When British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland revealed his 41-man squad for the tour of New Zealand back in April, plenty of supporters were quietly confident ahead of the three match series this summer. On paper, the Lions are blessed with an abundance of talent in almost every area on the field but something isn’t quite right.
On June 24th, Wales star Alun Wyn Jones will lead the Lions out for the first Test against the All Blacks in Auckland. New Zealand are the tipsters’ hot favourites and haven’t lost at Eden Park since 1994, a run of 37 games without defeat. If the Lions are going to end that incredible streak, Gatland’s men need to improve and they need to improve quickly, but how?
Cast your minds back to October 2016. The All Blacks had just defeated Australia to secure a record-breaking 18th Tier One victory in a row and many were labelling Steve Hansen’s side as the greatest New Zealand outfit of all-time. Less than one month later, Ireland ended that record with a tactical masterclass in Chicago; and Gatland could learn a lot from re-watching that encounter.
Joe Schmidt’s side were the better team on the day, every single Ireland player gave their all and nobody can deny that they deserved to win that game. With a talented half-back pairing consisting of Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton, Ireland were continually able to carve the All Blacks defence apart on a regular basis and solid work at the ruck allowed Munster man Murray to get quick ball.
Gatland may have Welsh demands ringing in his ears but the choice is a simple one: Murray is a better scrum half than Ospreys star Rhys Webb and Sexton MUST start. England’s Owen Farrell is capable of slotting in at centre and the Murray-Sexton-Farrell combination could work wonders against New Zealand. If nothing else, Gatland should at least give this trio a shot in the opening Test.
The Lions have played four matches on the tour so far, winning just two of those games. In their most recent encounter with the Highlanders, Gatland’s side were extremely poor and their defensive work needs plenty of work. New Zealand are by far and away the strongest side on the planet with ball in hand and the Lions will need to stay focused and resolute from start to finish.
Because if you are too open or miss a tackle, this All Blacks side will punish you. To beat New Zealand, you don’t need to try and emulate their style; you need to counter it. Far too often, teams have attempted to take the All Blacks on at their own game – it won’t work. A clever game plan is required but you don’t necessarily need to offload all the time to defeat New Zealand.
With two more warm up matches before the first Test, Gatland will be expecting plenty of improvement – both on the training ground and during these games against the Maori All Blacks and the Chiefs. A familiar half-back pairing is crucial in this business; Murray and Sexton know each other’s style and that should give the Lions a slight advantage.
At the start of May, the Lions were well fancied to win at least one Test against New Zealand but it is hard to be confident right now. Gatland’s legacy as Lions coach won’t be defined by whether the tourists win or lose this summer but three catastrophic defeats will take some of the gloss off what has been a successful managerial career. Stick with the Ireland boys Mr Gatland, they will provide you with the best chance of victory.