South Africa v Lions first Test preview

Statistically speaking the more phases an attacking team goes through in their opponent’s 22 the less likely they are to cross the try line, that was a big problem for the Lions against South Africa ‘A’ and that perfectly illustrates what the Springboks do so well.  They have an almost innate ability to dominate the gain-line without conceding penalties, even without much game time in the last 18 months that’s not an ability you can easily lose and attacking with any sort of tempo and fluency against a team who can do that is always an uphill struggle.  Selecting a starting 15 made up of partnerships and combinations who have next to no experience together seems like the sort of the thing that will just compound that issue, only Robbie Henshaw and Elliot Daly in the Centre’s have started a game on this tour together (and the half backs Ali Price and Dan Biggar featured together  for 20 minutes against Japan in Edinburgh), so the back play may be more cohesive than the forward unit but if the forwards can’t provide a platform the backs will have scarce opportunity to demonstrate any cohesion.

The Lions team selection can partly be explained by how compromised the entire tour has been by COVID, firstly they had to name a smaller squad than they would have liked to have and with the Bulls COVID outbreak they had to play a very young Cell C Sharks side twice (resulting in a combined 128-38 point victory), Josh Adams was unable to return home to be with his partner as she gave birth to their first child and the Springbok camp has suffered it’s own major COVID outbreak with more than 20 people returning positive test results including Head Coach Jacques Nienaber, Fly Half Handre Pollard and Captain Siya Kolisi and that’s where this game becomes as much of a conspiracy theorist’s delight as it is a sporting contest. 

There’s very little information on how COVID effects elite athlete’s and just 5 days ago it appeared highly unlikely Kolisi would have recovered enough to take part in this game but South Africa moved the announcement of their squad forward in order to unveil his messiah like recovery.  It was almost as if in response to Lions Captain Alun-Wyn Jones recovering from a shoulder injury their own totemic leader is sensationally back, so the squad’s that were named may very well not be the actual one’s who take the field (And as I type it’s been reported that Lions prop Wyn Jones won’t play).

With such uncertainty around the personnel who will actually be available for the Springboks it appears that the Lions lack of familiarity is an almost deliberate ploy from Gatland, the experimental feel of the starting 15 rather suggests that he’s using this first Test as an extra tour game they so sorely missed in this constricted tour.  They know Kolisi and Pollard will be lacking game time (particularly as Pollard only recently recovered from a serious knee injury) so big ball carriers like Jack Conan and Luke Cowan-Dickie will be making sure that the Fly Half isn’t going to shirk any tackles.  However Cowan-Dickie does have a tendency to feel the pressure when it comes to lineout time and I believe that’s what has lead to the selection of a 6 feet 7 inch blindside flanker in the form of Courtney Lawes (who is arguably the 3rd best English blindside flanker behind Jack Willis and Sam Underhill).  Lawes’ selection appears to provide a serious imbalance in the back row, with a dynamic open side in the form of Tom Curry requiring an equally dynamic 6 who can intelligently manage a ruck to maximise his skill as he did against the Stormers and with no Wyn Jones the breakdown is certain to be an area of real weakness for the Lions.  If, as expected, the Springboks dominate the gain-line Kwagga Smith and Kolisi will easily outnumber poor Curry as the rest of the Lions forwards lumber behind him and it’ll be left to the likes of Henshaw and Daly to help out the Sale Shark.  The selection of the two wingers who are the most awkward to tackle in Duhan van der Merwe and Anthony Watson (and even Liam Williams on the bench) ahead of the two wingers who are most likely to ghost into space in Josh Adams and Louis Rees-Zammit rather leans toward the coaches worrying about the attacking ruck speed, if they were expecting a fluid, open attacking game they’d have gone with guile over brute force.  If van der Merwe and Watson can cross the gain-line and give Price and Biggar a slightly disorganised defence to work against then the Lions backline has pace power in Henshaw, Hogg and Daly to exploit any gaps on offer but the Springbok backline are one of the most solid defence’s in world rugby so the Lions may end up kicking the ball away more than they would like to.  The Springbok back 3 and whichever member of the back row they choose to drop back will eat up any loose kicks and as the ‘A’ team demonstrated they’ll score from anywhere on the pitch.  The concern with the Lions kicking game is that Gregor Townsend usually has Russell or Hastings at 10 and they have an almost creative kicking game where they sometimes sacrifice distance in order to manipulate the opposition back 3 and allow the kick chasers a better chance of containing any counter attack chance but that’s not really something Biggar, Henshaw or Hogg (and especially Daly) don’t often try, they would all rather kick so they can compete for the ball or just clear their lines which would make Cheslin Kolbe in particular very happy.

