Perhaps the strongest British Lions team of all time is assembling to take on the All Blacks- – and they should be the favourites to win.
Some may see that as an audacious statement. New Zealand are coming off two Rugby World Cup titles in a row. They have been the dominant side in rugby for the past decade and have not lost a game at Eden Park since 1994.
That is the year Pulp Fiction was released, Wet Wet Wet topped the charts and Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky.
To win the series, the Lions will need to win twice in New Zealand, at least once at Eden Park. And they can do it.
Seldom has a Lions squad been so blessed with depth. High quality depth at that. Alun Wyn-Jones is arguably the fourth best lock on form in the British Isles. Maybe even the fifth or sixth.
But there is depth and quality across the board, not just in the second row.
The Lions can choose from Sean O’Brien, Sam Warburton, James Haskell and Justin Tipuric at open-side flanker. Hamish Watson, the young Scot, also has put up his hand as a tour bolter.
Toby Faletau faces an uphill battle to even make the touring squad. CJ Stander, Billy Vunipola, Nathan Hughes and Jamie Heaslip all over shadowed and outperformed him during the Six Nations. And then there’s Maro Itoje.
Itoje is a freak of nature. At home as a lock or backrower. He combines the steel of Martin Johnson with the athleticism of John Eales and the ball carrying aggression of Lawrence Dallaglio. Yes, that is some praise. But barring a catastrophe, Itoje is likely to go down as England’s greatest ever forward and perhaps a greatest ever Lions tourist – this will be his first of three or four Lions Tours.
Itoje has won a Grand Slam, two Six Nations, an Australian Tour clean sweep, European Cup and Premiership all by the age of 22. He may just add a Lions series win against the best to that list.
Traditionally the Lions have had a very strong tight five and that area will be even stronger this year than most. It is possible that Itoje will be squeezed into the second row to partner either Launchbury or Wyn-Jones, most likely the latter for his experience and leadership. Courtney Lawes, after a superb six nations could come off the bench. If not him then one of the dynamic Gray brothers.
A backrow of Stander, Warburton and O’Brien with Billy Vunipola as an impact sub with 30 minutes to go matches the All Blacks resources and then some. The back row is an area where New Zealand sides, at all levels, usually dominate. But how do you dominate that potential Lions combination?
The backline is similarly blessed. Should Sexton fall over injured on tour, as he may well do, Ford and Biggar will wait in the wings. Owen Farrell, the metronomic kicker, stands ready to close games out moving into ten either from 12 or from the bench.
Farrell is a special kind of player. Leadership, composure and bloody-mindedness are his hallmarks. He is the cog that Eddie Jones has relied on most to turn around England.
Then there is trying to pick the back three. How can you possibly choose three from Watson, North, Visser, May, Hogg, Halfpenny, Kearney and Brown. There are quite simply no weak links and again quality players will miss out- on form Halfpenny will struggle to be on the plane at all.
New Zealand should not under estimate the challenge.
This Lions side will be much tougher to beat than either the Wallabies or Springboks in 2015. It is far more balanced and powerful.
It is also edgy and aggressive. The All Blacks have not enjoyed the sandpaper effect of Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander in recent times and Itoje is every bit as ‘sandy’. For that matter Farrell standing at 10 or 12 loves a confrontation and a bit of niggle.
Meek and mild, expecting to get beaten, that is not what this Lions squad will be about.
There also will be no McCaw to turn to for New Zealand when discipline and focus needs keeping. No Carter to look at to calm the nerves with a 45m drop goal. No Conrad Smith to keep composure.
For all of Kieran Read’s outstanding qualities, he does not have the same aura that McCaw had.
More importantly perhaps, Read does not have the leadership group around him that McCaw enjoyed. There is no such thing as a bad All Black’s side, but this one is younger and more vulnerable than any of the versions over the past ten years.
Contrast that with the Lions. There is leadership across the board, so much so that Eddie Jones suggested there be four tour captains!
Warburton and Wyn-Jones who have done winning with the Lions before. Best and Sexton who have beaten the All Blacks once and come close again in the last 12 months. Hartley and Farrell who have just presided over an English side equalling the All Black’s record of 18 Test wins in a row.
The book makers have a Lion series win at between 4/1 and 7/1 depending where you look. Those odds look attractive to me.
Potential Lions match day 23
1. McGrath 2. Best 3. Furlong 4. Itoje 5. Wyn-Jones 6. Stander 7. Warburton. 8. O’Brien 9. Murray 10. Sexton 11. Watson 12. Farrell 13. Joseph 14. North 15. Hogg 16. Owens 17. M. Vunipola 18. Cole 19. Lawes 20. B. Vunipola 21. Youngs 22. Henshaw 23. Kearney