5 tactics the Lions should use to beat New Zealand

We now know the test squad that the British and Irish Lions will take to Eden Park this Saturday for the 1st test against New Zealand. There are some surprises there – particularly in the back 3, but the key to the game will be in the forwards.

On the tour so far, the Lions first string pack has performed well and they hold the key to achieving success this weekend. By contrast, the backs have struggled to provide much impetus off set play but have shown that they can cut free when they play a looser, more spontaneous game.

Don’t expect the Lions to turn the test series in to an open game of rugby. Gatland will stick to what he knows well, which is a highly structured game built around kicking, putting pressure on the opposition and accumulating points through penalties.

Here are the 5 key areas that the Lions should look to exploit if they want to win.

 

(1) Attacking mauls

The Lions forwards coach Steve Borthwick knows how to coach an effective attacking maul, and he hasn’t disappointed on this tour.

As an example, if we look at the Chiefs’ game (see clip below) it’s Justin Tipuric who takes the lineout, with Iain Henderson stepping in front of him to provide protection – illegal, but usually ignored by referees. As the ball is transferred to the back, the Lions pack drive through the right hand side of the right, where Henderson and Haskell have positioned themselves.

The Chiefs illegally bring down the maul and a penalty try is awarded.

This time it’s the Blues on the receiving end of the Lions forward power.  Itoje takes the catch from an Owens’ throw and after readjusting the maul, it is Stander who crosses the line.

In every game, the attacking maul has been a strong weapon. Expect to see a lot of it on Saturday, particularly if the weather is wet, as is being forecast.

 

Kick and press

The scrum half or outside half, kick and press is a favourite of Gatland’s. The target used to be to try and compete in the air and win the ball back, but there is a sense that with the defending player having the “rights” in the air, it is better to wait for the catcher to land and then then tackle him.

We saw the consequences of mistimed tackles in the air with Liam Williams earlier in the tour, when he was shown a yellow card.

Conor Murray has been chosen for his game management and primarily his ability to execute perfectly the box kick.  The example below is from the Maori game where Murray’s inch perfect kick results in a penalty from which Halfpenny kicks 3 points.

Interestingly, the Maori dropping this ball is Rieko Ioane, who has been chosen in the All Blacks team for Saturday. Ioane, at just 20, is a superb talent with the ball but there are still question marks over his ability to handle the more structured kicking game that the Lions will try and play.

Expect a barrage of kicks on the New Zealand wingers and a fast pressing Lions line to try and turn the ball over, win the penalty or force the All Blacks to kick back.

 

Scrum

Not that long ago Mako Vunipola was known as a great carrier but an appalling scrummager – which is a pretty important skill for a test level prop! His improvement has been stark to the point that a scrum with Mako at loose head is a potentially dominant weapon against the All Blacks.

In the Maori game, the test front row (Mako, George and Furlong) were dominant with referee Peyper rewarding them with a penalty try:

The good news for the Lions is that Jaco Peyper is the referee for the first test!

This clip shows that not only is he willing to penalise the weaker scrum, he is also happy to award a penalty try, which is vitally important against All Black teams who can be very cynical when defending their try line.

Later in the game Peyper was again comfortable to penalise the Maori scrum, this time for wheeling.

Not only does the Lions scrum have the potential to provide a stable platform for the half backs, it could be a potent weapon.

 

Midfield blitz defence and attack the breakdown

One noticeable aspect of the Lions – Crusaders game was the speed and strength of the Lions’ midfield blitz defence. Super Rugby teams tend not to compete too much at the breakdown; being happy to give the ball away and reform the defensive line as a priority, rather than lose bodies in the breakdown.

In the  north the breakdown is a fierce area of competition and in turn the midfield defence tends to push quickly on the opposition, closing down their time on the ball. Both these aspects were evident in the Crusaders game, meaning the New Zealand team had poor quality ball to play with and little space when they did receive it.

The Lions were then able to convert this defensive pressure in to points and territory.

Te’o has been chosen for his ball carrying but also his defensive qualities, and alongside Farrell and Davies they have an important role in Gatland’s team.

If we look at the alignment of the Chiefs backs defence off first phase ball,  we see the centres are deeper than the players inside, meaning there isn’t a strong pressing line facing the Lions.