Missing Wyn Jones could be a real problem for the Lions as he’s the most well rounded of the loose-head props in the squad and while Rory Sutherland will undoubtedly provide plenty of muscle and aggression he’s not the ball player the Welshman is and whilst Mako Vunipola’s inclusion on the bench provides some destructive ball carrying and a lot of intelligence he hasn’t been in the best form at scrum time, so unless the game is played at a frightening pace and there are some very tired Springbok forwards on the field a ball carrying loose-head might not be the order of the day.

If the Lions can dictate the pace of the game and test the host’s conditioning in the last 15 to 20 minutes they could come away with a healthy victory but if it’s a typically South African disjointed and gritty game then the home team should be the favourites to grind out an ugly win.

A pride of Lions

Warren Gatland and his coaching team are facing the prospect of the most complicated British and Irish Lions tour in history (and the Lions have toured South Africa during the days of Apartheid and played a 35 game tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1888 that involved playing games of Aussie Rules. A tour which departed Gravesend on the 9th of March and returned on the 11th of November! So they have a pretty high bar when it comes to complicated tours). Even without the current pandemic situation organising 4 separate Unions and hoping for cooperation from regional and club teams under the 4 separate umbrellas was always going to be awkward, not to mention expensive. However, the most complicated part has to be selecting the squad and hoping that the players are as enthusiastic about the tour going ahead as the accountants are, Ben Youngs has already decided that the imminent birth of his third child is a priority and Youngs coach at Leicester has politely declined an invitation to go on another tour as part of Gatland’s coaching team so the Kiwi’s job becomes increasingly intricate day by day.

Luckily I haven’t got to worry about the intricacies, I’m just going to pick the 36 players who I think will be in the touring party, so here goes nothing-

Mako Vunipola, Wyn Jones, Joe Marler (who may decline the offer, then it may be Rory Sutherland or Ellis Genge)

Ken Owens, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Scott Baldwin (although the 3rd sport is wide open. Rob Herring would be an interesting selection)

Tadgh Furlong, Kyle Sinkler, Andrew Porter

Maro Itoje, Alun-Wyn Jones, James Ryan, Iain Henderson

Tadgh Beirne, Hamish Watson, Josh Navidi

Justin Tipuric, Sam Underhill

CJ Stander, Taulupe Faletau

Conor Murray, Ben Spencer, Tomos Williams

Jonny Sexton, Dan Biggar, George Ford

Robbie Henshaw, Owen Farrell

Garry Ringrose, Chris Harris

Liam Williams, Louis Rees-Zammit, Josh Adams, Duhan Van der Merwe

Anthony Watson, Stuart Hogg

Traditionally this would be the bit where the “bolters” get a mention but I would be very surprised if there are any shocking selections. There are 3 areas where there isn’t much depth so there could be some unpopular picks at hooker, scrum half and lock but other than that Gatland has players he is more than familiar to pick from.

Lions chatter

Danish physicist Niels Bohr once said “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future!” and he had a very good point (probably not quite as good a point his father, Christian, who discovered the Bohr effect) but I’m always up for a challenge and no stranger to looking silly so it’s time to talk Lions squad selection.

Warren Gatland is one of the most succesful Lions coaches for a reason, he’s incredibly single minded and puts his faith in players who share his intense focus on winning so I think you can split the potential squad into 2 seperate parts, the core which will consist of players he knows and has previously coached and the wider talent base (it’s not completely impossible there will be one or two complete wildcards in the 36 but since it has been reported they are taking a “streamlined” there won’t be much room for “bolters”). There has also been a lot of talk about Gatland selecting “on form” but that rather implies that he doesn’t believe he, along with his coaching team, can get the best out of players who have been struggling in what has, lets face it, been a particularly trying last 10 months for everyone. According to the current schedule there will be 5 games in South Africa leading into the first Test in Johannesburg plus a pre-tour warm up game against Japan so I can’t imagine selection will be limited to players who hasve been absolutely outstanding in the last few weeks or months.

