Strong Lions squad doesn’t have the x-factor to beat All Blacks

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    The big cats are out of the bag with the naming of Warren Gatland’s 41-man Lions squad to face the toughest assignment in world rugby, a fully fledged tour of All Black country.

    There was confirmation of rumoured notable omissions, a couple of bolters and a Scottish snub in the unveiling of the enormous playing group.

    It will be captained by former Wales skipper Sam Warburton, who joins Martin Johnson as only the second player to lead a Lions tour twice.

    At the head of the notable omissions category is hooker Dylan Hartley who becomes the third successive England captain to miss out on a Lions tour, following in the footsteps of Chris Robshaw and Steve Borthwick. This despite leading his team to back-to-back Six Nations triumphs and a world record-equalling 18 Test wins on the trot.

    Hartley dipped out to his England understudy Jamie George, Ireland captain Rory Best and Wales’ Ken Owens. It will be a bitter pill for the Rotorua Boys High product to miss out on a once in a lifetime odyssey to his homeland, despite his non-selection being widely mooted before the announcement.

    Although Gatland was at pains to discount Hartley’s poor disciplinary record – which directly cost him a place in the last Lions tour of Australia in 2013 when he was banned following a red card for swearing at referee Wayne Barnes in a club game for Northampton – it was almost certainly a factor, but not as large a one as form.

    It has proven a masterstroke by Eddie Jones to make Hartley his captain when he assumed the England reins after their disastrous 2015 World Cup. After the odd violent indiscretion, it eventually forced a channelling of the firebrand’s wayward aggression.

    Eddie Jones and Dylan Hartley pose with the cup

    But as the 2017 Six Nations wore on it became obvious that rather than being contained, the volatility that made Hartley such a combative customer had largely been drained from his game completely. It appeared the mellowing trick worked too well, he’d lost his edge and was finding himself replaced earlier and earlier in games by the robustly impressive George.

    England lock Joe Launchbury can also count himself as unlucky, coming off a barnstorming Six Nations that included two man-of-the-match performances.

 His teammates George Kruis, Courtney Lawes and sometimes blindside Maro Itoje have been preferred in the engine room, alongside Warburton’s successor as Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones and Ireland’s Iain Henderson.

    Gatland has made no bones about wanting a pack that more than fronts up to the Kiwis in the physical stakes, so Launchbury’s omission may be more a case of the coach wanting more fight in the dog than dog in the fight.

    England pivot George Ford is another who will have to get his southern hemisphere kicks out of a tour to Argentina this northern summer having missed out to countryman Owen Farrell, Welshman Dan Biggar and Irish maestro Jonathan Sexton at No. 10. Ford’s relative defensive frailties no doubt costing him the gig.

    Scotland can feel rightfully aggrieved to have just the two tourists in winger Tommy Seymour and fullback Stuart Hogg, compared to the 16 English, 12 Welsh and 11 players from Ireland in the squad.

    In fact, the Kiwis have a higher representation in the contingent than the Scots if you included Gatland along with bolters Ben Te’o (England) and Jared Payne (Ireland).

    It does seem harsh when you consider Scotland beat both Wales and Ireland in a largely impressive 2017 Six Nations campaign, notwithstanding their capitulation to England.

    Jonny and Richie Gray, and fly-half Finn Russell, will no doubt be miffed, but it’s hard to argue the players preferred to them don’t deserve the nod.

    And you would expect that had he been fit, tighthead WP Nel would surely have been included.

    Still, it will be the first time in 109 years of Lions rugby that no player from north of Hadrian’s Wall will grace the forward pack. Scotland’s perceived snub could well add another strand to the movement for secession from the UK union that has once again flared since Theresa May’s surprise snap call for the “Brexit election” this week.

    Watching Sky Sport’s live streaming of the announcement last night, one thing that stood out was Gatland’s rather muted endorsement of his captain.

    Once the worst kept secret in rugby had been confirmed, Gatland was asked to comment on his choice of Warburton as skipper.

    Wales' head coach Warren Gatland

    After mentioning how important his experience in captaining the team in 2013 was he went straight into: “He’s fully aware that his form needs to be good enough to be selected in the Test team, so there’s going to be some pressure on him for that.”

In the context a surprisingly frank admission that the currently injured Welsh openside will need to fight for his place in an intensely competitive loose forward contingent that includes the likes of countryman Justin Tipuric and Ireland dynamos Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander.

Gatland went on in a more tuneful tone to sing Warburton’s praises.

    “I think he’s the right man for the job….he did a great job in 2015. For us it was a natural choice.”

    After the opening gambit, though, it all seemed less than a ringing endorsement.

