A few weeks ago I wrote that the first Test of the Lions tour of New Zealand was the tourists’ to lose. My main reason being that the All Blacks are slow starters to their season.
To back up my gut feeling, here are some facts about the All Blacks in their first Tests of the season, going back ten years.
2007: New Zealand 42-11 France
The French did not want to be in New Zealand for this game. They left behind 14 first-choice players and had ten players on debut.
Coach Bernard Laporte called the two-Test tour “a joke”, saying “We did not want to come but we must come”.
If only France had won, or even performed creditably, the All Blacks might have been better motivated to play them at the World Cup later that year!
2008: New Zealand 21-11 Ireland
In nasty conditions Ireland could, and should, have won this game. Level 8-8 at halftime and 11-11 at the 63rd minute, with a bit more belief, the game was theirs for the taking.
Still in mourning from the 2007 World Cup, the All Blacks were poor and just scraped home at the end.
2009: France 22-17 New Zealand
2010: New Zealand 66-28 Ireland
This tired and depleted Irish side were on a downhill slide. In their last game before touring New Zealand they had lost badly to Scotland, the Scots’ only win of the Six Nations.
Injuries ruled seven key players out of the tour, including Paul O’Connell, Rory Best and Keith Earls. Jamie Heaslip was sent off in the 15th minute of the game and between the 24th and 34th minutes Ireland were down to 13 men when Ronan O’Gara was sinbinned.
The All Blacks scored three tries in this period to build a 38-0 lead. Game over.
2011: New Zealand 60-14 Fiji
Fiji were missing a number of their best players through club commitments, while others were not allowed visas for New Zealand because of military ties, and two players were suspended after the Pacific Nations Cup.
They had lost to Japan the week before and were hopeless at the World Cup later in the year, losing 66-0 to Wales, 49-3 to South Africa and 27-3 to Samoa.
If the All Blacks had not been having their usual poor start they would have put 100-plus points on this Fijian team.
2012: New Zealand 42-10 Ireland
The build-up to this game was all about how every Rugby World Cup winner had performed poorly in the hangover year after their cup win.
The All Blacks ran out with massive motivation to overturn this thinking and thereby overcame their usual jittery start to the year.
Their first game jitters came in the second Test, where they were lucky to scrape home 22-19.
2013: New Zealand 23-13 France
France were in contention for the entirety of this game and looked potential winners when the All Blacks led by only seven points with ten minutes to go, but Louis Picamoles dropped the ball with the line open.
Les Bleus showed the actual gap between the two teams by being thrashed in the second Test 30-0.
2014: New Zealand 20-15 England
The English Premiership final was held after the team flew out to New Zealand, so 16 players – who were later added to the tour party –were not considered for the first Test.
Even so, the makeshift England were leading and looked winners until the 71st minute of the game. Showing how much of a B team this was, England made 11 changes to their 23 for the second Test.
2015: New Zealand 25-16 Samoa
The All Blacks started well in this unusual away game, but faded badly and were almost run down by a rampant Samoa in the second half.
Samoa closed to within six points with ten minutes to play, looking much the better team, and only a late penalty took the All Blacks out to more than a one-score-game.
In every game against Samoa previously the All Blacks had scored more than 50 points.
2016: New Zealand 39-21 Wales
Wales led until the 62nd minute and for the majority of the game looked the better team. The Welsh showed their true quality by being thumped heavily in the remaining two Tests and were even thrashed by the Chiefs’ B team.
2017: British and Irish Lions
If the All Blacks play as poorly as they have in most of their first-up Tests in the last ten years, they will lose.
In none of these ten games did the All Blacks meet top quality, well prepared opposition, yet they regularly struggled to win. The often second-rate teams that New Zealand played in these opening games had generally not played warm-up games, while the Lions will have five tough matches before the first Test. The Lions are also likely to be a more talented and better-prepared side than any of the teams that toured New Zealand in the last ten years.
Therefore, on the basis of the All Blacks’ poor starts in their first games of the season, the Lions must be favourites for the first Test.