The core players are pretty easy to predict (he said foolishly), so here goes –

  • Mako Vunipola, I think he’s the loose head prop Gatland would want if he were still playing hooker.
  • Ken Owens, he’s been a driving force in solidifying the Welsh set piece during the 6 Nations and he has 84 Test caps.
  • Tadgh Furlong, if he’s not the best tight head in rugby he’s in the top 2.
  • Maro Itoje, has to be the most annoying player to play against in world rugby, or he might be second to
  • Alun-Wyn Jones, he’s got 157 Test caps and 9 of them are for the Lions. At this stage he’s a living, breathing rugby instruction manual.
  • James Ryan, he’s started 32 Tests and won 26 of them, whatever he does it undeniably works.
  • Tadgh Beirne, possibly a controversial choice for “absolutely nailed on” but he can play 5, 6 or 8 in an emergency and he’s a phenomonal athlete, he’s played 22 Tests and won 15.
  • Sam Underhill, there’s a reason heplayed 22 Tests and won 18, he is one of those people who looks like a normal human but has superhero strength (like a lot of the Springbok squad).
  • CJ Stander, there’s a reason he isn’t retiring until the International window has closed, he made 6 appearances on a 10 game tour of New ZealandA so it’s safe to say Gatland is a fan.
  • Taulupe Faletau, he’s got 90 Test caps, 4 for the Lions and nobody has ever looked so sangfroid whilst playing International rugby.
  • Conor Murray, he’s not been in vintage form but if Gatland thinks he can get 2 decent Test starts from him he’s on the plane.
  • Johnny Sexton, he’s flashed some of his talent this season but has mostly been battling his decrepid body but similarly if he can stay upright for 100 minutes he’ll be there.
  • Owen Farrell, literally everyone who isn’t related to him will be furious (hello Mike Brown) but Gatland loves an angry bloke and he’s actually a decent communicator in midfield.
  • Robbie Henshaw, probably Ireland’s player of the 6 Nations and one of the best Centre’s in the tournament, he’s started 47 Tests and won 33 plus he can play 12 or 13 and he’s massive.
  • Liam Williams, Gatland loves an angry bloke remember and his versatility will help “streamline” the squad too.
  • Stuart Hogg, he’s quick, he’s bigger than he was when Gatland picked him to tour New Zealand, he can kick the ball a mile and he can play 15, 10 and possibly 13 if nobody else can.
  • Anthoy Watson, probably the best athlete in the England squad and another one who can play two postions, his attacking threat was key in stretching the All Black defence 4 years ago.

Predicting the wider squad will be much trickier but after this weekend’s European rugby there may be some stand out candidates, so that’ll probably be a job for Monday then. Can you leave the 6 Nation’s top try scorer at home though? Especially if he’s a manimal born in South Africa. Just imagine Duhan having to tackle Akker in the corner late in the 3rd Test, that would surely be something.

British and Irish Lions 2021 (too soon)

With the current financial turmoil all clubs and presumably Unions are facing given this global situation it is absolutely unconscionable to worry about who will be playing for the Lions in the first Test in Johannesburg next July, but I have a lot of time on my hands and a wild dream where I think maybe one day someone would pay me to do something I really enjoy, so here goes.

One of my favourite Warren Gatland traits is the stubbornness he exhibits in his selections so it shouldn’t be too difficult to project who he’ll want to pick (there will probably only be 6 warm up games and depending how the current season is resolved there might be a matter of days between the squad meet up and departure dates), it’s reasonable to believe Gatland will lean on the spine of the 2017 tour for the biggest games ahead. For the purposes of this exercise you have to assume everyone is fit and healthy and not many players over the age of 35 will still be playing in a year’s time.

