Numbers add up to give Lions hope
The All Blacks – marginally – have better individuals, but the key to victories at the highest level is rarely that simple
After arriving in New Zealand last night, a reality quickly dawned.
Finding a local who'll give the Lions a chance of victory tomorrow is next to impossible. So for that matter is finding a New Zealander who thinks any of the touring party are good enough to earn a place in the Al Blacks side.
Yet I don't share their cynicism. For me, there's little between these sides, and in some cases nothing to separate the individuals who'll go against one another in the head-to-heads. Marginally, I feel the All Blacks have the better players. But not from 1-15. Given the choice, I'd have the entire Lions front-row selected ahead of their All Black counterparts and would have Sean O'Brien on my team every day of the week. Choosing between Farrell and Barrett, Murray and Smith, Te'o and Crotty, is impossible. Choosing a winner between these teams tomorrow is nearly as hard. If victory came down solely to individual talent, the All Blacks would win.
But rugby isn't that simple. As you'll see from my analysis of the two starting XVs, one excellent, the other set merely very good.
Liam Williams 8 Ben Smith 9
There is so much to like about Smith's game. His consistency is remarkable, his decision-making superb. Plus he is a real leader, someone who may not have captured the imagination of too many people a couple of years ago but who is so valued and respected among the team now. Williams, in contrast, does not have the same reputation but he is a fantastic player, who runs brilliant lines, and has excellent awareness. It was the right decision to start him rather than Leigh Halfpenny
Anthony Watson 8 Rieko Ioane 9
Ioane is a freak, who has played superbly for the Blues this year in Super Rugby, scoring a fine try against the Lions. The fact he has taken Julian Savea's place has to count for something. Like Savea, he has incredible pace, power and is so dangerous when he gets the ball, largely because his footwork is excellent. For a 20-year-old, he is a supreme athlete and while he has ability to be a 10 out of 10, inexperience counts against him. Watson is superbly quick and if he gets quality ball, he can go past Ioane, or anyone.
Jonathan Davies 8 Sonny Bill Williams 9
Sonny Bill is more of a natural 12, but his athleticism and ability to run clever lines allows him to be relocated to outside-centre and still be considered world class. Davies' form since the Six Nations has been superb, and his ability to get over the gain-line cannot be overlooked. He is the form 13 in the touring party and has the ability to open up defences. His passing game is a concern but his broken-field running is not.
Ben Te'o 8 Ryan Crotty 8
Yes he has been out injured with a rib problem recently and yes he is a guy whose pace is questionable, but Crotty's distribution skills are outstanding. He is another creative option for New Zealand, along with Beauden Barrett. Te'o has shown massive improvement since leaving Leinster: he is a really good athlete, and his dynamic running game has impressed on this tour which is why he deserves an eight out of 10. Gatland clearly picked this team form not reputation.
Elliot Daly 7 Israel Dagg 8
Dagg's eye for the tryline is incredible, while his supreme aerial ability stems from his experience playing as a full-back. His natural flair is now allied to an outstanding defence, and that sixth sense to be on someone's shoulder when they make a break is something that is so hard to coach, and even harder to stop. Daly had a great Six Nations for England and has shown good touches on this tour but some doubts remain. He needs to replicate his form with England.
Owen Farrell 9 Beauden Barrett 9
Two superb footballers who are so robust and are so similar. They love to run with the ball and play with freedom. Barrett, World Player of the Year in 2016, has an incredible ability to attack the gain-line. Farrell's distribution is superb, his goalkicking top notch and his form outstanding. He is resilient enough not to be fazed by facing the All Blacks at Eden Park.
Conor Murray 9 Aaron Smith 9
Murray is the best in the world when he is on song, and while Smith is No 2 on the global scrum-half pecking order, he does not have the same tackling ability as Murray, whose physicality stops big forwards making yards at the gain-line. Still, Smith is so dangerous. He has a sharper pass than Murray. Whoever wins this personal battle needs their forwards to do well.
Tadhg Furlong 8 Joe Moody 7
While his all-round game is good, Moody won't put fear into the Lions when the first scrum of the series is called. Furlong's meteoric rise has been astonishing and he has a slight edge at the set-piece as well as being better in the loose and in his ability to influence the game in every department. This is certainly one area where the Lions can succeed.
Jamie George 8 Cody Taylor 7
Taylor's energy and ball carrying ability has impressed me but even though he has a brilliant work-rate, I regard Saracens man George to be the better player. Neither is afraid to run with the ball but the key issue tomorrow is that each hooker gets their lineout throwing right. Both teams are capable of pressurising them at throw-in time. Whoever holds their nerve could seriously influence the outcome of the match.
Mako Vunipola 9 Owen Franks 8
Vunipola has improved hugely. He is one of the best carriers of the ball in world rugby while his scrummaging has also stepped up a hell of a lot. Plus he gets top marks for his work-rate and he makes more of an impact on a game than Franks does. The New Zealander may be a solid scrummager but there are times when he goes backwards. Like every All Black selected, he is a good player, but Vunipola is a better one.
Alun Wyn Jones 8 Brodie Retallick 9
Retallick and Sam Whitelock are the best players in the world in their position. Both bring athleticism and work-rate. They make tackles, carries and both can pass. Jones is an intelligent decision maker, a real power around the park and someone who can influence a game in so many ways. Yet even though he is a class act, Retallick is classier.
George Kruis 8 Sam Whitelock 9
Whitelock is just a real talent, a guy with skill as well as a toughness that has to be respected. So for that matter does Kruis. When comparing these two, the reality is that you aren't comparing two ordinary Joes, you are talking about two of the finest second-rows in world rugby. That Whitelock wins the vote is not us being dismissive of Kruis. It's simply an acknowledgement of the Kiwi's greatness.
Sean O'Brien 9 Sam Cane 8
A fit, healthy Sean O'Brien is world class. He has shown that in the last two weeks. He has kept the captain out of the team, for goodness sake, which shows he is up for the fight. I hope he can bring that form and energy that he showed against the Crusaders into the Test series. He has an edge on Cane but Cane is a natural No 7, whose big strength is at the breakdown. He has huge boots to fill since Richie McCaw retired but has done a decent job.
Peter O'Mahony 8 Jerome Kaino 9
I played with Peter and against Kaino, so I know how good they are. Kaino is a big lineout option, is hard as nails and puts in massive hits. At 34, the fact he is still getting picked shows how good a leader he is. O'Mahony is all elbows, knees and aggression. He brings passion and also a fairytale story, considering where he was a couple of months ago. A real dog with an ability to win the war at the breakdown.
Taulupe Faletau 8 Kieran Read 9
Read is such a brilliant carrier of the ball, quick around the park and the possessor of an outstanding all-round game. He is a great leader for the All Blacks but has not played in six weeks because of a broken thumb. It may be very hard for him to get up to the pace of a Test game tomorrow. But he has a Richie McCaw effect around the squad. Faletau has to go after Read in one-on-one scenarios. He excels at the breakdown, as well.
Warren Gatland 9 Steve Hansen 10
Gatland has had great success with Wales, winning Grand Slams, as well as a Lions series in 2013. And while not everyone agrees with his decisions, or with his fondness for stirring the pot in match weeks, he has a calm approach and a drive to win. Hansen, on the other hand, has won a World Cup, so deserves a higher mark for that achievement alone. Of course it helps he has a constant conveyor belt of talent coming through but he has managed superstars very well in his time in charge and has also managed the expectation of an expectant public.
TOTALS: LIONS 134 NEW ZEALAND 139