After six games, results and performances that have attracted plenty of criticism and a little praise, and much debate as to which players should be selected, it’s finally time for the British & Irish Lions and New Zealand Test series to begin.
Both coaches have sprung a few surprises, with Warren Gatland opting to reward form and seemingly adopting an attacking approach by selecting Wales’ Liam Williams and England’s Elliot Daly in the back three ahead of Leigh Halfpenny and George North. There’s also no place in the starting XV for tour captain Sam Warburton.
Meanwhile, Julian Savea, the All Blacks’ second highest try scorer ever, doesn’t even make Steve Hansen’s match-day squad.
Ahead of the opening Test at the iconic Eden Park, Sport360 sat down with a trio of rugby icons from both sides of the divide. Lions legends Jeremy Guscott and Scott Gibbs and All Blacks colossus Zinzan Brooke are the experts sitting in the studio for OSN Sports’ coverage of the Test series and they gave us their verdicts ahead of what promises to be an explosive opening encounter.
It’s now the business end of the tour. Are you excited for the Test series?
Jeremy Guscott (JG):
I will be on Saturday. I was before the first game against the Barbarians because it’s the Lions and I’ve got a lot of history with the Lions. I’ve been on some great tours and got some great moments. I enjoyed every second of every tour I went on, to South Africa, to Australia, to New Zealand, it was great. Great fun and great competition.
It was the greatest test I ever had in rugby because the Lions should never succeed. Everything is against you. You should have no chance of winning. You haven’t got enough time to prepare, you’re playing one of the best sides in the world. Generally when you go to New Zealand they’re the best side in the world. South Africa were the best side when we went in 1997, having won the World Cup two years earlier. You’re playing with guys you don’t particularly like even though you don’t know them. You get a coach you’re not used to, medical staff, everything you’re not used to. And you’re supposed to get there, you’ve got such a small time frame to gel, combine and get in sync.
Scott Gibbs (SG):
I am. You got a feel for what was going on ahead of the team announcements this week, which was supposed to be more conservative from the Lions. We’ve not seen much enterprise, it’s been pretty formulaic, but when I saw the team, it rose a wry smile with Elliot Daly and Liam Williams coming in. There’s been some really strong forward performances so that’s where I thought we were going, trying to put the squeeze on the All Blacks. But he’s put some attacking flair into the back three which from the outset I thought was perhaps the weakest area for the Lions. You can go through the team sheets and be excited. I’m far more comfortable with the Lions side than I was 24 hours before.
Zinzan Brooke (ZB):
I’m excited for both teams. New Zealand and the Lions have got to be optimistic about the first Test. I’m quietly comfortable both coaches have picked the right teams. Warren Gatland has left Leigh Halfpenny out but he’s replacing him with reliability of Owen Farrell from the kicking side, he’s a shoe in.
There’s been a few surprises sprung by both sets of coaches in terms of team selection. What do you make of the line-ups?
What it says is that Warren has said George isn’t playing well and while Leigh is a safe bet, by having Daly, Watson and Williams in the back three you have guys who will get on the end of any break.
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.
Williams played himself into the Test team on that Chiefs performance. It’s an ambitious ploy and I hope he gets rewarded.
As for New Zealand, I think it’s a mistake with Ioane, I would have gone with Savea because he smashes people, but Hansen thought it wasn’t right. Dagg is brilliant, he’s not the player he was but he’s safe.
He’s rewarded form which is always a good hallmark for a coach. It keeps people on their toes. I’m not surprised with Sam Warburton or George North. Neither have set the world alight so far.
I like the selection of Peter O’Mahony as captain. I think in the early games there was a lack of leadership, certainly from a lot of senior players who have been on tour before. He’s a big game player, you hear ‘player’s player’ said a lot about him and there’s a lot of reverence about him. I think that is a master stroke from Gatland. And it’s a massive opportunity for Alun-Wyn Jones. I think he knows his performance has to be super special to retain his place going forward because there’s so much competitions for places and depth in the five they have in the squad.