1. Mako Vunipola – Despite being the oldest of heads Mako will only be 30 next summer. His work rate is always impressive and if, as has been rumoured, Joe Marler retires Gatland will be missing another of his favourite Loose-heads. Cian Healy will be 33, Jack McGrath will be 31 and while Rory Sutherland has had an impressive break out season this year and will be 28 it would be quite a surprise it Gatland picked a prop with about 12 caps to take on the Springboks. If Gatland were to go with a real shock selection he could always start a 26 year old Ellis Genge, but England use him more as a “finisher” and detonating the Test series from the off would be an unusually risky move.

2. Jamie George – he started the last Test in New Zealand and there’s not really much to persuade you there will be a better option for Gatland than a 30 year old with 50+ Test caps. Fraser Brown will 32 by then, Stuart McInally would be a reasonable candidate for the back up role since Ken Owens will be 34 and Elliott Dee might be considered a bit undersized to start against the beefy Springbok pack.

3. Tadgh Furlong – scarcely believable as it may seem he’ll only be 28 next July and he’ll have over 50 caps by then including 3 starts on the last tour. Kyle Sinkler would have to be favourite for the spot on the bench, although Zander Fagerson has looked good this season and he’s a year younger than them.

4. Maro Itoje – he’s one of the contenders for the captaincy, his 71% winning percentage in Test matches is hard to argue with and after a bit of a dip last season he’s been back to his best since the World Cup.

5. Alun-Wyn Jones – it could or should be James Ryan (but it could possibly be Joe Launchbury, Cory Hill, George Kruis or Scott Cummings) there’s no way this isn’t going to be controversial but after working with him for 12 years it will be incredibly tough for Gatland not to put the Test team on Alun-Wyn’s shoulders even if he’ll be 35 by the time the rolls around.

6. Josh Navidi – one thing is for sure it won’t be Sam Warburton this time out (he might be carrying the water bottles) but the closest thing to Warburton is Navidi, he’s not as big but he’s certainly not far off being as strong as the former Wales and Lions skipper. And he lives for physical contact, he’s definitely a better ball carrier than Warburton and he’ll tackle a lot, he also won’t think twice about throwing himself into a ruck when the gargantuan South African forwards are lining up to smash him. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility Aaron Wainwright gets a shot, he’s the new Dan Lydiate and Gatland had a pretty long standing relationship with him. Sam Underhill could also be close as he’s an absolute tackle machine who worked with Lydiate at the Ospreys. Personally I wouldn’t even count out Lydiate if he continues the form he’s flashed this season in an improved Ospreys team. Yes he’ll be 33 but Gatland loves a safety blanket and Lydiate is a very big, very safe blanket.

7. Tom Curry – Curry and Navidi would be a dream pairing for a Gatland defence, if one of them doesn’t make a tackle they’ll be straight over the ball and vice versa. Eddie Jones might be the only person who thinks he’s a number 8 and it’ll be interesting to see if he still thinks that when Billy Vunipola is fit. Hamish Watson will only be 29 so he may well be in with a shot, there’s a seemingly endless list of interesting Welsh flankers who could be outside chances with Tommy Reffell and Jac Morgan yet to even feature for the national side. If and it’s a big if since he hasn’t played a Test since 2018 Dan Leavy would be right in Gatland’s wheelhouse but he’d need a hell of a 12 months.

8. Billy Vunipola – obviously he and his cousin Taulupe have had their injury issues for what seems like a very long time but I think Gatland would love the chance to start a 20 stone number 8 against the threshing machine that is the South African pack but if he prefers the option of making the Springboks ran around in open spaces he could go with the C.J Stander option or maybe even the way out of left field Sam Simmonds plan. There’s an outside chance Ross Moriarty could be in with a chance but starting Moriarty alongside Genge would be like trying to put out a chip pan fire with a gallon of petrol.

A Lion’s pride?

The Lions strength is in the collective whilst the All Blacks are without doubt the most talented group of players assembled in the professional era (if not ever, they’d certainly give Gareth, Barry, JPR and the gang a run for their money) and in a high pressure, one off game you have to imagine outrageous talent is more beneficial. 

