“This is your Everest boys. To win for the Lions in a test match is the ultimate”.
These were the rousing words issued by Lions head coach Jim Telfer before the first test against South Africa in 1997, a match, and later series, that they went on to win. Later this year, 37 international rugby players from the home countries will fly to New Zealand to take on the All Blacks, the number one ranked team in the world, to try and reach the summit of their own Everest. They will have to overcome a number of challenges along the way; playing alongside unfamiliar team mates, the hostility of the Kiwi media and, of course, beating the All Blacks on the pitch. After a victorious 2013 series against Australia, how will the Lions fair this time around against the reigning world champions?
A daunting task down under?
It is never easy winning a game away from home in any sport, let alone a test series, and none is more difficult than in New Zealand for rugby. A good friend of mine is a Kiwi and when I asked him about the most popular sport in New Zealand, he said cricket.
“Cricket!” I exclaimed, “But what about rugby?”
He looked at me and gave a wry smile before saying in his thick Auckland accent, “Na bro, you said sport, not religion!”
This for me perfectly sums up the New Zealand attitude towards the sport; not a source of entertainment with a few fans, but rather a symbol of national pride whereby only the very best are worthy of pulling on the famed black jersey. Richie McCaw, twice World Cup winning captain, for example, became the youngest ever recipient of the ‘Order of New Zealand’, a status so prestigious that only 20 living New Zealanders at one time can be issued it. Other nations, and especially those making up the Lions, simply don’t have the same level of enthusiasm and support as those in New Zealand. Football is of course the most popular sport in England and Wales for example, whilst Gaelic football is most popular in Ireland. This obvious difference in intensity and nurturing has led to a sizeable gap in skill levels, fitness and squad depth and, before the Lions even step onto the plane to head to New Zealand, has got them at a disadvantage.
Although occasionally it appears as though New Zealand’s current side are not the force they were at the Rugby World Cup in 2015, with giants such as Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith all having hung up their international boots, the new talent which has emerged indicates that they still are the most talented and dangerous team in the world. Beauden Barrett for example, having played in Carter’s shadow for so long, has seized his chance to claim the No. 10 shirt and has subsequently become World Rugby Player of the Year in 2016. Even without their talismanic leader in McCaw, Kieran Reid has seamlessly filled the void to maintain the structure and discipline which the All Blacks pride themselves on. The Lions therefore, even with all their talented players, will have a huge fight on their hands in order to wrestle a series win off this dangerous and naturally gifted side.
History also isn’t kind to the tourists. The last time any side beat New Zealand at their home was in 2009, a 32-29 defeat to South Africa, whilst the last time they lost at Eden Park, was all the way back in 1994. However impressive the statistic, it doesn’t bode well for the Lions who will have to play the first and last test matches in this stadium, a stadium in which no professional team has won in. When the Lions last played New Zealand in 2005, they convincingly lost the series 3-0 with an aggregate score of 107-40!
Pride of Lions
I am fully aware that, up to this point, all I have mentioned is the sheer class and professionalism of the All Blacks and that on this basis, the Lions have no hope in hell of beating them. All is not lost however! Currently, European rugby is in a very good place with a number of teams doing well in Autumn Internationals and the Six Nations. Warren Gatland (Lions head coach) will be buoyed by the form of a number of home nation players who definitely can compete with their Kiwi counterparts. One such example is England’s fly-half/ inside centre Owen Farrell. Over the past year the Saracen’s man has truly become a world class player, with physicality in defence, a more adapted running game and goal kicking to rival that of Jonny Wilkinson. The potential combination of Sexton (Ireland) at 10 and Farrell at 12 would provide a fantastic framework to unleash the speed of the back three in the wider channels and would work even the most disciplined of defences into the ground. Likewise, there are a number of forwards who have started to develop their all-round game including the Vunipola brothers, Maro Itoje (England) and CJ Stander (Ireland), who can all match their kiwi rivals for strength, speed and skill around the park. It will be these sorts of players who will have to really step up in order to dominate the breakdown and keep the Lions on the front foot.
The Lions do not just have talented players however, but also a plethora of talented and experienced coaches who will be just as key in helping lead the Lions to victory. Three of the four main coaches (Gatland, Howley and Farrell) are all successful international coaches and have already toured at least once with the lions, whilst the fourth coach (Steve Borthwick), will create a solid and reliable set piece, just like he has done with England. These coaches are all
more than experienced enough to ensure that the right players are picked for the right games as well as ensuring they are all fully prepared for the matches ahead.
Also, as seen at Soldier Fields in Chicago, New Zealand are not invincible. They were completely outclassed by Ireland last autumn and were second best for large parts of the game. If the Lions can bond and rally just like Ireland did following the death of Munster head-coach Anthony Foley, then they have a strong chance of causing headaches for the All Blacks. In addition, under Eddie Jones, England have developed a winning mentality, where they can seemingly win games and get over the line regardless of how well they played. This is vital in a Lions series, with Gatland praising this newfound English belief which he hopes will rub off on the rest of the squad.
Now things get tricky. Having weighed up the strengths of both sides it is evident that we have a mammoth series awaiting us this summer, with it having the potential to be the biggest and most dramatic sporting event of the year.
As much as I want the Lions to win, I do however believe that this is unlikely, and as such believe the test series will end 2-1 in New Zealand’s favour. The sheer number of world class players which the All Blacks possess, combined with the fact that they are playing at home, creates a recipe for success and I just can’t see the Lions being able to get over the line following a tough regular season for club and country and then this intense tour. However, regardless of the outcome, this promises to be one hell of a series and I can’t wait for the challenge to begin on the 3rd June! Come on boys, do Britain and Ireland proud!