Call the Cavalry

Warren Gatland has called in 6 bodies at the eleventh hour to fill out the squad in this gruelling tour. This decision to call up players has been met with fierce criticism as Gatland has been accused of selecting based on geographic proximity rather than merit.

Always one with an opinion Eddie Jones was straight in there questioning the logic behind Gatland’s decision; ‘My only comment would be I would like to see it picked on merit rather than geographical proximity’. This is hard to argue with, and the sheer number of Welshman (the lowest ranked home nations side in this year’s 6 Nations) has only fueled the controversy. The fiercest critics of this selection have gone as far to say that this selection devalues the Lions jersey itself. 

Whilst I agree with Jones’s comment I don’t agree that this decision has put the Lions reputation at risk. The Lions tradition has been going for over a century and the late call up of a few midweek players is going to do nothing to damage the integrity of that. The only thing that will be remembered in the long run is the Tests, and if this decision means that the players are fresher for the test games and thus more likely to win that, then it’s a no brainer. 

It’s been clear from the Crusaders and Maori matches that Gatland knows his test squad and this allows for him to focus on that and protect his core players. There are obvious comparisons between this decision and the 2005 Lions tour when Woodward took 46 players to New Zealand. In an interview looking back over the tour Woodward was adamant that he had made the right decision with squad numbers and argued that you needed to have two teams to cope with the schedule. Gatland’s late call ups give the head coach this luxury and if the Lions win the series nobody will be talking about this contraversy in the future.

Who are ya? The 6 new Lions:

Kristian Dacey, 27, hooker, Wales (four Test caps) 

Gareth Davies, 26, scrum-half, Wales (25 caps) 

Allan Dell, 25, loosehead prop, Scotland (10 caps) 

Tomas Francs, 35, tighthead prop, Wales (23 caps) 

Cory Hill, 25, second-row, Wales (six caps) 

Finn Russell, 24, fly-half, Scotland (29 caps) 

Blues V British and Irish Lions

Fixture: Blues v British and Irish Lions

Time: 08.35

Stadium: Eden Park, Auckland


The opponents:

The Blues are one of the most established teams in Super Rugby having won the tournament three times. The Blues won the first two editions of the tournament when they were coached by All Black’s legend and World Cup winning coach Sir Graham Henry. They are now managed by another All Black’s great, Tana Umaga, who has more than his fair share of history against the Lions. 

Umaga will be attempting to beat the Lions as both player and coach


The Blues are arguably the weakest of the NZ Super Rugby teams currently sitting bottom of the NZ conference, but will still have more than enough quality to cause the Lions problems tomorrow night/morning.


Players to watch out for:

The Lions scrum will face a stern test as they face an entirely All Black front row with Ofa Tu’ungafasi alongside captain James Parsons and Charlie Faumuina. The Lions scrum was solid against the Barbarians but not as dominant as Steve Borthwick would have hoped for and the boys will need to raise their game against this experienced front row.


Also watch out for the livewire scrumhalf Augustine Pulu. Pulu has now been called twice for his country and will be looking to add to his caps this tour. He is quick and dangerous with the ball in hand and showcased his skills in the loose for the All Black’s sevens squad at the Rio Olympics.


The standout name on the teamsheet for The Blues is undoubtedly code hopping legend Sonny Bill Williams.


Code swapping great Sonny Bill


The centre faces a late fitness test before the match with TJ Fiane on standby. His coach Umaga expects SBW to be available and the Lions should be prepared to watch his skills, offloading in improbable fashion.


Click HERE for my analysis of the Lions team.


Match preview:

The Lions have come in for a bit of criticism after an underwhelming opener and Gatland will want to see a response from his players. The Blues are the weakest of the Super League sides but will still be an incredibly tough challenge for this Lions side. The game will be a ferocious contest between two heavyweight packs but hopefully we will be able to see some creative play from both sides with flair players like SBW, Daly and Nowell on the pitch.


Match prediction:

My prediction was way off last game as I predicted that the Lions would thump the Barbarians 36-10. I think this game will be close and the Lions will be tested even more than they were on the weekend. I’m predicting another close game with the Lions just edging it in the end winning 23-17.


Lineups:

Blues: M Collins; M Duffie, G Moala, S B Williams or T J Faiane, R Ioane; S Perofeta, A Pulu; O Tu’ungafasi, J Parsons (capt), C Faumuina, G Cowley-Tuioti, Scrafton, A Ioane, B Gibson, S Luatua. Replacements: H Faiva, H Hodgman, S Mafileo, P Tuipulotu, K Pryor, S Nock, I West, TJ Faiane/M Nanail

British & Irish Lions: L Halfpenny; J Nowell, J Payne, R Henshaw, E Daly; D Biggar, R Webb; J McGrath, K Owens (capt), D Cole, C Lawes, M Itoje, J Haskell, J Tipuric, C J Stander.