    It brought to mind a column former Lions New Zealand tourist and now respected rugby pundit Stuart Barnes wrote for the Times. Titled ‘Lions stand no chance of upset if Warburton is given captaincy’, the piece argued that the Welsh flanker is a defensive machine but isn’t creative enough to cause the All Blacks too much trouble.

    The former England fly-half asserted that the only way to beat the All Blacks is to starve them of possession and keep hold of the ball, however Warburton does the majority of his best work without the ball.

    “The Lions will not beat a team as good as New Zealand by making a thousand tackles. The higher the tackling stats, the greater the margin of defeat.”

    Barnes argued Tipuric is the best openside in Wales and pointed to Warburton missing the third Test against Australia in 2013 – due to a hamstring injury – was what put the Lions in a better position to achieve a resounding series-winning victory over the Wallabies.

    O’Brien, his replacement for the final Test in Sydney four years ago, represented a move from “defensive heroism to match-winning attack,” according to Barnes.

    “He (Warburton) will defend until the last man drops in New Zealand. But more will be needed against the best team in the world. And Warburton doesn’t possess that extra ingredient.”

    Wales captain Sam Warburton after loss to South Africa Rugby World Cup 2015

    Which, in a nutshell, sums up the broader prospects of this Lions team on their epic Kiwi adventure.

    Their brutish forward pack will be hugely combative up front with a set piece that will test every facet of All Black first-phase capability. They will be suitably Lion-hearted over the ball at the breakdown and the backs will charge into the All Blacks both offensively and defensively from whistle to whistle.

    The sharpest shooters in world rugby will kick virtually every point on offer. But they will lack that all-important x-factor that will ultimately prove the difference. The players with x-factor selected, such as Te’o and Hogg, are as yet unproven in that part of the world.

    On the other hand, the All Blacks will have x-factor all over the park. My fearless prediction is for a three-zip Blackwash in the Tests and for the Lions to also get tipped up by the Hurricanes and Crusaders.

    What say you, Roarers?

    British and Irish Lions squad for New Zealand Tour
Forwards: Rory Best, Dan Cole, Taulupe Faletau, Tadhg Furlong, Jamie George, Iain Henderson, Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes, Joe Marler, Jack McGrath, Ross Moriarty, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, Ken Owens, Kyle Sinckler, CJ Stander, Justin Tipuric, Mako Vunipola, Billy Vunipola, Sam Warburton.

    Backs: Dan Biggar, Elliot Daly, Jonathan Davies, Owen Farrell, Leigh Halfpenny, Robbie Henshaw, Stuart Hogg, Jonathan Joseph, Conor Murray, George North, Jack Nowell, Jared Payne, Jonathan Sexton, Tommy Seymour, Ben Te’o, Anthony Watson, Rhys Webb, Liam Williams, Ben Youngs.

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    The Crowd Says (78)

    • April 21st 2017 @ 3:41am
      DavSA said | April 21st 2017 @ 3:41am | ! Report

      Matt , what a great article. Yes the Lions for sure will have a brutish pack….. But as an old Bok supporter I can testify to some seriously brutal packs who have tackled the All Blacks in the past . A word of warning , they are pretty tough themselves and won’t be easily dominated. You have to combine that grunt with smarts. The Boks have used the rolling mall for ever and no one seemed able to counter it but ….still outscored try wise by the boys in black . Their seems to be a perception out there that the Lions are going to do this from serious forward power. From experience they will need more.

      • April 21st 2017 @ 4:57am
        mania said | April 21st 2017 @ 4:57am | ! Report

        DavSA- agree toats.
        having xFactor isn’t the be all of winning rugby. opposite of xfactor rugby is grunt work. boks have it ,England have it.
        they can strangle the game and suffocate the oppn by controlling the ball for as long as possible.
        this is a tough BIL pack. im reserving my opinion until they get here and play the barbarians and maori.

      • Roar Guru

        April 21st 2017 @ 5:26am
        The Saint said | April 21st 2017 @ 5:26am | ! Report

        Nice article Matt. Well done.
        Barnes’ assertion is a good one. In the Lions’ tour to Aus in 2013, Warburton’s injury before the third and final test – the decider – proved to be a blessing.
        The tourists’ attacking mindset changed for the better with O’Brien on.

        • April 21st 2017 @ 5:34am
          Matt Porter said | April 21st 2017 @ 5:34am | ! Report

          Cheers Frontiers.
          It will be interesting to see how much carnage Ardie Savea will cause once Sam Cane has done his 60-minute shift in the Tests.