Ben Te’o has come from under the radar, there were a lot of eyebrows raised when he was named in the squad but he’s been head and shoulders the standout back so far. He came from South Sydney to Leinster, cut his teeth and now he understands the position better now. You only have to look at where he’s dominated. Not only offloads, carries and breaks, but work rate. He touches the ball twice as often as the others. The advent of putting the Test jersey on for the second time and the growth that comes with that gives him the chance to refine and develop his game and define his season and series.
Jonathan Davies, while he hasn’t had a great deal of opportunities, we’ve seen moments of brilliance and I’m sure he’ll want to get some more game-time under his belt and cement that relationship with Te’o.
Replacing Julian Savea with Rieko Ioane. That’s the big call. But I don’t think it weakens New Zealand. It’ll be a totally different thing for Ioane because I think he’ll have a bit more space. But are Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty the ones who’ll make the space for him? I know SBW can do the wrap around and the offloads but can he do a line pass from here to there? I question that, it could be an intercept and he’s not going to catch Watson or Daly. That is my concern. But I think Ioane is a breath of fresh air. We just need to hope things go right for him. For the All Blacks it’s a bit of a change. SBW and Crotty haven’t played much together. I think they’re a work in progress and that’s a little bit scary. We’ve never been able to replace that formidable combination of Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu, they were unbelievable midfielders. You have to try something new but I didn’t think they were going to try something new in the first Test. It’s the one you want to win. It’s the most pressure on both sides. They’ve made a few changes, not to my liking, but we’ll see what happens.
For the Lions, Williams has been outstanding and solid enough in defence. The safety net with Liam is do you ever see Halfpenny get on the shoulder of Te’o and Jonathan Davies? You don’t see it. With Williams, Watson and Daly, they will get on the shoulders of line breakers.
Daly is solid enough with his kicking game too, he’s got a long boot. He can kick from 50m and beyond. He’s a small guy but do you need the big bus, George North? I’m surprised by that, I thought North and Savea would have started but clearly the coaches see it otherwise.
Do you think he’s played into the Lions hands a bit, more than he needed to?
Ben Smith, Dagg and Ioane versus Williams, Watson and Daly. Can’t get better. That’s just fantastic. And bar Ioane, they’re not heavyweights. They’re slight guys that can make a big man look embarrassed. It’s exciting and that’s what you want.
Do you think the Lions can win the opening Test?
I always am buoyed by the Lions. It’s not the back three I would have chosen but it’s ambitious and attacking. Watson has been the most consistent, Daly has the most potential, can kick and reads the game brilliantly. It’s ambitious but it’s right, because North hasn’t played well. Are we going to play someone whose continually improved or someone who’s trying to rediscover their form. It’s a positive selection. We only say it’s a risk because you anticipate a loss. If you anticipate a win it’s not risky.
It’s going to be an almighty effort, 85 minutes as opposed to 60. We need to start well, create rhythm and momentum. But we have to put points on the board. We’re accomplished with kicking but we need to up the ante in crossing the whitewash. We’ll need to look at being in the range of scoring 25-35 points in the match. We’ll need Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies punching holes and crossing the gain line. If there’s any width, both are also accomplished. I’m very comfortable with the potency of the back line and the forwards speak for themselves. Tadhg Furlong and Mako Vunipola have been standouts in their positions. George Kruis has been impeccable so far. Maro Itoje is very unlucky not to be starting but he’ll definitely finish and finish strong. Rhys Webb will come on around 55 minutes. It’s a 23-man opportunity. It’s about setting the bar and raising the bar because it’s only going to get more difficult.
I think New Zealand will go for the whitewash and get into gear and elevate their game. The Lions have to match that intensity and supersede it. I think it will be an explosive Test match. I hope both teams deliver the performance they want and it marks an explosive opening to the series.
When you analyse it, I think the critical thing on the Lions side is their tight five. They will go toe to toe with the Blacks. I look at the forwards and think they’ll square themselves off. I don’t think there’s any edge. If there is in the forwards I think we can nick a few balls, because Brodie Retallick is a quality player. He’s something else. He’s Kruis and Jones all in one.
The difference is going to be the consistency of retaining the ball. I think you’ll see a lot of penalties at the breakdown. In the Crusaders game the Lions let them have the ball and said ‘OK, attack us. You’re not coming through’.