Chiefs defensive line

Contrast this with the Lions hard press against the Crusaders (below) with not only 10, 12 and 13 forming a flat line with very small spacing, but Murray also works across to take the ball carrier.

Cruseders defensive

Expect the All Blacks to use small diagonal kicks behind the Lions midfield to try and negate this rush defence.

Perhaps the best example of attacking the breakdown was England’s performance against New Zealand back in 2012. In that game, England’s intensity at each tackle and breakdown was quite outstanding and it was that pressure which finally caused New Zealand to crack.

They are a team that are at their best when they have time and space to run; cut that option out of their game and you stand a chance.

 

Forward carriers

The Lions have a number of very strong ball carriers who are crucial to the success of the team. We have seen how Eddie Jones has built his game plan around the forward breaking the line to make space for their pacey backs – the Lions need to use similar tactics if they are to get the best out of Daly, Watson and Williams.

The front row can all carry, Itoje is excellent, Sean O’Brien and Faletau can also make the hard yards; these are the crucial players who along with Te’o must get the Lions over the gain line.

In this clip against the Highlanders, it’s initially Iain Henderson who makes the hole against a well formed but passive defence, and Sam Warburton takes the ball for the secondary thrust.

This footage below, comes from the Ireland New Zealand game in 2016. Although Furlong doesn’t carry the ball too far towards the All Black line, it’s his ability to bump off the opposition that would provide a real lift to his team mates.

This is another area where the Lions have a distinct advantage. The bench will also be important here with the Lions opting for perhaps more athletic and mobile forwards to close down the space as bodies tire and the All Black attacks increase in intensity.

Sinckler, Owens and Itoje are also able to carry so expect the Lions’ forward barrage to continue for the full 80 minutes.

 

Can the Lions win?

The key to the game will be in the forwards battle. Do New Zealand have the strength there to negate the Lions set piece dominance and break down specialists? If they do then the Lions may have to look for a plan B, which we know Gatland coached teams are often missing.

The second consideration is can the Lions dictate the pace of the game to a speed they are comfortable playing week in and week out in the domestic leagues? If so, they stand a chance of snuffing out the All Blacks’ attacking runners. It’s expected that Sonny Bill will run in to contact and look for an offload, we know Smith is happy countering from deep – stopping them is another issue though.

 

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The best …..and worst responses to the Haka

If you’ve been following the Lions tour over the last few weeks you may feel as if you have reached Haka saturation point. Well, do not fear, with the test matches on their way we have a few more eye bulging, throat slitting performances still to come.

For a few decades there has been the feeling that the All Blacks gained a physiological advantage from the Haka, which was unfair on the opposition team, who have to stand there and accept it.

To counter this perceived advantage coaches, and players, have adopted various response strategies. Here are 9 of the best – and the worst.

 

Number 9 – Ireland u20 2009

Jerome Garces does his best to push the Irish youngsters back in to their own half, but there is no stopping the green wall as it heads towards the junior All Blacks.

 

Number 8 – Tonga 2003 

What better way to counter a challenge than by laying down your own. Tonga respond to the Haka with the Sipi Tau.

 

Number 7 – Munster 2008

Munster’s very own Haka in the mist of Thomond Park.

 

Number 6 – France 2007

This Rugby World Cup quarter final in Cardiff lives long in the memory for the fact that France won the game. What is often forgotten is the line of red, white and blue that faced the haka across the half way line.

“The Haka confirms France are well and truly up for the game,” Richie McCaw later wrote in his autobiography. Maybe facing up to the Haka does work?

 

Number 5 – Australia 1996

New Zealand’s Antipodean cousins can be little scamps when it comes to respecting the Haka. In the 1996 Tri Nations fixture in Wellington, the whole Australian team decided to stretch some hamstrings rather than accept the challenge of the Haka.

This wasn’t a great idea – Australia went on to lose 43-6. Ouch.

 

Number 4 – Richard Cockerill and England 1997

Cockers isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but he will certainly remain long in the memory for this response to the Haka, and his coming together with Norm Hewitt.

