The Lions have been pilloried for two under-par performances and they're unfancied against the Crusaders, but don't write them off...yet
So far, it’s all been entirely predicable. The Lions have been written off from Invercargill in the South, to Auckland in the North. They’ve been castigated by local media as being a ‘disgrace to the jersey’ and showing ‘unimaginable levels of mediocrity’ after the Provincial Barbarians game and rubbished as a ‘clunky touring team’ after Ihaia West’s scything line late-on against the Blues. True, they were always going to get savaged by a parochial New Zealand media, but hold on, are we judging the Lions squad too harshly, barely a week into the tour?
The outing in Whangerei was always a lose-lose situation. Win convincingly and they hump a team of second-rate journeymen, win unconvincingly and the fur flies at their gross ineptitude.
Lack of preparation time
The major caveat to that loss was they were barely 72hrs off the plane after an arduous long-haul flight – and jet-lag respects no man, not even Lions – and while they were admittedly poor; lacking the basics with far too many stars off-colour, Warren Gatland still saw performances to offer him succour under fire, with Ben Te’o offering glimpses of reprising Jamie Roberts’ 2009 and 2013 role, Kyle Sinckler auditioning for the John Bentley tour bolter role and Taulupe Faletau showing the mongrel that everyone except Zinzan Brooke can see.
Don’t forget, with every passing day, bonds are formed, unities strengthened and the first half-hour against the Blues, they showed sustained periods of cohesion as they bedded in combinations and started to build an understanding. Up front, Jack McGrath and Dan Cole tag-teamed with Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler to put the squeeze on Charlie Faumuina and co. The point is, it wasn’t all bad. Maro Itoje, while not perfect – he gave away a few penalties – played with a verve and energy that brought plaudits from both sides, while Courtney Lawes showed our strength-in-depth at lock and Rhys Webb offered enough to suggest Conor Murray’s Test place was no foregone conclusion.
I for one, thought that Itoje’s exuberance in celebrating a scrum penalty was a positive sign. It pointed to a togetherness and common bond starting to bind the tourists. At the final whistle, the look of disappointment on the player’s faces pointed to a resolve that the tourists would not simply roll over at any point during this tour.
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As the Lions cavalcade rolled into Canterbury, there have been yet more warnings of humiliation from New Zealand’s premier Super Rugby franchise under the charismatic Scott Robertson and Gatland has, wisely, picked a 23 that to commentators looks like its five or six players shy of a Test 23 for June 25.
Call the cavalry
In further mitigation, the Lions haven’t yet given game-time to a quartet of players the All Blacks respect; George North, who carried (Israel Folau aside), for nearly 500m in Australia in 2013, and made six line-breaks in the first Test against the All Blacks last summer; Sean O’Brien, who word has it, is one player for whom Steve Hansen’s squad revere for his raw power; Conor Murray, who orchestrated a never-to-be-forgotten win over the All Blacks in Chicago and Owen Farrell, who is widely-respected as having the mental fortitude and composure to shepherd the Lions in times of duress is getting his first start at 10. Throw in the in-form Jonathan Davies, All Black swatter-in-chief Tadhg Furlong and Itoje off the bench, and you have the heaviest of Lions artillery.
All Black injury concerns
Whatever the outcome of tomorrow morning’s fixture against a side that has won 14 games on the spin, the Lions cannot lose focus, or heart. For all the luxury enjoyed in each position, the All Blacks can only field 23 players, and with injury concerns over Dane Coles, Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino, who will be ring-rusty at best, it would be folly to dismiss the Lions so easily.
The Lions knew they’d be in for the toughest of ride of their lives, but in sport, nothing is a sure thing. Forget the naysayers who have written them off. They still have a puncher’s chance of wiping the smiles off the expectant Kiwi fans faces. Manage that, and everything that has gone before, will be an inconsequential footnote.
Crusaders v British & Irish Lions, Saturday 10 June, 7.35pm (8.35am UK & Ireland), AMI Stadium, live on Sky Sports and TalkSport
Crusaders: Israel Dagg; Seta Tamanivalu, Jack Goodhue, David Havili, George Bridge; Richie Mo’unga, Bryn Hall; Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Owen Franks, Luke Romano, Sam Whitelock (capt), Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, Matt Todd, Jordan Taufua.
Replacements: Ben Funnell, Wyatt Crockett, Michael Alaalatoa, Quinten Strange, Jed Brown, Mitchell Drummond, Mitchell Hunt, Tim Bateman.
Lions: Stuart Hogg; George North, Jonathan Davies, Ben Te’o, Liam Williams; Owen Farrell, Conor Murray; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Tadhg Furlong, George Kruis, Alun Wyn Jones (capt), Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: Ken Owens, Jack McGrath, Dan Cole, Maro Itoje, CJ Stander, Rhys Webb, Johnny Sexton, Anthony Watson.