Jeremy Guscott believes a mix of an added clinical edge in their last two games and Warren Gatland’s decision to reward form has seen the Lions tour lurch from embarrassment to hope as they prepare for the first Test against the All Blacks on Saturday.
By selecting Liam Williams and Elliot Daly for the opener at Eden Park against New Zealand, Guscott feels Gatland has taken an “ambitious risk” and he hopes the native Kiwi is rewarded for it.
Eyes were raised when England and Wasps flyer Daly and Wales’ Saracens-bound Williams were named in the starting XV on Wednesday ahead of George North and Leigh Halfpenny.
Guscott, who appeared in eight Tests to put him joint sixth on the list of most Lions appearances, is excited to see Gatland taking a mini risk.
“It tells me with all his experience, Warren has said ‘George isn’t playing well’, ‘Leigh is a safe bet’, it’s a mini risk from him,” Guscott told Sport360.
“You know what you’ll get with Leigh, you won’t with George because he’s been all over the place and suffered the consequences.
“Elliot Daly is the most skillful, attacking back in the northern hemisphere. He has everything in his attacking and defensive tool bag. His reading and anticipation of the game, that’s his X-factor. And if the All Blacks give penalties away from 60 metres he can knock them over.
“Liam Williams played himself into the Test team on that Chiefs performance. It’s an ambitious ploy and I hope he gets rewarded.”
By going with form rather than the tried and tested method in his back three selection, and with the likes of Johnny Sexton and Halfpenny on the bench, Guscott believes Gatland has gone for a team that can create and take chances, with a view to protecting a lead and earning victory.
“You can see where they’re going. It’s an attacking back three to finish,” said Guscott, who will be part of OSN Sports’ coverage of the Test series alongside fellow former Lion Scott Gibbs and legendary ex-All Black Zinzan Brooke.
“The bench is a bit of a surprise because the backs are closers, Sexton and Halfpenny. It looks like they’re hoping to get a lead and stay there.”
Guscott, who kicked the winning drop goal as the Lions won the second Test and clinched the series against then world champions South Africa on the 1997 tour, says the Lions have moved on from a shocking performance in their opening match against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians.
And he says they now have every chance of beating the All Blacks on Saturday.
“The Barbarians game was terrible, monumentally terrible. They should have smashed that side, which was thrown together, half baked, amateur, they held in there and it was embarrassing, a shocker,” was Guscott’s scathing takeaway from the tour opener.
“I was worried because the midweek team wasn’t doing what they were supposed to. You would have had a subconscious split which could have become dangerous had they lost their last few games. But they won and won well. Everything they’d built towards finally came together.
“The Saturday team has been getting better and better. The Crusaders were nullified. Four or five tries per game, 14 games unbeaten, but they cut their legs off, snuffed them out.
“The Maoris have a massive tradition but had only been together a short time, and they looked like it. The Lions looked stronger.”
Picking on form is no guarantee the Lions will be successful, and Guscott still has concerns, while coping with the All Blacks’ “organised chaos” will be easier said than done.
“In the Chiefs and Maori games they again didn’t finish off chances so my worry would be they’ve not got the support and composure to reset, get their shape,” said the former Bath centre.
“They should have walked three more tries in those two games so that’s my concern. They rectified one (mistake) by having Daly, Watson and Williams in the back three. Those guys will get on the end of any break. They have the pace and understanding to do that.
“My main concern is being able to make those line breaks and re-setting, reshaping to attack. I won’t know and they won’t know if they’ve got that until they get in the match.”
Having played a part on three Lions tours, including a first series win in 23 years in South Africa, Guscott knows Saturday is a massive step up from the previous six games.
He said: “This international is three or four levels up to what they’ve played so far. Completely different.
“If it’s dry it’s going to be a bigger test too. Because the All Blacks like to play high tempo. The All Blacks for me is organised chaos, they love the knock-ons, the spills, the loose kicks.
“The likelihood of that happening is small because the Lions like going up that right touchline with Conor Murray’s exits and box kicks. And it’s been working. It’s quite a defensive strategy.
“We can’t forget they have created the chances. If they start finishing those off, which they need to, they’ll have to score three or four tries to beat the All Blacks, they’ve got every chance.”
Rising star Rieko Ioane has replaced blockbusting wing Julian Savea while Kieran Read returns as captain in the All Blacks side to face the British and Irish Lions in Auckland on Saturday.
The elevation of the 20-year-old Ioane, whose Test experience consists of just two appearances off the bench — against Italy and France last year — is one of three changes to the starting XV when the All Blacks whipped Samoa last week.
Read returns after being sidelined for eight weeks with a broken thumb and Ryan Crotty has recovered from rib damage to partner Sonny Bill Williams in the centres.
The inclusion of Auckland Blues flyer Ioane comes as the All Blacks target a fast, wide game against a Lions side intent on shutting them down with a rush defence while attacking with a mix of power charging and smart kicking.
“It’ll be a battle of contrasting styles which makes it an intriguing Test to prepare for and to be part of,” coach Steve Hansen said when naming his side on Thursday.
“It’ll be a physical Test but, just as importantly, it will be a mental test.” Hansen said it was particularly pleasing to have both imposing captain Read, and the tactically astute Crotty back in the line up.