Replacements: R Best, J Marler, K Sinckler, Henderson, O’Mahony, Laidlaw, J Sexton, L Williams

Lions team to face the Blues

Gatland has ringed the changes for the second game of the tour naming an entirely new starting 15. With the games coming thick and fast this will be the trend of the tour with Gatland utilising the depth of his 42 man squad. Only six of the squad from the Barbarians game have been recalled immediately, and they will undoubtedly be eager to get more minutes on the pitch after their participation in the underwhelming opener.

Gatland has made the surprising decision to hand the captaincy to Welsh hooker Ken Owens. Owens has had a great season with the Scarlets and has been rewarded for his form with the captaincy.


El Capitano Ken Owens

 In my opinion he is some distance behind the other two hookers in competing for a test place, and I envisage that he will reliably be the captain of the ‘midweek massive’, captaining the games that Sam Warburton does not play in.


The Lions back line spluttered against the Barbarians but I expect a more composed display from this team featuring combinations from Wales and Ireland at 9/10, and 12/13 respectively. Dan Biggar isn’t a flyhalf who is going to light up a game, but with his wingman Rhys Webb feeding him I expect a more composed beginning to the match than on the weekend.


Looking at 9 and 10 combinations it is interesting to see Laidlaw and Sexton coupled together again on the bench. They did not click in the tour opener and will be hoping to have a better impact when they come on in the second half. This means that we will need to wait another game before we see the likely 9/10 test pairing of Conor Murray and Owen Farrell.


As Gatland has said that he will give all his players a start in the first three tests Murray and Farrell will be joined in the Crusaders game by Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Tadgh Furlong, George Kruis, Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Jonathan Davies, George North and Liam Williams.


The three players I’m most excited in seeing pull on the red jersey are Maro Itoje, Jack Nowell and CJ Stander. Itoje and Nowell were both instrumental for their respective team’s victories in the Champions Cup and Premiership and they’ll be eager to continue their form as they push for test places. 

All Blacks tormentor CJ Stander


Stander had a great six nations for Ireland and was dominant in that famous victory against the All Blacks but has struggled to make his mark in recent games, notably the Pro 12 final. I expect him to rise to the occasion with a strong performance bowling over Super Rugby defenders.


British & Irish Lions: L Halfpenny; J Nowell, J Payne, R Henshaw, E Daly; D Biggar, R Webb; J McGrath, K Owens (capt), D Cole, C Lawes, M Itoje, J Haskell, J Tipuric, C J Stander. 

Replacements: R Best, J Marler, K Sinckler, Henderson, O’Mahony, Laidlaw, J Sexton, L Williams.

Old School Lions

Since touching down in New Zealand less than a week ago the Lions have spent 80 minutes playing rugby and approximately 800 minutes watching traditional Maori hakas. Watching the Kiwis celebrate their glorious heritage has got me thinking that maybe the Lions should do more to celebrate its roots.

With the Lions being a commercial money making machine there have been no traditional rugby tour tales of drunken antics (although the players did look hungover as they laboured against the Barbarians). The only tradition which has been talked up is the youngest Lion, Maro Itoje, carrying a cuddly toy with him everywhere…

Cuddly Lion Bantz

I’ve decided to take a look back at some historic tours and am proposing that they bring back some of these bygone activities and traditions:


  • Lions on a boat

There’s no spirit of adventure in getting on a plane and flying first class with your sponsor’s airline. The players will spend half the time sleeping and the other half quaffing mini bottles of wine watching generic Hollywood blockbusters. I propose they bring back the glorious days of sailing, and pile the players on a boat like they did back in the day. In 1888 when the Lions first set sail it took them 45 days to reach New Zealand on an epic voyage shared with 300 weasels.

Captain Gatland sailing to NZ


If they took a few rugby balls to have a kick about on deck, it would guarantee them more prep time, and the lengthy journey would ensure nobody would be suffering from jetlag in the opener…



  • Old school game scheduling

This current tours itinerary has been branded ‘suicidal’ by All Black’s legend Graham Henry, but I think they should include more fixtures as a throwback to the original tour. This Lions-lite tour featuring a mere 10 games pales in comparison to the gargantuan 1888 version when the players ran out in 54 games.



  • Sport swapping

19 of these 54 games were Aussie rules and I propose that this age old tradition of sport swapping is reintroduced. Forget test rugby and get the Lions to have a rest and take on the Kiwi test cricket team. Warburton and his team can take 5 days off from their gruelling 54 game schedule, to go for sixes instead of tries in New Zealand’s second most popular sport.


