My Lions Squad for the Second Test

The first test was like so many of the warm up games in that the Lions created chances but then didn’t have the finesse to finish them off. They took only two out of four try scoring chances whereas the All Blacks had three and finished three. Therein lies the difference and what has set this New Zealand apart from the distantly chasing pack for the last six years. Good teams create chances, great teams finish them and if the Lions are to stand any chance in the next test they will need to hone their cutting edge this week. 


The squad does not require wholesale changes and I would just tweak the forwards to give the Lions the best chance of getting on the front foot from the start against the All Blacks. Below is the team I would send out in the second test (changes in bold)

British and Irish Lions: L Williams (Wales); A Watson (England), J Davies (Wales), B Te’o (England), E Daly (England); O Farrell (England), C Murray (Ireland); M Vunipola (England), J George (England), T Furlong (Ireland); M Itoje (England), C Lawes (England), CJ Stander (Ireland), S O’Brien (capt, Ireland), T Faletau (Wales)

Replacements: K Owens (Wales), J McGrath (Ireland), K Sinckler (England), G Kruis (England); S Warburton (Wales), R Webb (Wales), J Sexton (Ireland), L Halfpenny (Wales).

In the lead up to the test all the talk had been about how the Lions strengths were their forwards and suffocating defence, but the All Blacks countered this by taking the Lions on at their supposed strength and dominated them around the fringes of the rucks.

The New Zealand pack were immense and I would call up Itoje, Lawes and Stander in an attempt to really take the game to the All Blacks pack in the first half.

 The Lions pack were blown away by the intensity of Retallick, Kaino and Read, with Kruis and AWJ looking  shell shocked after the opening quarter. I’d pick Stander to replace Murray so that the Lions would have another world class ball carrier to support Faletau.

 Without O’Mahony you would lose his work in the rucks but the inclusion of Itoje and Lawes, both players who can cover the back row, would negate this loss.

Taking out Kruis and O’Mahony would mean replacing the lineout caller and captain. Itoje may be young but has a proven big game temperament from Saracens and England, and could be trusted with calling the lineout, especially with his club mate George throwing in. The captaincy would be a bigger question but O’Brien could comfortably step up to the responsibility as he has done for Ireland on numerous occasions. Farrell has been touted as a potential captain but I don’t think that he needs the distraction as he already has the pressure of goalkicking duties.

Personally I would not change any of the backs either starting or on the bench. My only suggestion would be a change in tactics late on. The Sexton-Farrell combination did not work in the first half and in my opinion shouldn’t be revisited. Having a versatile back three gives Gatland options with his substitutions, which could change depending on the scoreline. If the Lions are winning he could do a straight swap of any of the back three and bring on Halfpenny at full back to close the game out. If the Lions are chasing the game he could take off one of the centres, move Daly to outside centre (arguably his best position), and throw Halfpenny on at full back with Williams switching to the wing. Daly’s pace would offer a different option in midfield which may be necessary if the Lions find themselves chasing the game.

Please comment below with your thoughts. I’d love any feedback. 

All Blacks v Lions First Test Review

As I stood, pint in hand, watching the inevitable New Zealand second half onslaught, my mind cast me back a year to Wales’ tour of New Zealand. In the first test Wales came out of the blocks charging and went in leading at half time 18-15. Watching at home as a neutral I knew the All Blacks hadn’t clicked, and watched in bemusement as the British pundits attempted to goad All Blacks legend Sean Fitzpatrick; asking if he was worried that the All Blacks could lose at Eden Park for the first time since 1994. He sat there calmly and told them not a chance. He wasn’t being arrogant but just knew the All Blacks always finish games strong to wipe out their opposition.

The same thing happened on Saturday night and all the half times Lions optimism turned to dust as the All Blacks cranked up the gears with a turbo charged second half finish. In their last 6 home games the All Blacks have dominated the last 20 minutes winning the last quarter by a cumulative total of 91-0 and it was the same story here, bar the last minute Rhys Webb consolation try.

At the end of the game there was a sense of deflation. The Lions have been improving week on week but this match was several steps too far and they were found wanting against the best in the business. 

What is perhaps most deflating is that the Lions didn’t even play that badly, they were just outclassed and given a lesson in how to finish off chances. The Lions counterattacking play was excellent, but with the exception of THAT try (one of the best I’ve ever seen), there was not the supporting players to finish off breaks and land the killer blow. 

Williams’ moment of magic was sadly a false dawn for the Lions

When the All Blacks made a break there were always two options on the players shoulders, but too often Te’o and Davies were isolated after blasting through the line. Whilst the Lions were dangerous on the break their structured attack did not look dangerous enough to penetrate the All Blacks, and they enjoyed surprisingly little territory despite opting for a kick chase game dictated by Conor Murray.

The substitutions were also questionable as Gatland took off two of the best performers in Te’o and Williams for Sexton and Halfpenny respectively. Halfpenny is a solid player but does not have the attacking prowess to warrant being thrown on when 20 points down. The introduction of Sexton for Te’o also felt desperate as Gatland took off one off a player having a great game in an attempt to change up the pattern of play. This move actually weakened the Lions attack as both Sexton and Farrell were playing flat to the gain line and the Lions then struggled to build any momentum. 

It is worth commenting on just how good the All Blacks were. They nullified the Lions suffocating defensive game by attacking around the fringes of the rucks and offloading out of the tackle at every opportunity. 

Their returning captain, Kieran Read, had no right playing as well as he did in his first match back after months on the treatment table. 

Captain Read made a mockery of questions over his match fitness

He was dominant with the ball in hand, as well as his back row partner Jerome Kaino, and they caused the Lions problems all game.

Special mention should also be given to Reiko Ioane scoring two tries on his first start for the All Blacks. 

Ioane more than justified his selection over Savea

Eliot Daly is by no means slow but he was made to look like a pub team forward as Ioane outpaced him to score his second try of the match.

It’s not all doom and gloom for the Lions though. The frustrating part is that they did create chances but then just failed to finish them off. In hindsight failure to score in the second minute was always going to be costly as you get so few chances against the All Blacks. Wholesale changes are not required the Lions just need to play with at a level of accuracy that they have not yet come close to on this tour. They played at 80% of their ability here but anything less than 99% accuracy against the All Blacks is not good enough. The players have the skill they just all need to have the game of their lives in the next game in Wellington.

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.

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.