However the individual talent can only shine if the forwards collective effort affords them enough possession and momentum to do so and, statistically at least, the All Black pack have had the better of this series so far, but last time out the Lions managed to generate that most precious of things, quick ruck ball in the opposition’s 22.  And here’s where it gets interesting, Romain Poite is the man in the middle and he makes some pretty strange decisions at rucks, at the recent Top 14 final he hardly penalised any tacklers for not rolling away and this lead to a succession of turn overs and not a whole load of tries (just 1 for each team). Poite is also not the greatest when it comes to working out who committed what offence at scrum time so this promises to be a game with a lot of penalties and turnovers in it, probably not what the All Blacks are after.

Even so the All Blacks are still favourite to win comfortably and without the assistance of some pretty unfortunate circumstances they would have won last week (Sonny Bill Williams arriving just as a tackled Anthony Watson was struggling to escape from a defender’s clutches has to be a once in a lifetime sort of coincidence) but for quite a few of the Lion’s players they will feel that they can play better and they will all want to prove that the criticism they have suffered as a touring party is wholly unreasonable. 

The bookmakers have apparently made an All Blacks win by 11-14 the most likely outcome but that seems to be a fairly large gap given the Lions motivation and fact that Poite is likely to award both teams a similar number of penalties (12 to Clermont who had a dominant scrum and 10 to Toulon who had Liam Gill at the breakdown in the Top 14 final).

The Lions made 6 clean breaks to the All Blacks 1 last week and despite being down a player for about 60 minutes the All Blacks still had 61% of the possession! The Lions will need to get the ball to Anthony Watson, Taulupe Faletau and Jonathan Davies if they’re going to pose an attacking threat and they must kick well out of hand because the new All Black back 3 of Dagg, Jordie Barrett and Julian Savea will round and straight over the top of defenders if they get any space at all. 

Last week really did illustrate the stark difference between the coaching set up’s too as Gatland trusted the starters for as long as humanly possible and eventually they pulled through while Steve Hansen showed no signs of hesitation, when decisions needed to be made he threw the subs on (all 8 had a run out, compared to the Lions 2 tactical ones and 3 forced). The intensity of this whole series will take a toll at some time and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the management of the players will lead to who wins the series. Bringing back an angry Julian Savea after 2 weeks on the side could be a master stroke by Hansen, but a rested Ken Owens and CJ Stander could explode in the last 20 minutes for the Lions. 

Ultimately the Lions have outperformed most expectations with a few commentators questioning if they’d even win a game with less preparation time than they’d have wanted. I can’t see anyone else beating the All Blacks in New Zealand this year, or maybe even for the next few years and watching other Rugby Championship teams so far this year I’d be surprised if any of them get within 25 points of the All Black machine. I’ve gone for a 1 point win to the All Blacks, but pressure does funny things to people and with 99% of their team (Jordie Barrett might still be knocking about in 12 years and Anton Lienert-Brown, Ardie Savea and Scott Barrett have got outside shots too) knowing they’ll never play the Lions again it’ll be one hell of a pressure cooker! 

2nd Test, last chance. 

Everyone is bored of the phony war of words, even Steve Hansen (and to be fair to the grumpiest man in the world it has mostly been the Lions moaning about how sneaky the All Blacks are. Or just Lions “fans” or press pack moaning about how it’s not like the old days whilst seemingly forgetting that Wales and the occasional Irish man largely dominated the 70’s).

The Lions have swapped Kruis for Itoje and gone with Lawes & Stander (who has put in some man hours on this tour, and he’s not fully fit either!), Lawes for some added umph and presumably Stander so Faletau can go to 6 when Warburton fades after about 50 minutes. Jack Nowell gets the nod on the bench presumably cos he can slot in at 13, 14 or 15 if need be (bet Rieko Ioane can’t wait).

But it’s not about the playing personnel it’s all about the officials. Garces is not afraid to brandish the cards which no ref has really done until now on this tour. The weather could make for tricky playing conditions too so one misstep or ill timed challenge in the air could see someone taking an early shower. If it’s a Lions player it could be fatal and Beauden Barrett will love picking apart a depleted Lions defensive line. Obviously I’ll be hoping it isn’t a Lion, but even if the All Blacks lose a player they’re still likely to win, unless that player is one of their talismanic Lock forwards (but they’re unlikely to be competing for up and under’s). The Lions tight 5 will need to produce a gargantuan effort in order to free up the back row to do their thing. A good gauge of how well the Lions forwards are doing is how far away from the rucks Taulupe Faletau is, when he’s freed up and able to play in the wide channels he can be a real threat to defences, but if he has to help out in the dark and dirty stuff then it’ll be because the forwards in front of him are struggling. 
My heart says Lions by 5 in a nail-biter, but I don’t really trust my heart to make these sort of decisions so it’ll probably be the All Blacks by 17. We can only hope there isn’t too much controversial officiating, although 1-1 going into the 3rd Test would be a mouthwatering prospect! 