  • #NoSelfies

In this age of selfies and Instagram we are constantly bombarded with snaps of the players antics. The Lions should introduce a blanket social media and camera phone ban, and instead revert to the glorious days of black and white film.

Less of this

More of this

Further rules that accompany this are:

– No smiling in photos

– Mandatory moustaches

– Head Coach has to wear a bowler hat

– No Jack Nowell with that haircut.


  • Adopt a Lion

Players are too pampered and isolated in their 5 star hotels now. The great system of 1966 should be reintroduced when Lions players were adopted by local Kiwi families for their stay. 1966 Lions star Watkins remembers this vividly:

“They’d put an ad in the paper, families would come forward, and players would stay with them for three days at a time. A family wrote and said they wanted me – it was like being up for sale!”

If the Lions really want to win the hearts and minds of the locals, as Gatland has claimed, they can do this by crashing on their couches and sharing their lamb.



I’d love to hear any suggestions people have for other traditions to bring back or even introduce!

Barbarians V Lions Five Areas of Interest

1. Barbarians passion and skill

Seeing the joy on the Barbarians faces as they ran out it was tempting to think that they were just happy to be making up the numbers in the fixture list. However, as soon as the ball was kicked it was clear they meant business, and they troubled the Lions with a combination of brawn and flair from the off. Their performance was truly staggering when it is remembered that this team, like the Lions, has been thrown together at the last minute, having had only a week to prepare for the game. The team sheet was also made up of an eclectic mix of semi-professionals whose ranks included a sheep farmer, a shopkeeper, a nurse and a fruit picker. These part timers did themselves proud with a distinguished performance that made their illustrious opponents look workmanlike.

To put this team into context, it was the equivalent of a mixed team of the best of the English Championship, or Anglo-Welsh cup. Their quality indicates the frightening depth of talent New Zealand possess.



2. Sleeping Lions

As good as the Barbarians were, the Lions didn’t half make hard work for themselves with an error strewn performance. The tone was set from kick off when the Lions fluffed the catch allowing the Barbarians to latch on to the ball and initiate 10 minutes of unnecessary early pressure. Again credit has to be given to the Barbarians for having the skill to capitalise on these mistakes.

In his post match interview Gatland diverted the pressure from his players citing jetlag as a potential reason for their jaded play: “These guys are still recovering from the travel, a number of players in the squad still haven’t got into regular sleep patterns.” Anyone who has been on a long haul flight and knows the pain of lying awake at 4 a.m. will sympathise with this excuse, but don’t expect a similar complaint following Wednesday’s bout with the Blues.


3. All Welsh Test Back Row?

With Sam Warburton captaining the tour, barring injury he is nailed on to start the test matches. That then leaves blindside and number 8 up for grabs.Taulupe Faletau and Ross Moriarty both had games which enhanced their claims for test positions. Faletau was tremendous making metes with the ball in hand and his try saving tackle was one of the highlights of the bleak night for the Lions. With his cousin big Billy out of the squad he is the favourite to start at 8 in he first test. Ross Moriarty is more of an outside bet, with players like CJ Stander still to play, but he was magnificent with the ball in hand and in the loose. He is exactly the kind of guy you’d want to back you up in a scrap and was not afraid of getting in the Barbarians faces. 


4. Battle of the 10s

It is inevitable that players will come in for criticism after below average performances and Jonny Sexton had a night to forget, as he struggled to impose himself on the game tactically. His coach has dismissed any suggestions he is behind Farrell in the pecking order as a result of the game as ‘unfair’. Gatland is far too experienced a coach to put such emphasis on one mediocre performance, but it’s undeniable how much more composed the Lions were once Farrell appeared. One number 10 who Gatland was happier to talk about was his son Bryn, who had an excellent game at flyhalf. Speaking about his son the Lions coach said “He played pretty well, he caused us a few problems, particularly with his kicking game.” Gatland Jr nearly inspired his side to an improbable upset but fortunately for his Dad his team fell just short.



5. Poor finishing

When Gatland and his team of coaches looking over the performance they will rue a night of missed chances. The Lions did perform well in flashes, but overall it was a performance that contained the cutting edge of a spoon. The tourists were held up over the line four times, and that number is indicative of the opportunities they had and missed. In fairness to the players they are still acclimatising, but if they fail to improve their finishing quick they will struggle against the ruthless Super Rugby teams. 

NZ Provincial Barbarians v Lions

Fixture: NZ Provincial Barbarians v British and Irish Lions

Time: 08.35

Stadium: Toll Stadium, Whangerai

Whooo are yoouu?

The New Zealand Provincial Barbarians are a team made up of the very best players from New Zealand’s provincial rugby. This is the first Lions tour when the tourists will play Super Rugby teams, and this fixture has been included as a nod to the long history of provincial players getting a go at the Lions.

