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
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen compared Saturday’s first Test with the British and Irish Lions to a World Cup final as they prepare to take on a touring party that has been growing in confidence and form.
The Lions have shaken off a slow start to their tour to develop into a formidable force, but they now face the task of handing the world champions their first defeat at Auckland’s Eden Park in 23 years.
When the Lions last visited in 2005, New Zealand ‘blackwashed’ the series 3-0, continuing a run that has seen them win 29 of 38 Tests dating back to 1904.
Ahead of the big game in Auckland, we identify five talking points.
The All Blacks have won two World Cup finals at Auckland’s Eden Park and have not been beaten there since 1994. Their run at the ground includes 37 straight wins, including last week’s 78-0 humiliation of Samoa. The Lions will hope their vocal supporters can help nullify the ground’s intimidation factor. However, in nine Tests against the Lions at the venue since 1930, the All Blacks have won seven, drawn one and lost one, with the hosts’ sole defeat back in 1959.
The once-every-12-years Lions tour is one of world rugby’s most anticipated series and its history abounds with legendary players. But the truth is that the composite team’s record in New Zealand is distinctly underwhelming. The Lions have contested 11 Test series against the All Blacks since 1904 and won only one, when the John Dawes-led 1971 vintage battled to a 2-1 victory with one drawn Test. The Lions’ Test record in New Zealand is six wins, three draws and 29 losses, a success rate of just 16 percent.
This year is the first time the Lions have toured New Zealand with a Kiwi at the helm in the form of head coach Warren Gatland. Critics, including All Blacks mentor Steve Hansen, have dismissed Gatland’s “Warrenball” tactics as one-dimensional. But Gatland is no fool and his resume includes leading the Lions to victory over Australia in 2013 and Wales to three Six Nations championships, as well as enjoying club success in Britain and New Zealand. Former All Black Gatland has an intimate knowledge of his homeland’s rugby but complained when he brought Wales over last year that he lacked the players to compete for 80 minutes. With the cream of Home Nations talent at his disposal, he will have the depth he has long craved against the world champions.
Differing rule interpretations between northern and southern hemisphere referees have already caused confusion in Lions’ lead-up games, particularly at scrum time. South Africa’s Jaco Peyper will officiate in the first Test and the All Blacks will hope he allows the free-flowing game seen in Super Rugby. He took a hands-off approach when New Zealand downed Ireland 21-9 to exact revenge for their loss in Chicago last year, with some critics claiming he allowed dangerous play. However, he showed a willingness to punish spoiling tactics last week when he awarded the Lions a penalty try against New Zealand Maori. Much could hinge on which Peyper turns up at Eden Park, the facilitator with a light touch or the by-the-rules disciplinarian.
Hansen has made a bold selection move in choosing Rieko Ioane over Julian Savea on the left wing. Nicknamed “The Bus”, Savea is fourth on the all-time list of All Blacks try-scorers, with 46 in 53 Tests. Ioane has two Test appearances off the bench against Italy and France last year. He has shone in Super Rugby this season and scored a try when the Auckland Blues beat the Lions early in the tour. But Hansen must have supreme confidence in the 20-year-old’s temperament to pitch him into a Lions Test with so little experience.
Denis Hurley insists he will not use Dubai Exiles as a career stepping stone and claims he has no aspirations of following former team-mate and coach Anthony Foley into professional coaching.
The 32-year-old Irish former Munster player was appointed Exiles’ new defence coach earlier this week and will assist director of rugby Jacques Benade and fellow South African Gareth Venter.
Hurley had taken up a role with Cork-based amateur side Dolphin RFC following his release by Munster after nearly 13 years last year, and the ex-Ireland international said he is more comfortable trying to help improve the fortunes of an amateur club playing near the professional level.
“I want to say straight off I have no aspirations to be a professional coach. It’s an unloving industry,” Hurley told Sport360 at Dubai Offshore Sailing Club Wednesday.
“It’s quite tough, with coaches travelling all over the world with their families. If you have one bad experience it can have a knock-on effect and I’d prefer my family to be happy and have more time with me.
“Training with an amateur club at a high level is more suited for me. I can spend time with the sport I love and give back a lot of the knowledge I’ve picked up over the years.
“I’ve seen players grow at previous clubs and that’s ingratiating for me. Everyone wants to get better, whatever level, and if I can help with that then that’s more important for me than making a career out of it.
“Rugby is always going to be a part of my life and has given me a lot over the years so I’m not going to park it just because I’ve stopped playing. It’s what I love doing and I’ve enjoyed coaching so far, so I’m looking forward to getting stuck in with Exiles next season.”
Hurley’s arrival is a real coup for Exiles and Benade, whose side really struggled last season to build on his brilliant debut campaign in which the club won the West Asia Championship and UAE Premiership double after a long period without silverware.
Exiles are set to begin pre-season training on June 30 as they prepare to lay the foundations for return to form and attempt to wrest the initiative from Abu Dhabi Harlequins, who won every trophy on offer in 2016/17.
But the Cork native feels he is already at an advantage, having lived in Dubai since February after his wife accepted a job in marketing.
Hurley, who won the 2008 Heineken Cup with his boyhood club, watched several games towards the end of the season as well as running several training drills, and has already familiarised himself with a bulk of the players.
“Hopefully I can help Jacques and Gareth as well as grow my own coaching techniques to suit the guys, and play the type of rugby I’m keen on,” added Hurley, who played 166 times for Munster and won a solitary Ireland cap in 2009.
“I was eager to get involved as soon as possible. I linked in with the guys in March, Jacques gave me a few drills to do, give the guys a different voice and I enjoyed it, and got to know a few of the guys.
“I was able to see the abilities of some and from what I saw there’s a lot of good quality players. If I can help and give them a better understanding, that’s good. Jacques gets a little hot-headed on the sidelines, I’m a bit more level headed so maybe we’ll get a happy medium.”
With clubs, players and the game in the UAE creeping ever close towards professionalism, recruiting is key every summer, but Hurley revealed his appointment is a result of an email he sent to the club himself.
“Yeah, I got in touch with the club. You’ve got to put feelers out there,” he said.
“I wanted to get involved with a club willing to move forward with their game and bring someone in from the professional side. Selfishly for me that opens up a network of people for me. I did my bit of work experience with the club first.
“We have friends and family over here so have been here a number of times. We said we’d try and do something somewhere else. I’d made contact with a few people, Apollo Perelini was one of them.
“One of the things I wanted to do was get back into coaching because I’d been doing it back home and was enjoying it.”
And asked what qualities he thinks he can bring having to Exiles as a former pro, Hurley added: “From my background, being fit and ready for games constantly, that’s one of things we’ll look at.
“I’ll be able to link in training. The All Blacks do all their work with the ball, there’s a big focus nowadays on that. How to create that environment with match fitness in mind is one of the things I’ll be able to bring.
“I spoke to Jacques about our approach to pre-season and with the Dubai Sevens break too, keeping forwards interested or even get them in shape for that.”