I love New Zealand, well sorta. A bit. Ok, maybe not. 

I haven’t actually watched New Zealand batter Samoa by 78 points yet, but I can have a jolly good guess at how it went down. Virtually all All Blacks games are the same – they play error free rugby and it completely freaks out the opposition who then proceed to make error after error and before you know it Steve Hansen’s fellas have waltzed out to an unassailable lead.  And that’s one of the main reasons that I love New Zealand (the other is because Steve Hansen is the grumpiest man in sport. The coaching box could be filled with stripper’s and class A drugs and he’d still look like Wayne Bennett had just spilled his pint of Speights!), Sir Clive Woodward, Sir Ian McGeechan or any Knight of the realm who hasn’t played rugby for 40 years will gush over the intricate attacking formations or where Sonny Bill stands as they pack down an attacking scrum, buy it’s far more basic than that. The fact that the entire population of the land of the long white cloud are seemingly gifted enough to make Test rugby look like a game of touch in a local park is irrelevant, the All Blacks have the ability to concentrate for the entirety of a rugby match and for some reason nobody else does. Today Samoa had 54% of the territory and 55% of the possession and still didn’t score a single point! Now baring in mind I still haven’t seen it, so I’m assuming here, what mostly happened was Samoa committed turnovers and New Zealand scored tries with either 3 passes or 1 kick because they’re that ruthless. Samoa did commit 13 turnovers in the game but New Zealand committed 12 of their own, but Samoa don’t have the unfeasible amount of talent that the All Blacks do and once they missed 2 penalty kicks and went 12-0 down the confidence completely evaporated and the rest is very much history. 

This result has been met with much doom and gloom by Lions fans and reporters alike but frankly the All Blacks would have met with more resistance in a training session so old smiley Steve won’t be best pleased, particularly bearing in mind the Lions have got to face up to the Maori All Blacks tomorrow and that will be brutal. 
The only one area where the Lions could have an edge is in the forwards and if (that’s an absolutely huge “if” by the way) the Lions are to stand any chance of winning the first Test they will need to be near perfect tomorrow. Rieko Ioane has already lead the Lions a merry dance on this tour and while he won’t have Jack Nowell and his imploding self-confidence trying to stop him this week the 20 y old won’t need much time and space to add to his try tally against the tourists. 

Knowing how predictable the Lions attacking tactics have been so far they’ll want to run down Damian McKenzie’s 10 channel but anyone who tries that too often will only end becoming the meat in an Elliott Dixon and Charlie Ngatai sandwich and the Lions have already got enough injured players. Ngatai versus Ben Te’o should be fascinating, if only because Ben Te’o running into anyone is fascinating, if Ben remembers to strap on his passing hands tomorrow then Jonathan Davies might be able to give Matt Proctor a few issues but you don’t get to be a Hurricane if you can’t soak up a bit of physicality. 

The only way the Lions can win this one is if they can starve the Maori’s devastating backline of possession and as the All Blacks showed this morning World class teams can win when they lose the possession battle. My Superbru prediction was the Lions to win a nail-biter by 1 point and that’s not completely out of the question but I’m starting to lean more toward the Maori now. Potentially this game could be the springboard that propels the Lions onward to the Test series with a spring in their step, a real belief that everything is working as it should and it could serve as a warning to the All Blacks that next week won’t be so easy. Alternatively, if the Lions can’t fully concentrate for 80 plus minutes it could be a harbinger of just how far ahead New Zealand rugby players are psychologically (and that’s why I really don’t like them that much after all)

Alas Smith and, well Smith

If we learned 2 things on Saturday they were that Peter O’Mahony is a superhero undercover as a rugby player and that when you have to wait 12 years to play against the Lions even a team captained by Sam Whitelock can get stage fright. Alun-Wyn Jones might have been the captain on Saturday but O’Mahony has this uncanny knack of doing incredibly important things at incredibly important times and when a Lions scrum descended into an unsightly kerfuffle he made a bee-line for the biggest Crusader on the pitch just to prove a point. The Crusaders unbeaten run came to a juddering halt as they failed to score a try against a determined Lions defence and only managed a single penalty kick as they were downed 12-3. The Lions however also failed to cross the whitewash and whilst stifling defence and hoofing over penalties from anywhere near half way will put away a few Super Rugby teams it’s not going to strike fear into Steve Hansen and the All Blacks. 

