In the second part of his interview, England and Lions legend Phil Vickery speaks to Rugby World about big decisions Warren Gatland has to make in the next 24hrs...
Rugby World editor Owain Jones took a pew with England and Lions legend Phil Vickery to discuss the tour in New Zealand, the likely Test 23 to face the All Blacks for the First Test and whether they can win their first Series since 1971…
How do you think the side have conducted themselves on the field? Is a strong bond forming?
There was a little stir made with Maro Itoje celebrating a scrum penalty against the Blues. You have to be careful sometimes how you portray it? Do people think you’ve portrayed it as winning the game. I struggle sometimes when you see a wing running 40 into the scrum, doing high-fives and slapping backsides. It’s a part of the modern game but it would irritate me. I also struggle with players going to the referee, talking, calling for a high-tackle by throwing their arms in the air. The referee is in charge, end of. I’m 110 per cent behind making our game safer but sportsmanship needs to be kept in check. On the whole, I’m not that surprised with the results. We’re not sitting here saying the lads haven’t got a clue what to do, Gats is weeping and Rob Howley has gone for a long walk. It’s building nicely.
Do you have an inkling what the Test side will be?
I’m a big Johnny Sexton fan. I think he’s fantastic. I think maybe he has a better rugby brain than (Farrell) as an attacking force but if I was a front-row forward, I’d probably want Owen there with his defence and aggression. Does Farrell and Sexton work together? That’s a big call. Over a period of 12 months, I’d be thinking of a Catt and Wilkinson scenario, Farrell and George Ford but they haven’t had much time together.
In midfield, I think Ben Te’o has been a real stand-out on this tour and Jonathan Davies is favourite for the shirt at No 13 and I’m a big fan of his. Stuart Hogg has been so unlucky. Anthony Watson is an outside bet at No 15, but he’ll probably stick with Leigh Halfpenny for his kicking. I see North on one flank, and maybe Watson or Liam Williams on the other.
How do you see the pack shaping up for Eden Park on June 25?
Up front, the first person I think of first is Mako Vunipola. He’s just immense. His workrate – I just want to hug the bloke. If he doesn’t start and you go with Jack McGrath. If you’re losing by 10 points, with 25 to go, you bring him out to energise matters. I thought the Irish front-row would be starting the Test. Tadhg Furlong has been quite a find and Rory Best, plays with his heart on his sleeve and has captained Ireland to a win over New Zealand. He’s an immense human being. If you’re looking for an impact, you want Jamie George on the bench. In the engine room, George Kruis has to be a starter, it hurts when you think Joe Launchbury isn’t even on the tour. Alongside him, at the start, you have Alun Wyn Jones for his experience, he’s a bloody good rugby player. Maro could come off the bench and offer you that energy. I don’t see him as a six option.
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In the backrow, Taulupe Faletau is a shoe-in. He just gets on with it quietly; he tackles, has the footwork. Peter O’Mahony has given the backrow balance and Sean O’Brien has come back with a back and I’d be tempted to start him, with Warburton coming back to fitness. It seems crazy because we have three or four of our best players on the bench. The sports analysts make the call when they change them.
Is this Warren Gatland’s biggest test as a coach?
I’d say so. He’s surrounded by a coaching team that has been around for a long time. Steve Borthwick, Andy Farrell and Rob Howley are all very experience but Gats is his own man. He showed that with the dropping of Brian O’Driscoll. He’ll make the right decision for the Lions and as a New Zealander, no one will want to beat them more than him.
Can they win the Series?
Are they capable? Yes. Can they perform on the day for long enough period to win a Test Series? I’m not so sure. I believe the skillset and ability of this Lions squad is as good as the All Blacks, but can they get all those elements right on the day. They’ll have to be perfect to do it.
Phil Vickery’s squad for the First Test
- Jack McGrath (Ireland)
- Rory Best (Ireland)
- Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)
- George Kruis (England
- Alun Wyn Jones (Wales, capt)
- Peter O’Mahony (Ireland)
- Sean O’Brien (Ireland)
- Taulupe Faletau (Wales)
- Conor Murray (Ireland)
- Johnny Sexton (Ireland)
- Anthony Watson (England)
- Ben Te’o (England)
- Jonathan Davies (Wales)
- George North (Wales)
- Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)
Reps: Mako Vunipola (England), Jamie George (England), Kyle Sinckler (England), Maro Itoje (England), Sam Warburton (Wales), Rhys Webb (Wales), Owen Farrell (England), Liam Williams (Wales)