New Zealand v British and Irish Lions — 1st Test Preview

After years of discussing team selections, tactics and social media amok with polls on who is best number 10 etc, we are on the eve of the first test, and I for one cannot wait.

Can The Lions topple The All Blacks in Auckland, inflicting their first defeat at Eden Park since 1994 and go one up in a three-match test series? Has Warren Gatland and his coaching team got selection absolutely right? Well Y Ddraig looks at these points by positions.

Picture courtesy of http://www.youtube.com

Back Three

To start this selection from the coaching staff can be summed up in one word, bold. Fully expected a back three of Leigh Halfpenny, George North and Anthony Watson, but The Lions have selected Liam Williams at full-back, a position he has constantly been overlooked in when playing for Wales with Gatland and Robert Howley often selecting Leigh Halfpenny, with Howley even saying just a few months ago, that Wales viewed Williams as a winger. However, Williams was outstanding at full-back midweek against The Chiefs, and his strike running and angles of coming into the attacking line have got him the nod. The Lions coaches clearly feel that you need to score tries to beat The All Blacks, which I totally concur with. With this in mind, similarly to Williams, Elliot Daly has been selected on the left wing, after a strong performance against The Chiefs. Daly is a consummate footballer, with a great kicking game, and reads the game well, his footballing skills and his reading of the game in my view is one of the main reasons why he has been selected over George North on Saturday. The North we saw using Israel Folau as a rucksack 4 years ago, seems a distant memory now, there have been glimpses of form during last year’s 6 Nations, but been few and far between. Anthony Watson gets the right wing slot, and has played well on this tour to date, but has the unenvious task of being up against Rieko Ioane, The All Blacks left winger who looks cut from the same cloth as the likes of Jonah Lomu, Joe Rokocoko, Siteveni Sivivatu and Julian Savea. New Zealand have selected Ben Smith at full-back who in my view is the best full-backs in the world and is one of the best rugby players on the planet. On the other wing, All Blacks have selected Israel Dagg who similarly to his opponent tomorrow Daly, is an outstanding footballer and those two could have a real interesting battle.

As said this is a bold selection, and I applaud that. Only slight worry is the tactic New Zealand use a lot on attack of the kick pass, where Beauden Barrett will try to pick out his wingers, plus Conor Murray and Owen Farrell I am sure will put in similar kicks and up and unders, Williams as shown on this tour, is a pure instinct player, and at times, will compete whether he can win the ball in the air or not, and this can get him into trouble, similarly with Daly who only last year was sent off playing for England going for a high ball, they will need to be disciplined and very careful when they compete.

Advantage: All Blacks

Centres

Jonathan Davies and Ben Te’o are given the shirts for the first test, and on form, this is the correct call. I have wanted to see a combination all tour of Owen Farrell and Jonathan Davies, but with injuries and game time hardly seen them combining. Te’o will look to carry hard up the middle and his battle with Sonny Bill Williams will be fascinating. If Te’o breaks through has to take more care with his passing as has been erratic at times. Davies will be up against Ryan Crotty, who I was surprised was chosen at 13, Crotty has played for a while at 12, but is strong and a reliable defender and does the basics well. Davies has broken the first line of defence a few times in the games he has played, let’s hope he continues those breaks but we see an end product.

Advantage: The Lions

Half Backs

Conor Murray and his game management, in particular, his kicking game, has been spot on all tour and no surprises he gets the number 9 shirt for The Lions. He is up against, Aaron Smith, a fantastic scrum-half. In my view the two best number 9’s in the world and will be a fantastic battle this series. Both teams also have outstanding back up’s in this position in Rhys Webb and TJ Perenara, so the skill levels hardly drop when those two take the field. In the 10 shirt, The Lions have selected Owen Farrell, a real big match player, who has a lot of pressure on him, what with now being the goalkicker with no Halfpenny in starting 15, and the fact he has missed a few missable kicks on this tour (Halfpenny has a 100% success rate), and with Farrell missing few games with a leg injury. All Blacks have in Beauden Barrett a hugely talented player, his pace off the mark and his vision of where his team mates are and then executing the pass or kick, is outstanding. The Lions won’t want to give him room, and will want to test his defence with Te’o and Sean O’Brien and Taulupe Faletau going straight at him in the 10 position in defence. All Blacks may take Barrett out of the first line of defence and may put Smith in there, so will be interesting to see what happens.