But they’re not playing the All Blacks for a week and a bit so there’s still time to iron out a few kinks (even if us pessimistic Welsh fans can see a pattern emerging, Rob Howley and “attack coach” are concepts that combine as well as engine oil and water do). A distinctly second string Lions get the chance to play in the green house that is the Forsyth-Barr stadium tomorrow and (if they can afford it) the local students will scream the house down. The conditions inside the swanky indoor stadium should provide the likes of Jack Nowell, Robbie Henshaw and Jonathan Joseph with an opportunity to show how they ended up being selected for this tour in first place. The Lions forwards should frankly rollover the Highlanders pack as they are comfortably bigger (somewhere around the 10 stone mark) and while the Highlanders have got some beef on the bench the Lions have got Dan Cole and Jack McGrath to bolster the front row and they both tip the scales at 18 plus stone! 
The Highlanders will be without All Black mainstays Aaron and Ben Smith and while Lima Sopoaga and Waisake Naholo will be looking to make the most of any ball that falls their way (Tommy Seymour will definitely be on the receiving end of Sopoaga’s trademark kick passes and Jared Payne better hope his calf is 100% or he could end up looking very silly trying to cover the backfield). Liam Squire will be a big miss in the Highlanders’ back row as both a carrier and a fetcher at ruck time and while Gareth Evans and Luke Whitelock are both tough as nails and will work their collective socks off they are both over a stone lighter than their opposite numbers Haskell and Stander. Richard “Barracuda” Buckman is one of my favourite Super Rugby players, but he’s more at home in the Centre’s than at 15 and one of my other favourites Matt Faddes isn’t even in the Highlanders squad as Glasgow Warriors bound Tevita Lee gets a rare start.
It won’t be easy for the Lions and if they get drawn into trying to play expansive, fast, open rugby then the hefty pack will definitely be a hindrance and not a help and if it becomes a try scoring competition Naholo, Li and the explosive Fekitoa (who could headed to Toulouse next season) in midfield will do real damage.  Both props on the Highlanders bench can make an impact; Aki Seiuli recently scored 2 tries in a Super Rugby match and Siua Halanukonuka scored a rather impressive try when he rumbled 30 metres down the middle of the field a few weeks back! But the Lions have Alun-Wyn Jones, Owen Farrell and Elliott Daly on the bench should a late rescue mission be needed.

The first 2 tour games were decided by 6 points and the last by 9 but this should be the highest scoring so far and I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t end up as a points-fest. Lions by 12 for me

Wildly optimistic. With just a dash of realism.

I read a tweet that said six of the Lions starting against the Crusaders could start the 1st Test, but that seems unlikely. Six of tomorrow’s starting pack alone could realistically start the 1st Test! And probably 5 of the backline lining up tomorrow could be 1st Test starters too, so Gatland means business and as the jetlag begins to fade so do the potential excuses.

While I’m not expecting a Lions win in Canterbury I am at least hoping for a bit more purpose and aggression than they’ve displayed so far. Not that roughing up New Zealanders will do anything but make even more determined to publicly embarrass you, but when the back row includes Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien and a frustrated Alun-Wyn Jones is leading the side from the second row alongside George Kruis who will be champing at the bit to establish his Test credentials it’s not unreasonable to expect fireworks. The fascinating thing to me is how the entire pack seems to designed to maximise Taulupe Faletau’s ability carry the ball in open space, the other 7 forwards are all good ball carriers too, but they’ll be hitting as many rucks as humanly possible to get quick ball so Farrell can unleash a backline with strike runners like Te’o, Jonathan Davies and George North and the X-factor that is Faletau. 