This first Test will be completely different to the previous games. At the iconic Eden Park, set the scene, how will the players be feeling?
You’ve got to love it. Suck it up, embrace it, more than embrace it. Put the jersey on the night before. They’ve been there for six games and they’ve been welcomed. But it’s thick with rugby. The atmosphere is All Blacks, history, tradition, statistics, ‘you’ve got no chance’. ‘Why have you come?’. ‘We’re glad you’re here but this is Eden park, we never lose, we might as well go to Auckland 1-0 up’.
It’s a rugby country, infants, juniors, middle-aged and old, front page, back page, middle page, it’s rugby through and through, but you just ignore it. I think you could find a small cave on the tip of the coast on the South Island and bump into someone they’d know who you were, what the last All Black result was. There’s no getting away from it so you have to embrace it. I think since the World Cup they’ve got a 92 per cent win rate. 15 games, 14 wins, one loss, 92 tries. As a Lion you block it out. It’s your time and place, and that’s how I took it on every tour.
I didn’t know what to expect in 89 because I’d played one game for England and thought ‘I’ll enjoy this’. I knew the guys from TV and the Five Nations. I went with no expectations. I went with expectations in New Zealand and South Africa because I knew hoe brilliant and important the Lions were.
This is a crash course. A decade’s worth of getting to know each other in six-eight weeks. But if you don’t like that challenge there’s something wrong with you. I loved it.
With the Lions you have to be selfless. You give up your rights and put together all the knowledge, information and experience into the Lions pot and that’s why sometimes it’s successful, because you have enough players giving themselves, being selfless, to the cause.
It’s at the home of All Blacks rugby, the history speaks for itself. My appreciation of it from playing in the third Test in 1993 is that ‘Jesus, it’s a big bit of real estate’. It looks 150m long and 150m wide. There’s a lot of ground to cover. If you’ve got the opportunity there’s plenty of width and you’ve got to make sure of your running lines.
The haka is always something to contend with. I remember going up against Va’aiga Tuigimala, John Kirwan, Zinzan Brooke and them all looking like 6’ 10”. It’s as enigmatic, mysterious and ferocious as it’s always been. That builds theatre.
The mindset going in is executing and completions. That’s the key, not being sloppy the first 20 minutes. Not missing tackles, finding touch, making sure the lineout and scrum you have 100 per cent efficiency. Then, can you build yourself into the Test match. You have to start strong, with a great deal of tempo and control that.
Eden Park, the All Blacks have not been beaten there for a while. It’s a great ground, there’s going to be a full crowd, with lots of Lions supporters too. It’ll be some atmosphere. I’m nervous but you don’t go against the black machine.
New Zealand will no doubt have 2005 and another series whitewash on their minds. Dan Carter has predicted it will be 3-0. What are your thoughts?
I’ve said previously I think it will be a 2-1 series and I’m not even sure who to. I stand by that. My heart is always with the black side. But I always get nervous on the first Test. I’d really like to say it’s a banker. In 2005 I was banging on about it being 3-0. I can’t say that now. I’d like say 3-0 but I don’t know.
The statistics are against the Lions. 30 odd games they’ve played, three draws, the Lions have only ever won six. The last was probably us in the second Test in 93. It’s hard to argue with Carter but it’s also easy to say the Lions will win 2-1. I’m not saying that but it’s easy to counter what he’s saying. And I can give good reason for why it could happen. But there’s no doubt the All Blacks tend to get better the longer the series goes on. If the Lions don’t win the first Test it will be pretty much impossible to win the series. They have the personnel, the personality, to beat the All Blacks.
I don’t think it will be a whitewash. We have to in this first game, there’s no doubt about that. You have to be competitive and in the match.
To win you have to score 25 points at least and keep them to low double digits. Against Samoa they were below par, made uncharacteristic mistakes and still put 28 points on the board at half time, so that shows you the character of that team. Stopping them scoring is key and that comes down to discipline, a huge focus on the breakdown, no silly penalties.
British & Irish Lions 28 New Zealand 21
British & Irish Lions 25 New Zealand 21
British & Irish Lions 18 New Zealand 25
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