They are big underdogs, but to stand a chance there are certain facets of the game the Lions need to perfect, if they are to beat the world's best team
Tomorrow evening sees the most eagerly anticipated Test match of 2017 as the British & Irish Lions face off with the All Blacks in their own formidable back yard; Eden Park. While they were derided after a lacklustre, jet-lagged showing against the Provincial Barbarians, the Lions have morphed into a side with a Scrooge-like defence and an increasingly clinical edge, dispatching with New Zealand’s best team, the Crusaders and suffocating a New Zealand Maori team, crammed with All Blacks, stopping both sides from scoring in the second-half.
It’s all set-up for an intriguing clash of styles, with two coaches showing a healthy disregard for each other. So can the Lions do it, and achieve their Everest?
Set-piece. Set-piece. Set-piece.
Okay, so we’re repeating ourselves, but that’s for a reason. If there’ one area the Lions can confidently approach the First Test, it’s in the scrum and lineout. Three Saracens, allied to 19st County Wexford anchor Tadhg Furlong and 116-cap Welsh captain Alun Wyn Jones point to a tight-five that will bow to no pack, and there will be no inferiority complex packing down opposite Joe Moody, Codie Taylor and Owen Franks.
The lineout has also functioned at Test-level and if Jamie George can find his jumpers to give the Lions front-foot ball from first-phase, expect Ben Te’o to ‘truck it up’, as the Lions try to dominate field territory and possession.
If the Lions are to nullify the most potent attack in world rugby (their average scoreline at Eden Park since last losing there in 1994 is 35-12), there can be no leaks. They will simply have execute the defensive game of their lives. Despite the All Blacks confidently asserting that they’d worked out Andy Farrell’s high-press defensive system, the way it harried ball-carriers at source against the Crusaders and NZ Maori, would have seen furrowed brows in the New Zealand camp.
The All Blacks have myriad attacking threats, but not allowing Beauden Barrett exploit space running from deep and stopping Sonny Bill Williams getting the ball away in contact will be key to the visitors chances of success.
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Pinpoint the All Blacks weaknesses
Weaknesses? You can hear Kiwi fans scoff at such impudence but every side has areas that can be probed and prodded, even the All Blacks. Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read have played less than 80 minutes between them since early April, with respective knee and thumb injuries, and however superhuman the duo are, approaching a Test match of this intensity undercooked is not how Steve Hansen would have envisioned his talismen going toe-to-toe with a grizzled Lions back-row.
The other bold pick from Hansen is 20-year-old Reiko Ioane on the wing. Ioane is prodigiously talented, and seriously rapid – just ask Jack Nowell – but he is inexperienced and Owen Farrell and Conor Murray will be testing his big-match temperament with a series of pin-point bombs in the wide channels.
Ignore the statistics
The Lions have built up a creditable amount of belief with laughably-inadequate preparation time, but if they had a spare time for reading, it would probably be best to ignore factual pieces of work. Everybody is aware the All Blacks haven’t been beaten since 1994 at Eden Park, but they are unbeaten in on home turf since 2009 against South Africa and in 37 games, they’ve only failed to win by 10 points on five occasions. Staggering.
When you look at those numbers, a narrow loss could almost be considered a moral victory, though you’d be hard pressed to hear that rhetoric being spouted from the Lions in the coming weeks.