Kyle Sinckler has impressed on and off the field so far. But with their squad selection against the Auckland Blues, there are some British & Irish Lions players capable of winning over the local fans
With their selection for the match-up against the Auckland Blues, the British & Irish Lions have a fantastic opportunity to win over more hearts and minds within the New Zealand rugby public.
After a spluttering start against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians – in which the tourists edged the contest 13-7, in Whangarei – the Lions must now get into their stride. Against the Provincial Baa-Baas the Lions struggled to convert chances, crossing the line four times but not dotting down. A clinical display would go some way to soothing fears for the visitors, while the locals are waiting to see something exciting from the Lions.
Warren Gatland has said from the get-go that the Lions must understand and interact with the indigenous culture – something that was writ large during the breathtaking Maori welcome at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds on Sunday. However, earning respect in New Zealand also means playing both hard and entertaining rugby.
In that vein, the Lions have picked an ecclectic squad to face the Blues in Auckland on Thursday, that marries powerful elements – see CJ Stander, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes and Robbie Henshaw – with some more unpredictable characters. And it is those flashbulb players who may win over the Kiwi punters.
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Lions tours need heroes and often they come from unexpected places. In Whangarei, Kyle Sinckler put his hand up as an early candidate for fans favourite. Sinckler has been breezy and fun with the press, has joined in well on community visits and before the match he was even clocked by Sky Sports, talking a local security guard through scrummaging technique. During the game he was active in attack and caught the eye with his distribution skills. When he took a tap-and-go into contact but was turned over, a large number of spectators forgave him – this was positive play, and his excitement shone through, he was let down by his support.
Ben Te’o and Ross Moriarty also belied the overall team performance with their physical displays, and they look set to accumulate respect throughout their stay in New Zealand, but often it is the unexpected play and the willingness to enjoy oneself that makes tour heroes. Sinckler has made a fine start to his Lions career.
If anyone is likely to pull a rabbit out of a hat in this next game though, mixing work-rate with spontaneity and a finisher’s instinct, it is Jack Nowell. The industrious Justin Tipuric at seven and Elliot Daly on the other wing are players who can catch the eye and burst past opponents, but do not be surprised if it is the Exeter Chiefs spark plug who creates some box office moments on both sides of the ball. He is favoured by England for his shrewd defensive positioning while his scything first-phase try in this year’s Premiership final offered a scorching example of his ability.
And perhaps more importantly, if he does create some of the game’s big moments, it will be with a smile on his face.