The main event is a day away and let’s be honest, it’s what everyone has been waiting for. All the games prior to Saturday were about working out combinations, seeing who’s in form and who can put their hands up, but this is the one that everyone dreams of playing in.
Some guys have really impressed throughout the tour and have been rewarded by Warren Gatland. Guys like Te’o, Faletau and O’Mahony have all played themselves into a Test spot, and with Warburton struggling for fitness, O’Mahony has stood up and taken on the captaincy which I’m sure will be one of the proudest moments of his career. We’ve seen some stunning performances, but that counts for nothing unless they can deliver in the series against the All Blacks, you can win as many matches as you like in the build-up but what really matters is what happens over these next three weeks. In 10 years, no one is going to remember the Lions losing to the Blues or the Highlanders, it’s these three test matches that people will talk about in years to come.
The Lions go into the first Test match against a very strong New Zealand team, who put 70 odd points on Samoa just a week ago. It took them a little while to get going, but once their play began to flow, they looked very well drilled and as ruthless as ever. What they did show was that they could score from any situation and from anywhere on the field, taking any opportunity that was given to them. That being said, the Lions won’t be a push-over tomorrow. We know the Lions have a good set-piece and will look to target the All Blacks in that area.
“…not many people gave him a chance to start the first Test but he’s proven that he is more than just an impact player.”
With Vunipola, George and Furlong, you have a mobile front row that will get around the park as well as do their bit come scrum time. Fair play to Jamie George, normally playing second fiddle to Dylan Hartley for England, not many people gave him a chance to start the first Test but he’s proven that he is more than just an impact player. In the second row the Lions have gone with experience, Jones and Kruis occupy the engine room with Itoje coming off the bench for impact. It’s a well-balanced back row with O’Brien and Faletau joining O’Mahony, all three have played their hearts out in every game they’ve been a part of and all three are very mobile and will look to carry and get the guys over that gain line. What O’Brien is good at is slowing ball down and if he can do that against the All Blacks then we could be in for an interesting game.
It’s great news that Owen Farrell is back, had he not been fit I think psychologically that could have been a blow for the Lions. The battle between Barrett and Farrell is going to be massive, Farrell has been fantastic over the last 18 months and is very physical for a 10 so I’m sure he will be looking to make Barrett know that he’s there early on in the game and if the Lions can unsettle Barrett, then you stand a better chance of beating the All Blacks. Farrell partners up with Conor Murray as a 9-10 combination with Welshman Rhys Webb, who’s pushed Murray all the way for that 9 jersey, looking to make an impact from the bench. It’s great to see Elliot Daly start, he has had a massive year for England and seems to be getting better in every game he plays. I still don’t see him as a winger but he keeps putting in performances with his electric pace and massive boot that can’t be ignored.
“…there hasn’t been a big turn around and I hope that it hasn’t taken too much out of them.”
I’ll be honest, I think the wing and fullback spots were up for grabs right up until the last minute, with North not playing his best rugby and Hogg going home, all 3 spots were there for the taking. Williams and Daly put their hands up on Tuesday and have been rewarded. My only slight concern with that is that Daly played 50 minutes and Williams a full game on Tuesday, so there hasn’t been a big turn around and I hope that it hasn’t taken too much out of them. Te’o and Davies will have their hands full with the likes of Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty running down their channels, always looking for those offloads. The Lions have struggled to handle offloads in the past, like we saw when Ihaia West went through for the Blues after a Williams offload which ended up being the winning try.
Eden Park is a fortress for the All Blacks and they will want to keep their 23-year unbeaten run at the ground intact. The Lions are in with a shot but they must go out and play, if they start playing conservatively, we will get beaten, it’s as simple as that. The Lions must play with confidence and we have to take it to the All Blacks and try and get them on the back foot, and that will come from the set-piece. The set-piece has been a huge strength throughout the tour for the Lions, both the lineout and scrum have provided a strong platform to work from. The Lions need to be playing in the right areas of the field, so Farrell and Murray’s kicking will be crucial, but so will the kick chases, giving New Zealand any chance to run back at you with the ball is dangerous to say the least and they will punish the Lions. Iaone is a great player but he is inexperienced at this level and the Lions should look to put pressure on the youngster and keep testing him to see if we can force any errors. They will have the likes of Dagg, Ben Smith, Crotty and Barrett all looking to attack from anywhere as well as a mobile pack filled with experience.
This is what it’s all about, the Lions may be on the other side of the world but they will have massive support in Auckland. This is the biggest game of many of these players careers and if they can step up to the mark then the Lions can cause an upset. It doesn’t get much bigger than playing in a Test match for the Lions against the All Blacks in New Zealand. I’m excited but also interested to see if the Lions have the nerve and the confidence to go and win the series. We have the ability but we will need to take every chance that we get because we won’t get many against the World Champions and just keep that score board ticking over. It’s all well and good having a good set piece, but if we can’t play in the right areas of the field and finish every opportunity we get then we won’t win the game or the series.