          • April 22nd 2017 @ 9:01pm
            Steve Wright said | April 22nd 2017 @ 9:01pm | ! Report

            Your original prediction looks about right Matt – before the BIL personnel publication I might have agreed with, at best, the visitors to achieve about a 1959 result. However, now the names are on the board, I wouldn’t dare argue with your assessment.Well called.

    • Roar Rookie

      April 21st 2017 @ 4:09am
      eeds said | April 21st 2017 @ 4:09am | ! Report

      The forward pack man for man looks like a battle for the ages. In the backs I feel the all blacks have a big advantage although I don’t know why… man for man they are very similar again but it’s just something about those kiwi combinations! The back three out of smith, naholo, nms, savea, dagg and the younger Barrett looks unstoppable… that’s before you add in the older Barrett at 10

    • April 21st 2017 @ 4:14am
      Matt Jones said | April 21st 2017 @ 4:14am | ! Report

      Ben Teo should prove a great tour guide

      • April 21st 2017 @ 8:45am
        DanFan said | April 21st 2017 @ 8:45am | ! Report

        The team can pop over to his Mum’s house for dinner.

    • April 21st 2017 @ 4:38am
      Matt Porter said | April 21st 2017 @ 4:38am | ! Report

      Cheers DaveSA
      Yes agree, the ABs, as always, will more than be up for the physical challenge and with B Barrett, Ben Smith & co running the cutter will look to turn the big Lions around and run them off their feet.

      • April 21st 2017 @ 5:37am
        Darwin Stubbie said | April 21st 2017 @ 5:37am | ! Report

        I’m expecting MacKenzie to make the run on side on the wing to provide the team with a decent goal kicker …. the Lions only real area of advantage is with their goal kickers and NZ can’t afford to rock up with Barrett … esp as he’s not even kicking now … it’s either that or Cruden starts

        • April 21st 2017 @ 6:14am
          Ben said | April 21st 2017 @ 6:14am | ! Report

          I will put money on Mckenzie not starting.
          Listening to Hansen on Talksport he is more than happy with Barrett or Crudens goalkicking saying both have stepped up under pressure for the ABs to kick goals…and thats the key.
          I agree..i am a little nervous with Barretts goalkicking.
          Having said that the last Lions tour here did not rely in any shape or form on goalkicking.
          None of the Canes matches this or last year have been lost as a result of his goalkicking.
          As an aside interesting quote by Hansen when asked about Beaudens goalkicking he said no Beauden hasnt been kicking lately but Jordy has been …..
          Talksport took that as a hint…maybe.

          • April 21st 2017 @ 7:22am
            taylorman said | April 21st 2017 @ 7:22am | ! Report

            Hansen also said he didn’t mind that as long as he as practising. Always seems to come up and it’s always been a non issue for the ABs themselves.

            If goalkicking is a reason we lose a test or the series then we have bigger issues than goalkicking.

          • Roar Guru

            April 21st 2017 @ 8:04am
            Sam Taulelei said | April 21st 2017 @ 8:04am | ! Report

            What’s also conveniently overlooked when critics aim up at Barrett’s goalkicking – he kicked 100% in his last two tests against Ireland and France.

            • April 21st 2017 @ 11:32am
              Old Bugger said | April 21st 2017 @ 11:32am | ! Report

              Agree Sam and Tman. The choice will be either BB or Cruds for No 10. All other options are just that……options.

              • April 21st 2017 @ 2:08pm
                The Sheriff said | April 21st 2017 @ 2:08pm | ! Report

                They won’t have to worry about kicks; they will do it with five pointers!

            • April 21st 2017 @ 12:51pm
              Darwin Stubbie said | April 21st 2017 @ 12:51pm | ! Report

              The question is more of how is his kicking this year … he’s always been hit and miss and currently he isn’t even kicking and prior to that he had the wobbles … the risk is there and I’d be surprised (esp after the Chicago selection misfire) that AB mgmt would roll the dice again

              • Roar Guru

                April 21st 2017 @ 12:59pm
                Fionn said | April 21st 2017 @ 12:59pm | ! Report

                After Chicago they kept selecting Barrett and went onto win ever game..

                Barrett was also integral to the second half fight back in Chicago that almost resulted in New Zealand winning the game…

              • April 21st 2017 @ 2:31pm
                Darwin Stubbie said | April 21st 2017 @ 2:31pm | ! Report

                The discussion is around goal kicking and the risk of going in with Barrett as the kicker – particularly on the back of his lack of kicking in recent games and his average form at the start of the year … the reference to Chicago is in respect to the risky selection policy trailed … I’d be surprised if the AB coaching staff aren’t at the very least querying their goal kicking options and the risk posed by Barrett – kicking in practice is one thing but he has shown to be shaky in gameday situations even when everything else in his game is ticking over

              • Roar Guru

                April 21st 2017 @ 3:14pm
                Fionn said | April 21st 2017 @ 3:14pm | ! Report

                ‘NZ can’t afford to rock up with Barrett … esp as he’s not even kicking now … it’s either that or Cruden starts’

                Well, maybe you’re right. But those same issues existed in 2016 and the ABs still decided to go with Barrett, so I don’t know where you’ve got your insider information from.

