It’s now coming to the mountain stage

Six games in and the Lions have 4 wins. Not a bad rate of return considering the fixture list, but ultimately, the success or failure of this tour will be decided by what happens in the test matches. What is encouraging is the dominance the Lions teams have shown after a couple of early wobbles. The Lions are sticking to an unimaginative game plan based on brute force and backing their pack to be dominant. They will look to seriously disrupt the All Blacks set piece and in open play an immensly quick and organised line speed is set to be a direct countermeasure to the All Blacks expansive attack. The Lions, it seems, have a plan for stopping the All Blacks machine but I remain unconvinced on how effective the Lions can be in turning their own possession into points. If the plan is to play like ‘Wales of late’ and try to dominate territory in the hope of winning penalties for an obliging Leigh Halfpenny to knock over, then we’re goosed. I hope they’re just keeping some aces up their sleeves, not revealing their A game. There’s got to be a laminate sheet somewhere of top secret backline moves or set plays that is to be studied but not used until D Day next Saturday. Let’s hope so, because from what we’ve seen so far….good luck. The Test team is to be named Wednesday and will go a little something like this:

 

  1. McGrath (IRE)
  2. George (ENG)
  3. Furlong (IRE)
  4. Itoje (ENG)
  5. Kruis (ENG)
  6. O’Mahoney (IRE)
  7. Warburton (WAL)
  8. Faletau (WAL)
  9. Murray (IRE)
  10. Farrell (ENG)
  11. North (WAL)
  12. Te’o (ENG)
  13. Davies (WAL)
  14. Watson (ENG)
  15. Halfpenny (WAL)
  16. Owens (WAL)
  17. Vunipola (ENG)
  18. Sinkler (ENG)
  19. Wyn Jones (WAL)
  20. O’Brien (IRE)
  21. Webb (WAL)
  22. Sexton (IRE)
  23. Daly (ENG)

 

Up Front

Introducing Kyle Sinkler everybody! Carries, line breaks, defence, attitude, all exemplary. Gatland won’t look past Furlong at tighthead but Sinkler has had quite the introduction to test rugby and will be a ball of energy when sprung from the bench. His future partner in the English front row Jamie George has really stepped up to the mark as well showing huge work rate and thoroughly justifies his selection. He hit all his lineouts against the Maori and will start the 1st test at hooker having never started for England! In a specialist position such as hooker, your first job is to hit your darts. Shane Byrne started Lions tests because he was as accurate as Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor. Unfortunately for Rory Best, recently OBE, his throwing has been too awry and thus his workrate, turnovers and leadership qualities become irrelevant. In the 1 shirt I’d go with McGrath, he’s the better scrummager and I think Vunipola coming from the bench can be more dynamic in the last half hour. He’s had an impressive tour but I expect him to be used as England utilise him, an impact sub.

Kruis and Itoje have outplayed the other second rows, simple as. Henderson had a woeful first day out against the Provincial Barbarians but has come strong since. Lawes, rather than having a tour to forget may perhaps have one he’ll struggle to remember after undergoing head injury assessment in successive games. Murky murky waters there. He was concussed against the Highlanders, out of it, and playing a week later against the Chiefs. I’m not sure how that was allowed to happen. Alun Wyn Jones will fill a spot on the bench for the first test and what a guy to be able to spring should the Lions need a boost. What does occur to me though, is the option of putting two specialist back rows on the bench and starting without a recognised second row replacement. If Peter O’Mahoney starts at blindside flanker, he could possibly cover a second row injury and allows for the likes of Stander to sneak on to the test bench. We know Kruis and Itoje are well capable of playing the 80 minutes! An option, at least, if a bit risky. I’d be surprised if it hadn’t crossed Gatland’s mind. There’s also the option of playing Itoje at 6 where he excels for England. This means you make space for Wyn Jones in the second row. I do expect O’Mahoney to start however, and I think Warburton will take the 7 shirt ahead of the more deserving O’Brien. I just can’t see Gatland not starting his captain. I’ll be giddy when I see Seanie strapping his scrum cap and punching his shoulders about to take the field with perhaps half an hour to go. Expect full Tallow Tank beast mode.

Toby Faletau has been nailed on to start at 8 the minute Billy Vunipola pulled out. He’s been one of the standouts of the tour so far with some sublime touches and has just been able to find a little bit more space to move than the very busy Stander. This pack can be dominant in the scrum and can really go after the All Blacks lineout. If the Lions pack can disrupt the opposition set piece and deny the All Blacks quality possession, it will go a long way in deciding the outcome.