 

Number 3 –  Wales 2008

It’s 2008 at the Millennium Stadium and Jonathan Kaplan tries desperately to shift one team or the other to get the game starting. Wales – with their hands on hips and Adam Jones looking mildly bemused won’t budge, so finally it goes down to New Zealand to move on…..otherwise they’d still be there today.

 

Number 2 – David Campese

The shy and retiring Aussie wasn’t one for the limelight usually and on a number of occasions he shunned the Haka, preferring instead to do some stretches and warm ups under his own posts.

 

Number 1 – Ireland 1989

Willie Anderson starts the ball rolling with innovative responses to the Haka with a slow march towards the All Blacks line. It took Shelford by surprise but he loved the challenge.

 

And the worst……British and Irish Lions 2005

The 2005 Lions tour was a disaster. O’Driscoll’s symbolic picking up of some grass after the Haka was supposed to show cultural empathy but not only was the protocol wrong it set the wrong tone for the series.

It was an act that made the Lions look subservient; a team that would respond to whatever the All Blacks wanted them to do.  Showing a little respect is one thing, kow-towing to the opposition before a battle is another.

 

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How many players are needed for a Lions test series?

Nobody can accuse Warren Gatland of not doing his own thing. In the 2013 Lions series in Australia, he managed to incur the wrath of Ireland by dropping Brian O’Driscoll and then followed that up by starting 10 Welsh players in the decisive 3rd test.

This time he has ignored the mantra that the Lions is the best of Britain and Ireland by calling up 6 new squad players (4 from Wales), of which 4 could be classed as nothing like the next best in the position in the Home Nations – in some cases they aren’t even in the top 4 in their position in the home country.

This prompted the though – how many players are needed for a 3 match Lions test series? Could we see some of these players sitting on the bench come the final test?

The figures – summarised below in the graph, show that over the last 3 tours about 30-32 players were needed for the 3 tests. The 2001 tour seems to be an outlier based on this review, where Graham Henry kept a very consistent team for the series against Australia.

 

Capped Lions each year

The 2013 Australia tour saw 21 players capped in the first test with an additional 3 in the 2nd and 6 in he final game, when Gatland put his faith in the Welsh contingent.

The 2009 tour to South Africa involved some brutal rugby with a number of serious injuries leading to 5 extra players capped in both the 2nd and 3rd tests.

The changes made on the 2005 tour were arguably more an indication that Woodward got his selection wrong for the 1st test, and arguably the squad as a whole. 6 new caps were awarded for the 2nd test with the likes of Back, Hill, Corry and Grewcock making way from the starting team and O’Driscoll unavailable after a Mealamu and Umaga “accident” (according to Graham Henry).

The attrition rate hasn’t been too much of an issue on this tour to date, but with a midweek game against the Chiefs and the first test just 5 days away, things can quickly change.

If more bodies are required next week it will look odd to overlook last week’s squad additions to make a call back to the UK or Ireland for reinforcements. If the Lions win the test, people won’t question Gatland’s judgements, but if they suffer a heavy defeat these controversial decisions will be used against him.

 

 

Australia 2013

Test capped players

1st test – 21

2nd test – +3

3rd test – +6

Total number of players with test cap = 30.

Australia 2013 test cps

 

South Africa 2009

Test capped players

1st test – 20

2nd test – +5

3rd test – +5

Total number of players with test cap = 30

SA 2009 lions caps

 

New Zealand 2005

Test capped players

1st test – 21

2nd test – +6

3rd test – +5

Total number of players with test cap = 32

 

NZ 2005 caps.jpg

 

Australia 2001

Test capped players

1st test – 19

2nd test – +3

3rd test – +1

Total number of players with test cap = 23

 

Australia 2001 test caps

 

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Brexit – Implications on Rugby Player Movements

Brexit – remember that topic from the summer of 2016? Well, it’s back and this time it’s all for real.

Recently, the UK’s man in Brussels handed over a letter to Donald Tusk, so signalling the UK’s formal withdrawal from the EU.

Prior to the EU referendum last year, theblitzdefence looked at several of the key rugby related risks facing the UK (player movements, flights, safety, health, duty free, sterling strength).  It could be argued the currency risk has already materialised, as travel and expenses in a Euro dominated country will cost you more today than pre-Brexit, but the other issues are still to be decided as part of the official negotiations.

