Isn’t it nice for once going into a test series thinking we could actually lose rather than how much we will beat the opposition by? The one problem I have with world rugby currently is the All Blacks are so far ahead of the pack. It takes the All Blacks to be off their game and their opposition to be playing at their limit for the All Blacks to have any chance of losing. If the All Blacks play anywhere near their best they will come up on top.
But for this test series, I’m not too sure. When you combine four tests playing nations together you get a pretty strong test side. On top of that, you add the preparation time and matches they’ve had and they will be ready to go.
As the tour has gone on the Lions have been getting better and better. Their fast line speed on defense has become a weapon for them to frustrate the opposition and force mistakes to win the ball back. Their attack has also been improving and in the last two matches against the Chiefs and the New Zealand Maori, they showed they have more than just a forward pack. They showed x-factor in the backs and a lot of patience, which led to a number of high quality running rugby tries. On top of that, you have a very strong forward pack, which has come into its own over the last few matches. Their scrum got them a penalty try against the Maori and won them a crucial penalty against the Highlanders. Their lineout drive has improved out of sight, with two moments standing out for me. One was the drive, which led to a penalty try against the Chiefs and the other one was, the Lions drove the Maori back about 30 meters to put them on an attack.
You then come to the All Blacks. Potentially the best sporting side on the planet currently and a team that has lost just once since the Rugby World Cup in 2015 and just three other times since Steve Hansen became head coach of the All Blacks in 2012. They are the most skilled side on the planet and can play in any conditions. If it’s dry the All Blacks will run from anywhere and unleash their backs. The likes of Beauden Barrett, Ben Smith, Sony Bill Williams to name a few send shivers down their opposition spines. The offloads they produce and the speed at which they play at is something no other team can keep up with. The micro-skills the All Blacks are so good at separates them from the rest of the rugby world. But if the conditions are wet and windy and not made for their running rugby, they will use their forward pack to win the battle up front before using their backs to score tries. The All Blacks backline don’t care what the conditions are they just want to run the ball. Their skill set is so high that the conditions don’t deter the All Blacks backs from playing expansive rugby. On top of all this, the All Blacks can cope with the Northern Hemisphere style of rugby. I remember at the 2011 Rugby World Cup the back three from the All Blacks was known as the ‘bomb squad’ because they were so good at catching high kicks. This has continued to today with the back three being able to defuse high kicks whatever the conditions, which the Northern Hemisphere opposition love to play with. For me, the most important skill set the All Blacks have, is there rugby IQ, which will be so important come Saturday night. The All Blacks are so good at figuring their opposition out, so whatever the Lions throw at them they will have a plan to deal with it or they will figure it out on the night.
Looking ahead to the first Test at Eden Park on Saturday night. I think it’s going to be a heck of a contest and probably the best match of the series. The weather conditions look like favoring the Lions with wind and rain forecast for the contest. The Lions form has been improving match by match and they’re about to hit top gear. The All Blacks, on the other hand, dusted off the cobwebs last week against Samoa but showed some weaknesses early that the Lions will try to expose. I’m backing the All Blacks to pip the Lions by five points but I’m very nervous heading into the contest. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lions won the first test, as they have had a brilliant preparation and have been put under a lot of pressure by the New Zealand super sides while the All Blacks thrashed a weak Samoan side. I can’t wait for the game tomorrow should be an absolute cracker.