Blunt Truth

The continuing complaints about the make-up of the Lions squad are unlikely to abate for a little while, despite it being done and dusted.

The focus now has to be on whether the Lions can actually win the series – and it is only the test series that matters.

Few people remember or care that in 1971 the Lions actually lost their first match to Queensland on the way to New Zealand – the only thing that counted is the WLWD that gave them the series win.

Traditionally the Lions tend to win nearly all of their games outside the tests – even on the disastrous tour in 2005 the lions only lost to the All Blacks (all 3 tests) and against the New Zealand Maoris – winning 7 and drawing one of the rest.

But this tour is different – it is probably the most demanding a Lions team has ever faced – the 5 Super franchises, NZ Maoris and All Blacks – with only one ‘easy’ game v NZ Barbarians – and even that may turn out to be an ambush.

The Super teams will be tough – as Wales found out last summer when they were stomped on 40-7 by the Chiefs.

Much has been made in the last couple of days that the Lions have selected a heavyweight squad to try and bully the All Blacks into submission. Nothing has been said of the traditional NZ welcome where the job of the sides leading up to the tests is to ‘soften’ up the tourists. I doubt it will be much different this summer.

Warren Gatland was always going to come in for some criticism no matter who he chose for the tour – the fact is, all will be forgiven if he wins the series – probably even if he wins just one of the tests.

His overriding objective must be to win two games on tour – two of the tests.

If he does that and loses all the rest it will be a major success – the first series win in NZ for almost 50 years.

Of course he wants to win all the matches leading up to the tests – to build momentum, morale and to seed some concerns for Steve Hansen – but Warren would almost certainly settle for just a win in Auckland on 24th June and in Wellington the following week.

Winning the first test is essential – I think only Finlay Calder’s side have lost a first Lions test and then won the series.

It is also the best chance – the ABs are likely to be rusty with just a warm up game against Samoa – however, the match is at Eden Park where the ABs haven’t lost since 1994.

All the pundits agree that this is an exceptionally strong Lions squad consisting of 41 quality players – and therein lies another problem.

Now that their places are secured every one of those 41 will be desperate to get a starting jersey for the 24th June – or at least a place on the bench.

Clive Woodward was criticised for taking just 3 more in 2005 on a tour that had 2 extra games – he was criticised for not giving every player the opportunity to state his case for a starting test place.

Warren will have a similar problem – just 6 matches for 41 guys to show how they deserve one of the 15 (or 23) shirts at Eden Park. Woodward had a lead up of 7 games.

In addition the first game is unlikely to feature any of the players involved in the domestic finals which are less than a week before the NZ Barbarians match (plus presumably Leigh Halfpenny, if Toulon are still involved in the TOP14 – the final is on June 4th).

The coaching team will have to be wary, not just of national rivalry but resentment from players who don’t think they have been given enough time on the pitch to prove themselves.

Graham Henry described the tour itinerary as ‘suicidal’ – he may well prove to be right.

Over the next few days I will be rambling on about how I would plan to try and win the series – luckily Warren is not renowned for seeking my advice. Nevertheless I will share my ‘pontifications’ – which is a bit like taking the dogma for a walk!

 

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