Warren Gatland named his 41-man Lions squad amid feverish anticipation now the dust has settled, what does it tell us about he squad and the threat of the opposition?
A front-five of to fear?
For all the flicks, feints and steps boasted by an All Blacks backline that offers the sumptuous skills of Beauden Barrett, Ben Smith and if he’s fit, Sonny Bill Williams, the Three Test series is likely to be decided in the tight five. Sir Graham Henry, speaking to BBC 5Live, alluded to as much. While saying the tour ‘The most difficult tour in the history of the game”, he spoke with barely disguised respect, at the power and strength available to Warren Gatland.
Tadhg Furlong and Jack McGrath gave New Zealand front-row a torrid time in Chicago and Dublin, and if Steve Borthwick unpicks the Kiwi lineout with Saracens Jamie George, Maro Itoje and George Kruis, the Lions could well prosper in the set-piece and tight exchanges. If there are injuries to Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, the Kiwi lock pool isn’t that deep to think it couldn’t be exploited.
Dark horses for the Tests
The names that drew most oxygen from the room at the squad announcement were Jared Payne, Ross Moriarty and to a lesser extent, Ben Te’o. Anyone who saw Moriarty smashing those with reputations far greatest than his own last summer in New Zealand, will know he’s not there to make up the numbers. Payne, a former New Zealand U21 player, knows his brethren better than most and his defensive organization and cool head in midfield or at full-back may inveigle his way into the Test reckoning before the end of the Series.
With Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell potentially fighting it out for the No 10 berth, the powerful Worcester Warrior could well be employed to do the role Jamie Roberts performed with aplomb in 2009 and 2013. Jeremy Guscott, a fair arbiter of centre play, thinks Te’o has the tools to inflict serious damage on the unsettled All Black midfield.
Opening salvos are fired
Warren Gatland played his diplomatic role very adroitly at the launch, straight-batting questions, yet answering earnestly enough so as not to slip in cliché territory, yet he’s been known to throw the odd verbal grenade on occasion. Straight out of the traps, however was New Zealand coach Steve Hansen, a self-avowed known curmudgeon, who expressed surprise that Dylan Hartley – long thought to have been a outside-bet for squad selection – was omitted for his leadership qualities.
He went on with a thinly-veiled dig about the lack of sophistication of Gatland coaching methods. “It’s pretty much what you’d expect from Warren. He likes his big ball carriers in the middle of the park and his big, grunty forwards so that’s what he’s picked.” It was hardly ringing-praise of his coaching abilities. Over to you, Warren…
Anyone who watched Beauden Barrett peppering the wide-channels with perfectly executed kicks for the Hurricanes against the Brumbies this morning, will know that any of the Lions’ back three positioning and alertness to the high-ball will have to be on the money.
Aaron Cruden, the All Blacks’ deputy playmaker at 10 is also a fan of the cross-kick, so threat will be for 80 minutes. At the last count, there were nine backs selected who have played at No 15 in their career and why Jack Nowell and Liam Williams, both brilliant in the air, may be called into action on a regular basis.
The commonly held assumption before selection was that Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell would play at No 10 and No 12 but the fact they’ve been pitted together as tens, suggests Gatland wants to see them battle it out, with the option of playing Farrell at 12 in his arsenal.
On paper, Sexton’s understanding with Murray would give him the edge, given the game-time they’ve enjoyed, leaving Farrell as a first-class replacement at either 10 or 12 in the game’s final quarter. Again, the understanding forged by Sexton and Te’o, or Henshaw for periods at Leinster – both water-tight in defence and a handful in attack – could be pivotal when decision-making under duress.
Know your enemy
A proud Waikato-boy, no one has to tell Warren Gatland what the game means to your average New Zealander. Unlike Sir Clive Woodward, who endured a thoroughly miserable tour with Alistair Campbell-in-tow, scowling from the sidelines.
Gatland has already talked about how important it is to understand the Kiwi psyche by immersing themselves into the local culture by watching their films, doing their homework on New Zealand and tourists replying within the Marae (a Maori meeting place), to locals songs with words of their national tongue. Visits to see local schools, colleges and landmarks, will all go some way to disarming the most passionate of Kiwi fans.
Lions XV for the first Test
S Hogg, G North, B Te’o, R Henshaw, L Williams, J Sexton, C Murray; B Vunipola, S Warburton, T Faletau, M Itoje, G Kruis, T Furlong, J George, J McGrath
Reps: D Cole, K Owens, M Vunipola, AW Jones, CJ Stander, R Webb, O Farrell, E Daly