Humble pie is delicious and I think it’s time for me to eat some. In terms of the observations I made last week, the British & Irish Lions have really stepped up to the plate.
Massive kudos to Warren Gatland and the coaching staff for the turnaround. After the loss against the Highlanders it looked like this tour was going to be a disaster, but there clearly has been a methodology behind the scenes, and their set piece and defence has been immense.
The combinations they used in the wins against the New Zealand Maori and Chiefs were quite astute and, from a game-plan point of view, it’s clear they’ve gone with more of a kicking approach.
Those two scores were not muppet scores – it took a considerable performance, and a tactically good effort, to hold a proper NZ Maori team to 10 points.
I think Gatland’s selections for the first Test are a stroke of genius. Leaving out skipper Sam Warburton must have been a big call, but he’s undercooked and out of form. The All Blacks should perhaps have followed suit instead of rushing Kieran Read back in to captain the side.
For the Lions, with Warburton out, I understand the need for experience, and that’s probably why they’ve gone with Alun Wyn Jones. But I expect Maro Itoje to come on at the 50-minute mark with an important job to do.
I also agree with the call to pick Conor Murray, Owen Farrell and Ben Te’o in the 9-10-12 axis. Te’o has been the Lions’ best gain-line weapon and every game he’s played in they’ve won. And I think the Lions will have the advantage at outside centre where Jonathan Davies lines up opposite Ryan Crotty, who is much more comfortable at No 12.
Up front, the All Blacks will fear the Lions set piece – their lineout drive and scrum and I think that’s going to consume Steve Hansen’s time in the build-up.
Having made headlines with his criticism of Gatland, Hansen may now have a little bit of mud on his face because he doesn’t really know what kind of game the tourists are going to play.
Are Murray and Farrell going to kick tactically? The Lions have had good return from their box kicks, more so than from any of their other tactical kicks.
Having said that, a very similar All Blacks lineup beat Samoa 78-0 at Eden Park on Friday. Taking the venue into account, and the fact that the hosts will get better as the series goes on, this first Test is everything for the Lions if they’re going to have any chance of winning the series.
Adapting to referee Jaco Peyper will be critically important. He blew the NZ Maori game, the one where Gatland made a fuss about the All Blacks and their blocking lines. He will favour a dominant scrum and I’d say he probably leans more towards the way the Lions are likely to play.
With the homeground advantage of Eden Park, my analytical brain is saying it’ll be the All Blacks, but not by much.
Wales toured New Zealand this time last year, and the first Test was tight until the final quarter. The second Test was close and the All Blacks won the third one convincingly.
But New Zealand’s strength can also be their biggest weakness. How many of the All Blacks have ever been in a 15- to 20-point deficit in their lives?
They’ve never had to chase the game and, if they do have to, you know they’ll do it by keeping the ball in hand.
The Lions will want to do what Ireland did last year and put them in unchartered waters because then Gatland will be able to go to his team in the 60th minute and say, “these guys don’t know how to deal with this!”
That’s not something that this All Blacks group is very used to. It will be a real goal for the Lions now to come out and put New Zealand under so much pressure in front of a robust Eden Park crowd that is equally as unfamiliar with watching their team chase the game in the final 15.
This first Test is going to be a wonderful chess match. There will be physical parity, and I think it’ll come down to which team is most tactically astute, and makes the least errors.