by Craig Wright
There’s very little like it in the rugby world. The announcement of the teams for the opening Test in a British and Irish Lions tour is one of the most highly anticipated moments of the tour, and the 2017 tour is no exception.
We now know the 23 players that will pull on the famous red jersey on Saturday, looking to make the perfect start in pursuit of becoming the first Lions side since 1971 to get the better of New Zealand in a Test series. Lions head coach Warren Gatland has elected to omit tour captain Sam Warburton from the starting lineup, with Munsterman Peter O’Mahony given the honour of leading the Lions out onto the Eden Park pitch.
New Zealand’s head coach Steve Hansen has also caused a few eyebrows to be raised, with highly-prolific winger Julian Savea left out of the squad entirely after questions about his form. However, with the All Blacks the undisputed top side in world rugby, the question remains: can the Lions beat them?…
The almost unanimous opinion of pundits from across the rugby word is this – if the Lions want are serious about overcoming New Zealand, their best chance lies in the forward pack. Filled with a blend of dynamism and power, the Lions forwards have been the highlight of a somewhat disappointing tour to date. The omission of Warburton is accounted for by the superb form of O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Taulupe Faletau in the back-row thus far, with more of the same expected on Saturday. The front-row, too, will look to gain an upper hand on their New Zealand counterparts, as Saracens team-mates Mako Vunipola and Jamie George are joined by Tadhg Furlong.
However, whilst the scrum seems set in favour of the Lions, the lineout could well be a different story. New Zealand captain Kieran Read’s return from injury could prove vital, as his partnership with second-rows Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock has proven to be nigh on watertight. Whitelock and Retallick will also look to target opposition ball, with Alun Wyn Jones under pressure to justify his inclusion over Maro Itoje. The all-important forward edge could prove the difference in the final outcome.
When the likes of TJ Perenara, Waisake Naholo and Malakai Fekitoa – along with the aforementioned Julian Savea – can’t make it into the New Zealand back division, you know the All Blacks have strength in depth. Guided by the reigning World Player of the Year in Beauden Barrett, it will be a major surprise if New Zealand are unable to cross the try-line. Rieko Ioane, one of the most highly-rated prospects in the global game, starts his first Test on the wing, whilst the incomparable Sonny Bill Williams will be looking to create mayhem in the midfield.
Warren Gatland has therefore selected a back line that, given the chance, has the potential to score tries of their own. In the absence of Stuart Hogg, Liam Williams will be tasked with sparking attacks from full-back, with Owen Farrell winning his race against time to be fit to start at fly-half. England’s Ben Te’o is the man with the unenviable job of shackling Sonny Bill, something you feel is a must if the Lions are to stay in touch.
Much depends on the style of play employed by the Lions. If, as expected, Warren Gatland favours the defensive approach seen on tour to date, the visitors could find themselves under siege as the All Blacks figure out a way through the defensive line. If, however, the game opens up, then we could be in for a masterclass in attacking rugby. It’ll be tight, but New Zealand should edge it.