This article will recap what the implications are for player, coach and staff movements for UK based rugby teams.

How does regulations around player movements currently work?

The primary implication for rugby is related to the potential restrictions around player (and also coach, physio and other back room staff) movements.

This is a pretty complicated area, but to simplify matters we can identify several ways a rugby player can legally work as a professional rugby player in the UK:

 (1)    Have a UK passport (this could be gained through a birth place, spouse/long term partner or parent)

(2)    Grandparent route – a grandparent born in the UK gives a player a 5 year ancestry visa

(3)    Have an EU passport (or spouse/long term partner)

(4)    Kolpak player (see explanation below)

(5)    Work visa – these will be granted depending on the level that the player has played at, with the aim to attract the best talent in to roles that can’t be filled by EU nationals.

The first 3 are self-explanatory but the forth category – Kolpak, may need a bit of explaining.

Kolpak players are those with a work permit from countries that have an Association Agreement with the EU – which are the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (ACP countries). These individuals must be treated the same as player from UK or EU and are therefore deemed to be “not  foreign”. A large number of Pacific Island and South Africans have played in the UK utilising this route.

The final category – where access is via a work visa,  includes those from outside the EU who are also non–Kolpak. These are termed “foreign” players and could include Americans, New Zealanders and Australians.

What will happen in the event of Brexit?

When the UK withdraws from the EU and is therefore no longer party to any freedom of movement requirements there are two main potential impacts on UK rugby teams:

  • Players with a non-UK EU passport will not have an automatic right to work in the UK
  • Kolpak players will not have an automatic right to work in the UK, as the UK will no longer be part of the Association Agreements with the ACP countries

An example of the first category of players affected by the change includes Exeter’s Italian international Michele Campagnaro who would not be able to wave his EU passport as he entered Heathrow and automatically be able to ply his trade in the south west.

The same would be true of French players who may prefer the wine and weather on the UK side of the English Channel (not that there are many now but the days of Raphael Ibanez and Phillipe Sella are not that long ago!). Maxime Mermoz at Leicester would fall in to this category.

In reality though we are not talking about huge numbers of players who would be impacted by this change but a number of players (typically Argentinians) use an EU passport as a way to play for a UK team.

Taking this development on a step, it would be interesting to see if the EU nations would reciprocate the UK’s removal of the freedom of movement and apply it to UK citizens. This would mean that UK passport holders would not automatically have the right to right to work in EU countries. Players who fall in to this camp could include Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon) and Toby Flood (Toulouse).

The second category of players – those playing under the Kolpak banner, would also lose the automatic right to play in the UK. This would potentially mean a number of the more high profile signings from the southern hemisphere power houses would be no longer treated as “non-foreign” and would be classed in the same bracket as other “foreign” players. The problem comes because most UK teams play in competitions that have a limit of 2 “foreign” players in a match day squad.

What would happen in reality?

If EU and Kolpak players are now subject to the same visa requirement rules as current “foreign” players, we may find that some players would no longer be permitted a visa given the playing standards would be too stringent for them to be met.

Secondly, if the 2 “foreign” players per match day squad is still applied then a number of “foreign” players would be sitting outside the match day squads. This could lead to more demand for UK qualified players with a drop-off in demand for those from overseas. This could lead to a number of strong overseas players being forced to play in France, Ireland or Italy.

In a cross-border league such as the Pro12 the teams would be subject to vastly different employment laws with respect to non-nationals which could upset the spread of overseas talent.

In reality it could take at least 2 years to agree how the issue of work permits will be dealt with between the UK and the EU, and indeed what – if anything, will replace the current agreements by which KOLPAK players have a right to play in the UK. There may well then be a transitional phase after the 2 years of negotiations, in which we see the new arrangements being gradually phased in.

Any agreement will be subject to political scrutiny though. As an example, one of the main pillars of the Brexit campaign, was to control immigration, therefore would it be acceptable to have work restrictions in sectors such as the service industry but no such protections in the world of rugby?

Another proposal put forward in some political circles is that agreements will be put in place with a number of current and ex-Commonwealth nations, which will smooth the way for the movement of skilled people to a UK free from EU shackles. Given the strong link between the Commonwealth and rugby this could potentially make the path for players to move from the likes of Fiji, New Zealand or Canada even smoother than it is today.