Out Back

After 4 games the Lions had conceded more tries than they had scored. Conceded 6, scored 5. It was worrying. The weather is of course the great equaliser and can be blamed for low scoring games if you’re an AIL side scrapping it out on a Saturday in November, but not at International test level. The weather won’t be pretty for the test matches and we’ll still need to score tries. 5 tries in 4 games just doesn’t cut the mustard and it was down to poor attacking and a lack of clinical finishing. Thankfully in the last two games, against the Maori and the Chiefs, the Lions have scored 5 tries to only the one conceded. It’s an improvement but mainly down to forward dominance. We’ve yet to see an incisive backline break from first phase that’s been finished off, or a spark of magic from the backs worthy of applause. The orchestra isn’t in tune at the moment, the guys aren’t in sync. The question is – Who is going to conduct the symphony outside Conor Murray?

Jonny Sexton seems to have shaken off the rust. He was back to his best against the Maori and so Farrell’s momentum in claiming the 10 shirt has more than waned. The potential partnership with Farrell at 12 seems to be a non runner. I suspect it could have come as a second half experiment against the Maori on Saturday had Farrell not tweaked a quad muscle but ultimately I think Gatland never considered it as a staring combination. If he had, we’d have seen it earlier in the tour, and not just as a brief cameo against the Crusaders. I think it’s very much down as Plan B. Ben Te’o has started the tour impressively and shone again in the second half against the Maori. He’s nailed down the 12 shirt and in true Gatland form the centre partnership looks to be all about power. Te’o and Davies will pack a punch, but Sonny Bill boxes at heavyweight. There is going to be some massive collisions.

In fairness I thought the number of casualties thus far would have been greater, nevertheless the loss of Stuart Hogg is a big blow. To be honest, he struggled in the first game and was looking shaky even into his second stint but I feel he would have found form eventually. Alas a key attacking cog in the Lions machine heads home early. Leigh Halfpenny looks set to waltz into the full back test position as a result and it’s as much down to some pretty terrible displays from the other back three specialists. In fact there’s been more players playing themselves out of the test team than lads stepping up and grabbing the jerseys. Williams, Seymour, Nowell and Payne have all had pretty average performances. Luckily for some, the games come thick and fast on tour and if it’s true you’re only as good as your last game, those lads will be thankful of the short turnaround and relish the chance to get back to form. Nowell’s performance against the Chiefs being case in point. I’m seriously worried about the Lions wingers. North doesn’t look himself and in fact has been a passenger thus far. He starts with Watson on the other wing and you feel the wing positions have been decided by a process of elimination. Elliot Daly is Mr. Versatile and looks set to fill the 23 jersey. He has acquitted himself well on the wing and can cover full back and thirteen. His boot is a weapon and should the Lions need to land a penalty from downtown, he’ll be stepping up.

Farrell covers the centre in the event of an injury and so Jonathan Joseph is unlucky to miss out on a test jersey. The fact Robbie Henshaw hasn’t gotten an opportunity at thirteen is nonsensical to me. I was looking forward to seeing him in more space this summer but evidently he’s seen as a 12 and is asked to truck it up and operate with limited time and space. A waste if you ask me. Payne hasn’t found his feet in his homeland, a mixed bag all round. He’s shown glimpses of being on another level but ultimately hasn’t done enough.

If Te’o and Davies can find Barrett isolated in the defensive line, they’ll find easy yards. Te’o effectively picked on Damien McKenzie a couple of times in the Maori game and I’m hoping he can do the same on Saturday to the All Black 10. The contested kicks is another area the Lions backs will look to dominate. Murray will bombard the wings, and if I see North rushing up only to allow an All Black a free jump at claiming the ball my shoe will be through the telly. The Lions wings have been too hesitant in this aspect of play for my liking and it’s probably down to Lee Williams yellow card earlier in the tour. They’ve got to get after that ball in the sky because Savea, Ioane and Naholo will all struggle when it’s up there.

Effectively, this team is one built to bully. The forwards will look for dominance in the set piece and there are plenty of guys that will bounce back off the ground to make more tackles. The backs picked are ones that go as the crow flies. It’s a backline that is strong and straightforward. A gin and gainline tonic.

I dunno….tell me who’s gone to New Zealand and been a bully.

 

 

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