Another fascinating area will be which forward pops up at first receiver, Mako Vunipola has done it for England and often plays as a playmaker for Saracens, but Jamie George is a dynamic carrier and good passer, Tadgh Furlong is a powerful carrier as his Sean O’Brien and any of those players carrying the ball should allow Farrell to play a bit wider and get Faletau into more space. 

For their part the Crusaders have amazing ball carriers in their front row too, Joe Moody has got all the skills to play in the backs, Codie Taylor is quicker than most outside backs and Owen Franks doesn’t mind the odd rumble now and again. Luke Romano and Sam Whitelock are arguably the two best Second Row’s in the world at the moment so Alun-Wyn and Kruis will definitely have to work to stand out in this game and in the backrow Jordan Taufua doesn’t know the meaning of “backward step” while Matt Todd will be bitterly disappointed to miss out on All Black selection, so plenty of points to prove all round!

I expect the Lions will finish a close second this week but if they can retain possession better than they have so far on tour they score a morale boosting win. The Crusaders haven’t lost a Super Rugby game all season though! 

Lions get the Blues in Auckland 

The Blues front row weighs in a more than hefty 58 stone (plus a bit of change) and here in lies the problem, without wishing to point out the blindingly obvious, clean scrum ball could be very difficult to come by and for the Lions to score 3 tries they’re going to need at least 5 clear cut opportunities. On the plus side Pascal Gauzere is in charge of the whistle and he’s not renowned for his “interpretations” when it comes to scrum time so Leigh Halfpenny could have plenty of chances to warm up his kicking boots even if the Lions scrum looks to be taking a pasting! 

With Tipuric playing at 7 and the perpetual motion machine that is Maro Itoje romping around the field the Lions may well be tempted to play a wide attacking game (if they manage to secure any ball) but with Biggar at 10 and the 31 year old Jared Payne at 13 (and a blindside who hasn’t looked fit for about 2 months in James Haskell) that could prove difficult. Even trying to throw the ball around against a Blues side with Akira Ioane at 6, Bristol bound Steven Luatua at 8 AND former New Zealand 7’s players Augustine Pulu, Sonny Bill Williams and Rieko “dancing feet” Ioane could be a really dangerous plan.

Personally I’d be happy with a 6-0 win to the Lions and on to Canterbury but I can’t imagine that’ll happen, from a Lions point of view there are a few questions to answer after Saturday’s soporific jetlag-fest not least who will play in the second row with George Kruis come Test match time. Alun-Wyn Jones and Iain Henderson might have got the short end of the stick with the first starts but you’d imagine that Itoje or Lawes have a great shot at nailing down a Test spot already (or both if Gatland fancies 1 of them at 6, but Peter “outta my way” O’Mahony is on the bench. And Ross Moriarty is everything you want to take on an All Black back row). Robbie Henshaw v Sonny Bill Williams could be pretty epic, but SBW hasn’t hit his straps since his return from injury and as a committed Muslim is currently “managing Ramadan” and Robbie Henshaw was wrapped up in Leinster’s end of season tailspin back home, although getting away from Sexton might perk him up. Jack McGrath has a chance to condemn Joe Marler to 5 weeks of midweek games (although Marler’s 3 metre’s in 3 carries on Saturday probably did that). CJ Stander needs game time after Rassie Erasmus said that he was still coming back from injury at the end of the season. 

For the Blues George Moala will be pretty desperate to remind the All Black selectors that he’s still incredibly powerful so Jared Payne will need to get him early or face the prospect of a very angry 16+ stone coming at him at full tilt.  Rieko Ioane will probably be an All Black sooner or later so Jack Nowell’s much vaunted defence will be tested.

Off the bench Patrick Tuipolotu and Jonathan Sexton will both want to show what they can do and if you’re a Lions forward you don’t want to see Tuipolotu galloping down field after 60 minutes, he’s far too quick to weigh the best part of 19 stone. 

On a totally self-indulgent note Michael Collins looked a very tidy prospect at the Scarlets so I’d love him to have a good game and how he compares to Halfpenny could be very interesting indeed. I’m going with the Blues by 14, but the looser the Lions try to play the more chances the Blues will have to bag some meat pies.