We should have a clearer idea over the next 2 years what the final outcome will be as negotiations proceed, but until then the current uncertainty makes planning difficult for club management and players alike.

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Why Professional Rugby is Impossible to Referee

In 2015 we wrote an article asking if professional rugby is now impossible to referee (read here); 18 months on and nothing has changed and there is a case to say that the referee’s job has become even harder.

If you read any rugby forum or Twitter conversation about a top end rugby game the comments always end up being focused on how poor the referee was – but how can this be the case when we have the best referees in the world officiating?

One of the main reasons that rugby watchers end up with this view is because they see infringements against their team, that the officials don’t pick up. The natural conclusion therefore is that the officials are incompetent? But how have we got to this position?

 

Rugby – the only sport that ignores infringements?

Rugby must be the only sport in the world where (at a conservative guess) more than 90% of infringements are ignored by officials. In every other sport, if a player infringes the rules or laws of the game they are penalised – but not in rugby!

This selective penalisation of offences is partly a function of the complexity of the game but in today’s world of professional rugby, it is more a function of the mass coaching of players to infringe, knowing referees can only penalise a small number of offences or they would render the game unwatchable.

To explain this concept in more detail let’s look at a 10 second clip from the 2017 6 Nations game between France and Wales. The clip shows the last second or two of a scrum, a penalty tap and the ensuing ruck.

Yes, this clip was in the dying stages of the game and the Welsh defence was hanging on but the offences are pretty common at any stage of a game at professional level. What the footage shows is replicated across all professional rugby on a regular basis.

To replicate the view of the respective supporters of each team, watch the clip again, firstly as a supporter of France and then as a Welsh supporter, and note down how many infringements you spot by the opposition in each case.

 

What’s an infringement?

When trying to spot the infringements, the first question that may pop in to a reader’s head is, what do you mean by infringement? Again, the complexity of rugby means we have perhaps 4 levels of laws and how they are officiated and applied:

  • The Law Book – the laws of rugby as written down. Sometimes these are followed, often they are ignored or “interpreted”
  • Law application guidelines and clarifications – these are official interpretations by World Rugby that are available on the website
  • Officials’ guidelines – if you are referee then you will receive coaching and information that helps you in your job. At the top level, the elite referees are given instructions by World Rugby that dictate how they adjudicate the game but these instructions aren’t made widely available to the rugby watching public
  • Individual referee’s interpretation – we still have referees interpreting laws differently, particularly across the two hemispheres

We won’t go in to this topic in any more detail now but it’s worth flagging the uncertainty we all have around what is or isn’t against the laws of the game.

 

The French View 

As a French supporter these are the Welsh infringements we spotted – there may be more you have seen that can be added to the list.

(1) Welsh loose head “hinges” with his head way below his hips, causing the scrum to collapse

 

(2) Welsh tight head collapses scrum under pressure – we can’t see what exactly happened given the camera angle, but this is what Wayne Barnes singles out as he penalises Wales

(3) Preventing a quick penalty tap – as Barnes signals for a French penalty, Rhys Webb tries to prevent or slow down the quick French tap by grabbing Picamoles.

 

(4) Failure to retreat from penalty – as Picamoles taps the ball at least 2 of the Welsh players in the camera view have not retreated to the try line.

 

(5) Not coming through the gate – as the tackle was made on Picamoles, Luke Charteris (number 19) approaches the tackle but fails to come through the Welsh gate, instead he flops on the tackled player on the French side in an effort to slow the ball down.

(6)  Not getting to feet or rolling away after a tackle – Liam Williams (number 11) assisted with the tackle but instead of getting to his feet or moving away from the tackle he attempts to play the ball (or at least slow it down) while still on his knees (he is the middle player in the screen shot below).

 

(7) Failure to release the ball while off feet – we can’t see who the player is but Barnes eventually penalises a Welsh player on the floor. We can just see the ball and the players arms as he belatedly tries to get away from the ball.

 

 

The Welsh View

Now switching sides and watching the events from a Welsh perspective there are a number of French infringements we spotted:

(1) The French tight head prop Slimani binds on the arm of his Welsh opposing prop pulling him downwards and causing the scrum to collapse.

