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


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.

A Study of Understudies

Three England internationals currently on their way to New Zealand are in the unusual position of being selected to tour when they are not starters for their nations. The Scots only have three players in the 41 man squad and yet here are three England internationals who are on the plane that do not regularly start for their country. This shouldn’t reflect badly on the players (or the Scottish) but is an indictment of the embarrassment of riches which Eddie Jones is enjoying. In this article I’m taking a look at each of these players backgrounds, and evaluating where I think they’ll slot into the squad set up. Feel free to leave a comment letting me know how wrong (or hopefully right) you think I am…

Jamie George
Club: Saracens
Age: 26

International apps: 17

No longer held back by Hartley

As a lifelong Saracens fan I’ve followed George’s steady rise closely and was not in the least bit surprised when he was picked for the squad in front of his England rival and captain​. Dylan Hartley’s leadership skills are unquestionable, but in a squad made up of four nations with leaders drawn from all corners, this quality was not to prove the decisive factor. George has been patient waiting for his chance to be number one not just for England but also for his club, Saracens. As a developing player he was behind two South African legends John Smith and Schalk Brits, and you can definitely see how he has learned and acquired parts of their games to suit himself. He has the solidity of Smith complimented by the dynamic play he has learnt from Brits. He may not be quite as flamboyant as Schalk, but his skill in open play is one of the factors that puts him ahead of Hartley in terms of playing attributes.

Looking ahead to the Lions first test team, I think that unfortunately George will again be on the bench behind a national team captain. This time it will be the Ireland stalwart Rory Best. Best’s experience, especially that in Chicago last year, will just edge him ahead of George for selection, however I would not bet against him starting one of the latter tests.

Kyle Sinckler
Club: Harlequins
Age: 24

International apps: 8

19 stone wrecking ball Kyle Sinckler

The young England prop may be one of the biggest shock inclusions in the Lions squad and is definitely one of the most inexperienced with only 8 international appearances to his name. Sinckler is explosive in the loose and has a remarkable turn of pace for a prop forward weighing 19 stone. When Sinckler was first scouted as a youngster he was playing as a full back, and this gives some hint towards the skills he has in his locker. He has an aggressive attitude and never takes a backwards step in the game.

In terms of test match selection Sinckler is far behind some of the other props but I expect him to make a name for himself with some eye-catching displays in the midweek team. His eagerness and abrasive play will wind up even the most experienced provincial front row forwards, and I would not be surprised if he has achieved a cult-hero status for the Lions by the end of the tour.

Ben Te’o
Club: Worcester Warriors
Age: 30

International apps: 8

Are you not entertained?

As a New Zealander by birth Ben Te’o will complete the most unlikely of homecomings as he touches down in Auckland wearing the red shirt of the Lions. Te’o has had a fascinating career representing a host of different nations over the last two decades. In rugby league he played for New Zealand under 16’s, the Samoa national team, and Queensland Maroons in the fiercely competitive State of Origin series. He qualifies to play for England through his mother who is an English citizen.

Te’o made the switch from Rugby League in 2014 leaving the triumphant NSW Rabbitohs at the same time as his superstar teammate Sam Burgess. Whilst Burgess’s code swapping was highly publicised and disastrous, Te’o’s switch went relatively under the radar until he gloriously popped up with a try in the final 10 minutes of the France game in the Six Nations.

Of all the England understudies Ben Te’o has the greatest chance of starting the first test. As a powerful intimidating centre he fits Warren Gatland’s mould perfectly (think a Kiwi, less square headed, Jamie Roberts). Again he is relatively inexperienced internationally in 15 a side, but has a wealth of big game experience from his rugby league days. His eye catching performances in Cardiff and France will have been what has persuaded Garland to include him in the squad, and if he performs well in the warm up matches, potentially the starting XV. 

Take off for ‘suicidal’ Lions Tour 

Later today 41 players from four different nations will board a plane from London to the other side of the world, down under to New Zealand, for the start of the Lions tour. Six intense weeks and ten grueling games await them, in a crazy schedule which has been derided by many pundits.

