Friday 21 July 2017

Neil Francis: Few complaints about the squad but Kiwi skills will blow Lions away

New Zealand's offloading game will be too much for the tourists - especially if Gatland tries to play 'Warrenball'

Lions head coach Warren Gatland. Photo: Paul Harding/Sportsfile
Lions head coach Warren Gatland. Photo: Paul Harding/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

On June 13, 2016, a strong Wales side took the field in Hamilton against the Waikato Chiefs. Both teams were under-strength, but the Welsh fielded 12 current internationals, with more on the bench.

The Chiefs are a bulk provider to the All Blacks but were shorn of all their quality, with the fledgling Anton Lienert Browne and the hapless Stephen Donald the only New Zealand internationals on the field.

Flicking through the previews on the rugby websites, I hadn't even been aware that a Wednesday game had been organised; I thought to myself, this match will have some relevance next year. The pundits were calling it Wales by 10 or 15.

The Chiefs trounced the Welsh, and the only thing that you can't reconcile is the 40-7 scoreline. It was a humiliation that could easily have been in the 70s if Waikato had been bothered to take the Welsh seriously.

The fluency and then the directness of how the Chiefs played was bewildering, and the Welsh must have been wondering what type of game these people were playing. The one-handed off-load was the tactic for the night.

Everywhere on the field the Welsh were competent. Their lineout was good, their scrum was very strong, defensively they were excellent, and when they got opened up - which was every two minutes - they scrambled with real intent. To hold Waikato to just 40 points was a phenomenal result.

On that three-Test tour the Welsh yielded 121 points; they were competitive throughout the series but the scoreboard never lies and in the end they walked off meekly in the final Test.

And the Welsh were lucky in the sense that New Zealand had lost all their superstars after winning the World Cup in November 2015; this was an experimental side in transition. Food for thought for Warren Gatland.

Read more: Five things the Lions 2017 squad tells us about how Warren Gatland wants to play in New Zealand

For a touring side like the Lions, the most important covenant is believing that they can win the Test series.

Lions head coach Warren Gatland and captain Sam Warburton are facing a very difficult five weeks in New Zealand. Photo: GETTY
Lions head coach Warren Gatland and captain Sam Warburton are facing a very difficult five weeks in New Zealand. Photo: GETTY

All of Gatland's coaching team has have faith that they can win the series, but as Mark Twain says, "faith is believing in what you know ain't so".

I have been watching the Super 18 with interest this year before it reverts to the Super 15. The performances of the Canterbury Crusaders, Waikato Chiefs and Wellington Hurricanes have been truly sensational. After seven matches the Crusaders are unbeaten, and the Chiefs and Hurricanes have only lost once.

The Otago Highlanders are not too far behind; the fallen giants Auckland Blues, despite an embarrassment of riches on their roster still have to click after a dozen years in purgatory.

It is my contention that if the Crusaders, Chiefs or Hurricanes played in the Six Nations they would win the title every year. As it is, quite a number of their rejects end up playing in the Six Nations anyway.

The quality and the skill levels of their rugby is phenomenal. We can talk about how strong our pack is or how good our defensive systems are or how we are going to hang on to the ball and pummel the Kiwis because they don't like it up 'em. It will be to no avail.

It was interesting to see some of the views of the New Zealanders when the Lions squad was announced: they see it as a fair reflection of yet another average Six Nations Championship: there isn't an outstanding side that can consistently win away from home.

We await the All Black trial and their warm-up match in Samoa but there will be enough quality in New Zealand to beat the Lions six or seven times on this tour.

Despite a reasonable thread of quality running through the Lions side, the Kiwis won't be running off to buy a job lot of Pampers any time soon.

Many rugby followers enjoyed exercising their mind to pick their squad and Test team; after Gatland unveiled his squad, you could easily select another 15 players and omit 15 who were picked without too much argument from anyone.

The Scots will be miffed at only two of their players being chosen but in 2014 they finished second last; in 2015 they finished last; in 2016 they finished fourth; and this year again they finished fourth.

They have plenty of handy players but you would not pick any of them ahead of some of the players that have been selected by Gatland.

You simply would not pick Johnny Gray ahead of any of the second-rows that have been picked to tour and you would pick another two or three second-rows that didn't make it before his name would come into the conversation.

The Scots have been pretty poor for the last four years, and that is why they only have two tourists.

It is hard to gauge from the squad selection what type of game Gatland intends to play.

If he tries to play 'Warrenball' by picking the likes of Billy Vunipola and getting them around the corner, it will be a short-lived Test series.

Conventional wisdom leads us to believe that we will have a 9, 10, 12 of Connor Murray, Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell.

Read more: Brendan Fanning: Ireland have 11 Lions - but eight omissions shouldn't schedule summer plans just yet

The back-row you'd think will have Sam Warburton at No 7, with Vunipola at No 8 and it is anyone's guess who will play at blindside. I am assuming that Gatland will play Warburton in his best position at openside, even though he played at No 6 for Wales in his most recent outings.

If that is the case we can expect a lot more kicking and the Lions really playing a territory game and pressing New Zealand hard.

There is quality at tight and some reasonable performers behind, but the game played in New Zealand is one of handling, deft passing and running on to where players imagine the ball will be.

The skill levels of the All Blacks are still 25-30pc more accurate and more rounded than those of the Lions players, and this deficit you just can't make up on a five-week tour.

The Lions management say that they need to be 10pc fitter than the All Blacks, which would be some achievement considering what they have to do between now and June 4.

This Lions side I believe has a better chance than the side that toured in 2005, but depending on some of the selections and whether the Super Rugby franchises are allowed to field their first-choice players, this looks like a tour where faith is the only thing that you might have at the end of it all, and then not too much of that either.

Irish Independent

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