A competitive match in prospect
By Roger Childs
After an indifferent start to their tour, the Lions have run into some good form in the last two matches. The combinations are starting to gel and a more adventurous approach in the backs has been featuring.
There are plenty of world class players in the touring side, but will they be able to topple the world’s number one team on home soil? If they do, it will be an outstanding performance.
There is likely to be a competitive first half, however the All Blacks should win comfortably based on superior fitness, more mobile forwards, greater flair in the backs and a stronger bench.
A strong All Black forward pack
The All Black selectors are spoilt for choice, and apart from hooker Dane Coles, had all the best players to choose from. Last Friday’s romp over a weak Samoan side allowed the coaches to try various combinations and all those who got on the field acquitted themselves well.
The side selected for the first test at Eden Park largely picked itself. There is great strength in the forwards and the Lions won’t be able to push the All Black scrum around. The home side have four quality props, and Retallick and Whitelock are the best lock forward combination in the world.
The lineout is particularly formidable. Both locks are jumpers and Kaino often wins ball at the front. Also, reserve, Scott Barrett, who will doubtless come on in the second spell, has the height to win and steal ball.
There is a question mark over Kieran Read’s fitness, as he has been recovering from a thumb injury in recent weeks. The returning captain will be keen to last the full 80 minutes, however if he needs replacing there is the superbly fit and talented Ardie Savea on the bench.
Tremendous talent in the backs
The proven ability of Aaron Smith, Ben Smith, Isreal Dagg and Beauden Barrett provides the nucleus for an exciting backline which will be keen to run the ball at speed. Ryan Crotty is back from injury and has a great reputation as a defender and distributor.
Reiko Ioane has displaced Julian Savea on the wing, probably because he is better under the high ball and a more reliable tackler. Savea was badly caught out by George North in a couple of tests against Wales last year.
Sonny Bill Williams is for me the lucky selection. He played well in the Blues win over the tourists, and his trademark off-load to Ihaia West led to a brilliant try by the latter under the posts.
However, his defence will need to improve as he was beaten badly by Tim Nanai Williams in the first half of the Samoa game. Sonny Bill can also be a little ponderous in mid field, however his strength is not in question and he always gets over the advantage line when taking the ball up.
Anton Lienert-Brown should have been picked ahead of Sonny Bill; he had a brilliant game against Samoa. However, it is reassuring that for Saturday he is part of the powerful All Black bench.
Also in the reserves is the outstanding TJ Perenara. Having two world class half backs who each have their own distinctive style, is a huge asset for the home team.
Another major advantage for the All Blacks is the ability of Ben Smith, Dagg, Beauden Barrett and Ioane to all play full back, should they be required.
The Lions: talent and tactics
This is a very good Lions side with many world class players. Connor Murray would be close to the best half back on the planet, and his kicking from the base of the scrum is second to none. Outside backs Jonathan Davies and Anthony Watson are fast and jinky runners, and Owen Farrell is a quality first five with a fine record of goal kicking.
I would expect to see the tourists keen to use their backs.
There is plenty of solidity and talent in the forwards. They are strong at taking the ball up and a standout is Tautupe Faletau. There will an interesting clash in the scrums but, unlike the lead-up games they won’t be pushing their opposites around.
In the lineouts they will find plenty of competition in the jumping. Expect the rolling maul to be used from throw-ins close to the line.
As regards tactics, there will be pinpoint kick-offs from Farrell allowing his forwards to arrive with the descending ball. There will also be plenty of high kicks to test the catching skills under pressure, of Smith, Dagg and Iaone.
The rush defence is bound to feature, as it has in all the games so far. To counter this the All Blacks are likely to run two lines of backs and use judicious chip kicks over the top of the on-rushing Lions backs.
May the best team win!
Let’s hope the outcome is decided by the quality of the rugby, and not as a result of players being sent off or poor refereeing decisions. South African, Jaco Peyper, needs to watch the fringing off side by both teams and the Lions propensity for deliberately slowing down the ruck ball.
All anyone asks of a referee is for consistency.