“They’ve both been on target to return for this game all the way through, are both in great shape and, together with the rest of the squad, they’re really excited at what’s ahead of us.
“This was a really tough team to pick because there were a number of players in great form vying for positions. But in the end the three selectors felt this was the best combination.”
Savea, with 46 tries from 53 Tests, was quiet during the All Blacks 12-try fest against Samoa which appeared to count him while Hansen was impressed by the industrious Ioane, who scored a try in the Blues win over the Lions.
“His outstanding form throughout the season this year, including against the Lions, has earned him his start on the wing,” the coach said.
Savea does not even make the match-day 23 while younger brother Ardie Savea and Anton Lienert-Brown, who started against Samoa in place of Read and Crotty, will be on the bench for the first Test.
Read has played little rugby this year, after joining the Super Rugby season late after off-season wrist surgery, and then playing only three games before he broke his thumb.
Saturday’s first Test will played at Eden Park where the All Blacks have won 37 consecutive Tests since 1994.
The Lions, who have won only won one of 11 previous series in New Zealand, last played at Eden Park in 2005 when the All Blacks won 38-15.
New Zealand (15-1): Ben Smith; Israel Dagg, Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane; Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read (capt), Sam Cane, Jerome Kaino; Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick; Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody.
Replacements: Nathan Harris, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Aaron Cruden/Lima Sopoaga, Anton Lienert-Brown
George North produced two of the most iconic moments of the 2013 British & Irish Lions tour. Into the second quarter of the first Test, with the Lions still finding their feet, North used his to bewitching pace to beat four Australian bodies and score one of the tourists’ greatest-ever tries.
Then, in game two, North somehow slung Israel Folau – the Wallabies’ chief antagonist – over one shoulder while holding the ball in the crook of his other arm. It was incredible, a carry and ruck all in one.
At just 21 years of age, we were witnessing the type of feats from North that no-one, not even Jonah Lomu, could have shrugged at. A Lion for the ages.
But for all outward appearances, his body is not hewn from granite and thick-skulled decisions by the powers-that-be over the last four years have only precipitated his decline.
Fine player though he still is, that the Welshman is not a surefire starter for the Lions’ first Test on Saturday should be taken as a red alert.
North was back in competitive action just two months after returning as a hero in 2013 for Northampton who, having just signed him for £200,000 (Dh930,000), were keen to show off their new shiny toy. Adding 11 Tests of even greater intensity over the course of that season and in the next 10 months, he played a bonecrunching 34 times.
In 2015 he went on to hit his 50th Test cap a month shy of his 23rd birthday – and the occasion was still portrayed as a celebration of his freakishness. The second-most capped player by that age is Jonny Wilkinson on 34, and we all know what happened to him.
Indeed, North’s savagery for those 2013 Lions may be remembered for bittersweet reasons just like Wilkinson’s World Cup winning drop goal in 2003.
Subsequently, Wilkinson collected injuries like they were going out of fashion and his mastery with Toulon at the twilight of his career aside, he never reached those heights again. A generational talent came under pressure for his England place by players such as Toby Flood while still in his late 20s.
As for North, just before reaching his 50-cap landmark, he took a five-month enforced break due to a string of concussions, scarily suffering from speech problems.
The 25-year-old has soldiered on, for the most part, but have any lessons been learned? Draw your own conclusions, after he found himself in the centre of the storm which made a mockery of the nascent Head Injury Assessment laws.
Last December, TV replays showed the wing had been knocked out in a clash with Leicester yet he outrageously returned to the field and saw out the contest. Northampton were given a slap on the wrist, nothing more.
North, of course, will have been cleared on medical grounds for this tour, but just how much punishment can his brain, the most fragile of organs, take, together with the attrition of his entire body?
Other 2013 Lions have suffered far worse. Prop Alex Corbisiero, a late call-up who pulverised Australia in the series-winning third Test, played just 24 more club games for Northampton before announcing a year-long sabbatical from rugby last summer. Of yet he has made no plans to return.
A few miles down the road from Northampton, in Leicester, Tom Croft is still plugging away but only after spending almost three years on a physiotherapist’s bench battling knee injuries. Having enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in 2015/16, he made just three Premiership appearances last year.
Another flanker, Sean O’Brien, has patched up his body from recurring shoulder and hamstring injuries to emerge as a tour standout yet again. You wonder, however, if the 30-year-old has shaved years off his career for one last blowout in New Zealand.
The new global schedule, starting in 2020, is designed to incorporate more breaks for players – yet it’s essentially an 11-month season, and Test players would only have five weeks of rest before their domestic duties start again.
Just waiting to see some of this from George North 💪🏻 pic.twitter.com/AAKu1u2d7T— Dean Stevens (@DWJStevens1991) June 10, 2017
Players are restricted to 32 games a campaign, and the Lions will play just eight times starting from the 2021 tour, but how can that be seen as going far enough when the NFL – another brutal contact sport – has an injury epidemic while playing a maximum of 20 competitive matches a year?
North’s ponderous play on this tour can not simply be put down to form. There were loud calls for his omission from Wales’ Test side during this year’s Six Nations before a brilliant brace against Ireland.
He may have another classic Lions display in him against the All Blacks – just bear in mind the currency he is paying with. His health, and it doesn’t come cheap.