Last week we caught up with Jamie Wall to get his side of the story as to why the All Blacks will win. This week we thought it was only fair to let a Brit, Lee Calvert, have his say on the matter.
It’s easy to be nostalgic for the amateur-era of international rugby. Back when players stood a good chance of receiving rudimentary eye surgery from a toothless forward or getting rucked so hard their back would look like hell’s doormat. These are what we fondly refer to as ‘the good ol’ days’. Back then, players trained in the evening after spending a day at work, and a scratch team put together from four different nations was well in the running against a bunch of blokes who were still essentially playing in their spare time.
Professionalism has brought much to the game, but it has also minimised the Lions’ competitiveness to the point where some question whether the institution should still exist. Add to this the side’s consistently woeful record against the All Blacks, and the signs are not good for 2017. At least, that is what the conventional wisdom says. But there are many reasons to believe the tourists can take home a historic series victory this June. Honestly.
For a start, unlike in 2005, the Lions will have something resembling a sane approach to the tour. Twelve years ago, Clive Woodward took nearly every eligible player available in a squad so huge it looked more like he was staging a land invasion than a month-long sporting tour.
Yet, with all the resources at his disposal, he picked a test team that ignored the Grand Slam-winning Wales players and was instead packed full of parochial selections of his favourites – no matter how out of form or out of position they might have been. He then wheeled out Tony Blair’s spin doctor to hold press conferences about a dangerous tackle while his opponents instead successfully focused on battering his team.
This time we have Warren Gatland in charge. Not only has he had a full year to prepare, but he also has experience, leading the Lions to victory in Australia in 2013. Gatland has a far more straightforward, far less management-doublespeak-riddled approach to the game of rugby than the borderline barmy Sir Clive. Combine this with the number of players and coaches who took part in that victory four years ago, and the Lions already have a jump on the usual cobbled-together feeling that comes with the tour.
New Zealand, as good as they always turn out, are not the squad they were at the last Rugby World Cup. The All Blacks pulling on the shirt in the decade through to 2015 had a high proportion of players for the ages: McCaw, Umaga, Carter, Nonu, Mealamu, Thorn, Conrad Smith... history will judge these guys as some of the best ever. The 2017 vintage have few names that are currently of this stature, regardless of their talent. They are good, but not immortal.
A core of the Lions Test team will be made up of players from England and Ireland – the former a team that just equalled the All Blacks’ winning streak record and the latter the team that beat the All Blacks six months ago and ran them close a week later. A key component in the Irish victory in Chicago was their defence. They were a ferocious, mobile green wall of aggression that proved New Zealand and Beauden Barrett are, in the final analysis, like every other rugby team – they struggle when put under consistent time and space pressure.
Andy Farrell was the man who built that green wall, and he is on this tour to inspire the same wrecking tactics with the Lions. He will have at his disposal some of the best defensive backs in the business: his son Owen, who defends like the rugby league forward he once was; Jonathan Joseph, the thinking man’s defender; Jack Nowell, a muscular dynamo; Liam Williams, bow-legged exponent of what has been called “council estate strength”; Elliott Daly, the rapid wunderkind of cover defence... the list goes on.
Warren Gatland’s Wales side toured New Zealand in the summer of 2016 and, unsurprisingly, lost. But what was notable about that tour is that Wales were competitive until the 60th minute of every game, before the All Blacks engaged their usual 15-Minute Soul Splinterer™ – that period of the game in which they score three tries to completely decimate all the hope that may have been lingering in the souls of their opponents. Every team that played the All Blacks last year experienced this, and it was mainly down to the depth of the bench. Few other nations can match it.
Gaining parity with the depth of talent available to the All Blacks would require the bringing together of four international teams. In other words – the Lions. The tour squad is likely to include a test bench containing the likes of Jamie George, the dynamic powerhouse England hooker; Peter O’Mahoney, the Irish lineout disrupter and all-round mouthy menace; Justin Tipuric, the lightning fast Wales breakaway; also, Rhys Webb.
Few would argue the abilities of the New Zealand backs are inferior to what the Lions will offer (that’s what Andy Farrell is there to deal with after all), but in the forwards the opposite is true. The tourists’ tight five will be stronger at set piece and certainly on a par in the loose, especially at lock where the British & Irish depth is arguably the strongest to ever go on tour – Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones, Joe Launchbury, Jonny Gray, Courtney Lawes are all class and in great form. The back row is the correct mix of monstrous (Billy Vunipola, CJ Stander), crafty (Warburton, O’Mahoney) and outstanding (Faletau).
The Lions pack is also heavy with auxiliary fetchers – as well as Sam Warburton, the likes of Itoje, Tipuric, Mako Vunipola, Gray, Dan Cole and Alun Wyn Jones win plenty of turnovers. This, plus the power in the scrum will mean penalties and this brings us to the thing that should have all Lions fans optimistic – goal kicking.
Close international games are won and lost by the points that are left on the field and not pumped through the posts. New Zealand have Barrett and Cruden, who you wouldn’t put your garden shed on making a pressure kick, never mind your house. The Lions have Owen Farrell, Jonny Sexton and Leigh Halfpenny for the usual kicks as well as Elliot Daly, whose megaboot regularly slots three-pointers from over 50metres out.
Is it nailed on for a historic Lions win? Of course not. However, the defence, the depth of the bench, the strength of the tight five and coach and squad more familiar with each other than on any other tour means New Zealand will be run closer than they have been since Ireland last November.
In the end, a close game is a kicker’s game.
This is what will see the Lions over the line.