but they will look to go over, around, through (like buses, in threes) the rush defence, open up the backfield and score in 5’s and 7’s. They will create those gaps, Hansen et al. have had time to work out how and a squad that can execute those plans, and as we’ve seen with the Saracens’ defence, the Crusaders’ defence and the Lions’ defence, it can be beaten - we’ve just never seen a team with the try scoring instinct of the All Blacks do it before.
The author does not allow comments to this entry