First Test Preview

Fixture: The First Test – All Black’s v British and Irish Lions

Time: 08.35

Stadium: Eden Park, Auckland

Match preview:

This is it. The match we have been waiting 4 years for. After the Lions victorious display in the final test in Australia to clinch the series rugby fans have been waiting for this game with eager anticipation. The Lions will face the All Blacks twelve years after the dreaded tour from hell and I for one am giddy with excitement waiting for kick off.

After all the warm-up games the serious business starts now and the Lions face the toughest fixture there is in world rugby. The All Blacks are so good that they need no hype or introduction. For the last 10 years they’ve been indisputably the number one team in the world losing only a handful of games and winning every trophy there is going. Their record at Eden Park is formidable with the All Blacks having not lost a game there since 1994.

Key Lions

Gatland’s selection caused a few surprises as he went with form over reputation as Williams and Daly were rewarded for their midweek heroics with a place in the starting XV at the expense of Halfpenny and North. The two Welshmen are favourites of Gatland but neither have lit up the tour and Gatland has undoubtedly made the right call selecting the form players. Three Lions players to watch are:

  1. Ben Te’o 

    When Te’o left New Zealand in 2007 to play rugby league in Australia few would have predicted his return ten years later as a Lions Test starter. Te’o has been in electric form this tour making hard yards in every game and his tremendous offloading game will be required to break down the All Blacks defence.

  2. Taulupe Faletau 

    Billy Vunipola’s absence from the team was the biggest story before the tour but his absence is feeling felt far less after the Goliath performances from his Welsh cousin. Faletau is the stand out ball carrier in this squad and he will be optimistic on getting one over on his opposite number Read who is coming into the game without any warm ups.

Key All Blacks

  1. Kieran Read 

    The All Blacks captain and Number 8 has rushed back from injury for this first test. Hansen admitted that he only started full contact this week so will undoubtedly be short of match fitness. The Lions will be looking to exploit this lack of match fitness but Read is one of the most experienced back rowers in the game and Hansen will be confident this experience will compensate for a lack of preparation.

  2. Reiko Ioane

    The most surprising call up for New Zealand is the uncapped winger Reiko Ioane in place of the test match beast Julian Savea. Ioane’s raw talent is unquestionable but Savea is an accomplished test match player boasting one of the best try scoring records in world rugby.

Match prediction:

It’s going to be an intense game and the odds are stacked against the Lions but I’m gonna go with my heart and call a narrow Lions victory.

All Blacks 23 – 27 Lions

Lineups:

British & Irish Lions squad
Liam Williams, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Davies, Ben Te’o, Elliot Daly, Owen Farrell, Conor Murray; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Tadhg Furlong, Alun Wyn Jones, George Kruis, Peter O’Mahony (capt), Sean O’Brien, Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: Ken Owens, Jack McGrath, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Sam Warburton, Rhys Webb, Jonathan Sexton, Leigh Halfpenny

New Zealand squad
Ben Smith, Israel Dagg, Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Owen Franks, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino, Sam Cane, Kieran Read (capt).
Replacements: Nathan Harris, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Aaron Cruden/Lima Sopoaga, Anton Lienert-Brown.

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.

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.

Warrenball: The brains behind the brawn

The last time the Lions won a test series in New Zealand was back in 1971 in the golden days of the amateur era when Willie John Macbride was in his pomp. Back then the structure of the tour was completely different, with the squad playing a mammoth 29 games over a lengthy 3 month period. Overseeing this odyssey were just two men, the manager Doug Smith, and the team coach Carwyn James.

46 years later and the tour is so different that parts would almost be unrecognisable were it not for the classic red jerseys. The much derided ‘suicidal’ schedule pales in comparison to the amateur itinerary, and the squads and coaching team have swollen to massive sizes. Where the Lions previously had two men in charge they now have masses of coaches and background staff supporting Head Coach Warren Gatland and his squad.

One role in particular that would have been unheard of back in the day is that of Head Analyst, occupied by Rhodri Bown. Bown will be no stranger to the players and setup, having been a performance analyst for the WRU since 2004, and a Lions veteran with two previous tours under his belt. Bown heads up a team of three analysts on the tour, who hope that their tactical insight could prove to be one of the many small factors which add up to help the Lions topple the undisputed number one team in the world.

Head analyst of the tour Rhodri Bown

In an interview with Brian Moore, Bown gave some insight into his role on the tour: “We’re working with the coaches and players on the tactical side of things going into matches. Players have a broad spectrum of needs going into a game and we tailor our approach to each player.” One thing that Warren Gatland has warned against is information overload and to combat this Bown described how he simply “tries to share nuggets of information” with the players.

One area that Bown said this analysis was critical was around the set piece, in particular scrums. Bown’s team have poured over hours of footage of opposition scrummaging in advance of the tour, in order to provide the players with small hints and tips on how to get the better of their opposite number.

This analytical approach to sport, which was made famous by the Hollywood film Moneyball, has often attracted criticism from pundits. 

Rhodri Bown, the Jonah Hill to Gatland’s Brad Pitt
Bown appears to be pragmatic in his view towards analysis, and the difficulties of implementing its findings successfully, which is likely one of the reasons he has been so successful.