Advantage: All Blacks

Front Row

The Lions will feel they have the upper hand here. The Lions have selected Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Tadhg Furlong and The Lions have already played against The All Blacks front three of Joe Moody, Codie Taylor and Owen Franks and had some success. I see The Lions having some success in the scrums, Vunipola has improved his scrummaging but it is his ability around the field is where he stands out, often popping up at first receiver where he is very comfortable. George has got the nod at hooker over Ken Owens, which must have been close, but the Saracens effect and George have played in big wins against Maoris and Crusaders. Furlong has been rock solid all tour and can go if required 80 minutes, he has a fantastic engine.

Advantage: The Lions

Second Row

Gatland has plumped for Alun-Wyn Jones over Maro Itoje which many have disagreed with. No doubt was a close one and I thought with George Kruis playing at 5, that Itoje his second-row partner at Saracens would get the nod, but Gatland has selected Jones for his seventh consecutive Test appearance for The Lions, and I fully expect a big performance from him. Kruis has been strong all tour and has been outstanding in the line-outs. All The Lions locks have been excellent on this tour, and Courtney Lawes and Ian Henderson are unfortunate this is the case. The All Blacks have selected the tried and trusted second-row partnership of Brodie Retalick and Sam Whitelock, two world class performers.

Advantage: All Blacks

Back Row

Picture courtesy of http://www.newstalk.com

The Lions have selected Peter O’Mahony at 6, Faletau at 8 and O’Brien at 7. O’Mahony is also captain for this game, a remarkable turnaround for a player who in March could not get into the Irish team, and is was only a late withdrawal from Jamie Heaslip, which got O’Mahony into the team against England, where he was as he had been for Munster since coming back from injury, outstanding. O’Mahony gets through a lot of unseen work and is outstanding in the line-out, he is strong in all areas required for a back rower. Faletau for me has been so far The Lions player of the tour. He gives such a great platform from 8, more often than not beats the first defender and his error count is minimal. O’Brien has played very well on tour especially against The Crusaders and warrants his place in the team. He is a strong ball carrier and very strong and disruptive on opposition ball at the breakdown, he is not as strong as Sam Warburton at turning the ball over at rucks, but Warburton has played little this tour and with that in mind was in no place to start this one. The All Blacks go with Jerome Kaino, who has recently recovered from injury, captain, Kieran Read starts at 8, Read has not played since April when he broke his thumb and at 7, Sam Cane. A very strong trio will be interesting to see how long Kaino and Read last with so little game time recently.

Advantage: All Blacks

Benches

The Lions have gone with Halfpenny, who if the game is tight with 15 minutes left could come on, and take over kicking duties. Halfpenny is safe and reliable and who knows could become the hero. Jonathan Sexton may well come onto replacing Farrell or if tries needed, he could come on at 10 and push Farrell out one position. Sexton after a shaky start to the tour has improved steadily and against The Maoris had a very strong showing. Rhys Webb will come on and look to fizzle at the base of hopefully an imposing pack on the front foot. In the forwards, Jack McGrath, Ken Owens and Kyle Sinckler will look to come on and help the set pieces and look to get hands on the ball with a couple of quick pick and drives. Itoje will be chomping at the bit and will look to impose his physicality. Itoje can be caught offside with his enthusiasm getting the better of him wanting to get into the opposition and disrupt ball, so needs to be careful. Warburton also may come on in a tight game to try to slow up opposition ball and lead the team to victory, the tour captain needs game time.

The All Blacks bench is decent but I was expecting a Julian Savea or a Waisake Naholo on there, a strike runner with players tiring, but they have resisted this. The forwards are decent and watch out for Ardie Savea brother of Julian to come on if the game starts opening up, has real pace and will look to use that.

Advantage: The Lions

Conclusion

At the start of this series, I did not think The Lions had much of a chance, but I have been impressed by the forwards and the defence which Andy Farrell, as well as the players, deserve a huge amount of credit. The Lions have conceded only 7 tries in the 6 tour matches against teams who score try after try each week in Super Rugby. Game management also for The Lions has been strong, so they do have a chance, a real chance. To find out my prediction, please read the next article that will be published.

What are your thoughts?

Craig Muncey

A Welshman who is looking forward to sharing his views and articles on Welsh sport with you all. Hope you enjoy.

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