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.”
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