The former New Zealand World Cup winning coach, Graham Henry, has been a particularly vocal critic of the schedule labelling it ‘suicidal’. Going on to elaborate Henry said; “It is certainly the most difficult itinerary in the history of the game. I don’t know who arranges these things but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be a coach or a player.”

Legendary coach Henry looking typically chipper
 Henry’s comments highlight a point made by critics time and again that the tour and professional game are being driven more by commercial interests than care for player welfare. This criticism has come up time and time again in recent years as World Rugby has been looking into changing the current system​ by attempting to establish a global calendar.

But try speaking​ to any of the players about fixture congestion and they’ll brush off any concerns. When questioned about players experiencing a dip in form following the end of a gruelling domestic season, Saracens and England hooker Jamie George responded; “A Lions tour gives you an increase in energy. Your body feeling a bit battered does not come into it as you are excited about the tour ahead.” Clearly for the players it’s going to be mind over matter.

Jamie George is all laughs and smiles when asked about the tour

Yes some players like George North, Jack Nowell and Elliot Daly will be limping onto the plane after this weekend’s exertions, but after that first in flight meal and miniature bottle of wine they’ll be in the swing of it, on the most historic tour of all. Hopefully JG is right and this psychological boost will be enough to get the players through the grueling schedule.

The first game is on Saturday night against a tricky Provincial Union XV. Come what may don’t expect any excuses from the players after about jet lag…

The Rise and Rise of Exeter Chiefs

Everybody loves a story. They entertain us and help us to make sense of what is going on around us. From reality TV, politics to sport, as a population we are more gripped by events if we can link it in our heads to something with greater meaning. Newspapers and in particular sports journalists latch on to this and consequently attempt to narrativize the professional games which we admire. Last year was the legend of Leicester City coming from 3000-1 obscurity to win the football Premier League title. This year it is all about the fairytale of Exeter Chiefs, winning the Premiership seven years after gaining promotion.

What irks me about this narrative surrounding Exeter’s win is that oversimplifies a long story of consistent progression and development. The Chief’s success is not overnight and pundits are lazily overlooking the gritty backstory of constant development in favour of the romantic tale of a minnow making it to the top. I guess ‘Team wins title after seven years of consistent improvement​’ isn’t quite as eye catching a headline though… Exeter’s triumph should be celebrated even more because it was an accumulation of improvements made over years rather than a fairytale one off with a happy ending in Twickenham.

The Chief’s progress over the last decade can predominantly be linked back to the appointment of their head coach Rob Baxter in 2009. Baxter is an Exeter man through and through having played for the club for 14 years (10 as captain) and has seen remarkable change since he took over with the club in the second tier of English rugby. 

Rob Baxter the man with the plan

Up until Baxter’s appointment Exeter were also rans, having been runners up in the race for promotion in three of the five seasons before he took charge. Once Baxter took the helm Exeter stopped politely knocking on the door and instead barged it down completely, entering the Premiership and never once looking back.

Since promotion Exeter have improved year on year. The only year since promotion that they finished lower than the previous season was in the 2013-2014 campaign. Even the hardest of Chief’s supporters will be happy to forgive Baxter this minor blotch as they won their first major trophy, the Anglo-Welsh cup, that season.

What is also admirable about the Chiefs is that in their pursuit of greatness they haven’t ignored their academy and local area. The two Cornishmen Luke Cowan Dickie and Jack Nowell, who combined superbly to score a try in the final, came through the academy. 

Local Lions hero Jack Nowell

Throughout their time in the Premiership, local flavour has been supplemented not supplanted by overseas acquisitions.

There has also been a steely core to the team that has remained with Baxter since promotion from the Championship. Three of the side that helped Exeter gain promotion, Steenson, Dollman and Ben Moon, started the grand final at Twickenham, and it was Steenson who had the final say kicking the points to clinch the Chiefs the trophy.

This solid core and stability means that Chiefs are here for the long time and will be amongst the favourites to repeat their success next season. The ambitious chairman Tony Rowe has already stated that the goal is to be the best team in Europe, and if they maintain this arc it won’t be long before they get there.