Key players:

As if a New Zealander returning to his native land in charge of the opposition touring party wasn’t generating enough headlines, the first game pits him against his son. Bryn Gatland will be donning the number 10 jersey for the Barbarians and will be hoping to cause his father some embarrassment.


Bryn out to embarrass his Dad

 Usually it is the flanker who targets the opposition flyhalf, not the other way round, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gatland flying into Sam Warburton, his father’s adopted Welsh son…


Click HERE for my analysis of the Lions team.


Match preview:


This game is unique in providing a completely unknown quantity in professional sport. Usually in the build up to matches coaches and commentators alike can pour over hours of archive footage, but these two teams have never played together. Admittedly the Barbarians will be more than familiar with the names on the opposition team sheet, but how they will play tactically will be a complete mystery until kick off. With this being the first game in a much hyped tour expect huge collisions from the first whistle as the Barbarians will be chomping at the bit to leave their marks on their illustrious opponents.


Match prediction:


With all due respect to the Barbarians this opener should comfortably be the easiest game the Lions will experience on tour. I expect the Lions will attempt to keep their play simple and build phases using Sexton’s precision kicking to keep them in the right areas of the pitch. It will be rusty and scrappy to begin with but I expect the Lions to win by a comfortable margin.


Full time prediction – Lions to win 36-10


Lineups:


NZ Provincial Barbarians: L Laulala; S Vaka (both Counties Manukau), I Finau (Canterbury), D Sweeney, S Reece (both Waikato); B Gatland (North Harbour), J Stratton (Canterbury); A Ross (Bay of Plenty), S Anderson-Heather (Otago, capt), O Jager (Canterbury), J Goodhue (Northland), K Mewett (Bay of Plenty), J Tucker (Waikato), L Boshier (Taranaki), M Dunshea (Canterbury). Replacements: A Makalio (Tasman), T Fahamokioa (Wellington), M Renata (Auckland), M Matich (Northland), P Rowe (Wanganui), R Judd (Bay of Plenty), J Lowe (Hawke’s Bay), J Ngaluafe (Southland).

British & Irish Lions: S Hogg; A Watson, J Joseph, B Te’o, T Seymour; J Sexton, G Laidlaw; J Marler, R Best, K Sinckler, AW Jones, I Henderson, R Moriarty, S Warburton (capt), T Faletau.Replacements: J George, M Vunipola, T Furlong, G Kruis, J Tipuric, R Webb, O Farrell, E Daly.

Referee: A Gardner (Aus).

First Lions Team Announced

Warren Gatland has announced his inaugural team for the first warm up game of the tour. Sam Warburton will be assuming captaincy duties from the first whistle, as he has been given the nod to lead the way in the opener against the NZ Provincial Barbarians.

It should come as no surprise that the majority of the starting XV is made up of players from clubs that didn’t make it to the end of season play offs. Gatland has sensibly picked players that were available at all of the training camps after the end of the regular domestic season. No doubt Jack Nowell, Elliot Daly and James Haskell will be grateful for the extra few days rest after their 100 minute exertions in the Premiership final last weekend.


In the build up to the match Gatland has been talking about its significance, and has stressed that “it is important these guys lay down a marker for others to follow”. These players will be determined to provide the coaches with an eye catching performance, to bolster their chances of inclusion in the first test side.


Gatland has named an intimidating pack with big ball carriers throughout the front 8. The likes of Marler, Sinckler, Moriarty and Faletau will be keen to get their hands on the ball and trample on some provincial kiwis. 



Faletua in particular will be eager to impress with the number 8 jersey up for grabs following his cousin, Billy Vunipola, withdrawing from the squad due to injury.

The all English centre pairing of Big Ben Te’o and Jonathan Joseph will make for interesting viewing. BBT and JJ are two of just 14 players who have been available at all the training camps and it’s little surprise then that they have got the nod to link up in midfield. 


Te’o fits Gatland’s mould of a bruising inside centre and expect to see JJ capitalise on the many offloads he’ll receive from his bruising centre partner.



With this being the weakest of the sides the Lions will be facing on tour, not much meaning can be taken from the result. What holds the most intrigue will instead be the style of play the Lions adopt. As Gatland has stated he wants to lay a marker down, he will want to impose a specific brand of rugby from the first minute. I for one can’t wait to see what’s in store for us this tour!!


Lions first match day squad

Lions (v NZ Provincial Barbarians, Saturday): S Hogg; A Watson, J Joseph, B Te’o, T Seymour; J Sexton, G Laidlaw; J Marler, R Best, K Sinckler, A W Jones, I Henderson, R Moriarty, S Warburton (capt), T Faletau.

Replacements: J George, M Vunipola, T Furlong, G Kruis, J Tipuric, R Webb, Farrell, J Payne.