              • April 21st 2017 @ 5:17pm
                Darwin Stubbie said | April 21st 2017 @ 5:17pm | ! Report

                Just an observation no more … Barrett only really nailed the starting position late – he got it via injury to Cruden and I’d say that Cruden would still have been considered #1 well into the season if he had made it back .. ABs have always had a reliable goal kicker … thinking back off the top of the head really the last time they didn’t and were rolling the dice was when Spencer was getting picked (and he lost them games) … I just think that this series will be close and if there is one thing NZ have always relied on was to keep the scoreboard ticking over – Barrett doesn’t instill that confidence – that’s why I can see MacKenzie being considered esp if Dagg doesn’t make it back with a decent run in

              • Roar Guru

                April 21st 2017 @ 5:23pm
                Fionn said | April 21st 2017 @ 5:23pm | ! Report

                Well Darwin Stubbie, it’s certainly not a bad problem to have, is it, having to choose between Cruden and Barrett? I can only imagine what that must be like…

                I suspect that Cruden will have to outplay Barrett over the SR season to start over him, as the way the ABs seem to work is that the incumbent usually gets the nod (and I think this is good, as it = continuity). I just don’t think that McKenzie is big enough yet, or having proved himself as good enough against the top teams. If Milner-Skudder comes back from injury I suspect we’ll see the same back three as we saw in the World Cup.

                Dagg can kick, can’t he?

          • April 21st 2017 @ 12:47pm
            Darwin Stubbie said | April 21st 2017 @ 12:47pm | ! Report

            Things would need to be severe for J Barrett to be in with a shout …

    • April 21st 2017 @ 4:39am
      Ben said | April 21st 2017 @ 4:39am | ! Report

      The British Irish and New Zealand Lions.

      • April 21st 2017 @ 8:44am
        DanFan said | April 21st 2017 @ 8:44am | ! Report

        More Kiwis than Scots.

    • April 21st 2017 @ 5:55am
      DavSA said | April 21st 2017 @ 5:55am | ! Report

      Darwin stubble , i had a good look at McKenzie while the Chiefs were touring here. Bloody hell this kid is one serious attacking threat.

      • April 21st 2017 @ 6:23am
        taylorman said | April 21st 2017 @ 6:23am | ! Report

        Yes how he figures in this will be interesting. No obvious gap for him if Smith, Savea and Dagg are considered the back three. McKenzie, Jordie B, Naholo, Milner Skudder needing to find spots.

        • April 21st 2017 @ 8:12am
          Quin said | April 21st 2017 @ 8:12am | ! Report

          I expect to see McKenzie have a run for the NZ Māori before Hansen makes his decision, either them or the Chiefs as it gives him the chance to test him against the Lions before actually testing him against the Lions if that makes sense.

          • April 21st 2017 @ 8:43am
            DanFan said | April 21st 2017 @ 8:43am | ! Report

            The Maori and the other Super games give Hansen plenty of opportunity to sort out some of those backline conundrums but I think he will definitely start with his experienced core which would mean Dagg/Smith/Savea but then injury is sure to play around with the final lineup. The point is though that he has enormous options no matter what happens.

          • April 21st 2017 @ 9:20am
            Jacko said | April 21st 2017 @ 9:20am | ! Report

            I dont see Mckenzie even making the bench for the Lions. Maybe later in the RC

      • April 21st 2017 @ 8:19am
        Rugby Tragic said | April 21st 2017 @ 8:19am | ! Report

        DavSA, Macca is an excitement machine, small but with a huge heart. Great to see in a day when big, strong, fast men seem to dominate.

        Macca’s great asset I think is his footwork and acceleration but he has a weakness in maintaining the ball in a tackle. For that reason, he has to play closer to the forwards and for the same reason I don’t think he will get a run against the Lions as an AB with those in front of him.

        • April 22nd 2017 @ 1:44am
          davSA said | April 22nd 2017 @ 1:44am | ! Report

          Still a place in Rugby for small athletes RT. Sometimes in the recent past there has been far too much emphasis on bulk in the backline. The new tackle laws …and this has been covered previously in an article on the roar may well have brought the smaller guys back into the game . I don’t have to tell you that obviously one of the attractions of Rugby Union over 100 years has been the fact that it caters to all different physical types .. Cheers mate!

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