 

(2) Penalty kick taken from the right place? It isn’t clear from the camera angle but it looks like Picamoles took the penalty tap in front of Waynes and not behind him or through the line of the mark.

 

(3) Offside at the tap – any players infront of the ball when the penalty is taken must immediately retire. In this case the French number 7 continues to move forward immediately after the tap rather than retreat until he was put onside.

 

(4)  Not joining the ruck at the back foot – Maestri (wearing 5) at the top of the image doesn’t join the ruck at the back foot but halfway down the ruck and ends up on the Welsh side (see second image where we can make out his number 5 shirt).

 

11 Infringements in 10 Seconds

If we sum these infringements we get 11 infringements in total, spread across the 2 teams. This total does not include other laws that are part of the law book but are not applied today, like having heads and shoulders no lower than hips when when joining a ruck or endeavouring to stay on one’s feet at the ruck. There are numerous examples of ruck laws that are just not applied any more.

Given the number of offences by each side that are ignored by the officials, we can easily see how supporters end up feeling their team has been hard done by and then blame the referee.

There isn’t an easy solution to the problem. The 3 possibilities are:

i) coaches and players back off and stop offending so frequently – which isn’t likely to happen given the win at all costs of modern rugby

ii) the officials start to penalise more offences

iii) we move towards the american football model of officiating, with a number of officials looking at different types of offences at any time

We will look at these options in a future blog, but for now it is easy to appreciate why supporters from all sides get frustrated during matches.  For those supporters who know the laws of the game, rugby can be a frustrating game to watch at the moment.

 

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British & Irish Lions Squad – Our Picks

At the end of 2016 we had our first stab at the likely Lions’ squad to head to New Zealand to take on the reigning World Champions. Now the 6 Nations has finished it’s time to revisit our choices and see what changes we would make.

The 6 Nations was probably one of the highest quality tournaments for some time with the continuing resurgence of Scotland adding to the base of players to choose from.

One area Gatland and co. will have to think about is the range of styles played by the 4 nations and which approach they will use to try and get the best of the All Blacks. Scotland and England tend to play a higher risk brand of rugby than Ireland and Wales, who take a more pragmatic approach to the game.

The Lions will be a 37 man squad and we have tried to broadly follow the make up of the 2013 squad which was; 3 full backs, 4 wings, 4 centres, 2 fly halves, 3 scrum halves, 6 props, 3 hookers, 5 second rows and 7 back row.

The style of play we would adopt will be based on the current English approach of playing with an abrasive, powerful pack that has a number of ball carriers. These will be coupled with backs with pace, who can cope with the movement of New Zealand but also exploit the gaps our ball carriers will create.

Here we go…..

Full Backs

Full back is one of the positions with impressive strength in depth, with arguably each of the 4 nations having a top class option. The 2017 tournament wasn’t his best, with a number of uncharacteristic errors by his own high standard, but primarily for his world class goal kicking Leigh Halfpenny has to make the squad.

In 2013 Stuart Hogg travelled as a 15 but also provided back up at fly half. He has had an impressive season with ball in hand and was arguably one of the players of the 6 Nations , even though there are question marks over his defence. Hogg is the sort of player that can win a game with a bit of magic; he has to travel, but only as a 15.

The final spot is a straight battle between Mike Brown and Rob Kearney (we will come to Liam Williams in a bit). We are big fans of Mike Brown, not only for the way he plays the game but his frequent bit of niggly theatrics is also entertaining.  Kearney has come back to a bit of form as well so it’s a tough decision. For his stronger all round game we will go with Rob Kearney.

 

Wings

If full back was a position of strength, wing is at the opposite end of the spectrum with no real stand out options.

One player who really used the 6 Nations as a springboard for selection for the Lions is England’s Elliot Daly. The pace he hit the pass in England’s match wining try against Wales at Cardiff showed he has the pace for wing while also having the flexibility to revert back to outside centre if needed.

After having a very up and down tournament, George North should have done enough to travel with the squad.  Looking back at North’s form in 2013 it is probably fair to say North’s game has regressed. This may be due to his problems with concussion or perhaps because of the set up at Northampton, but his attacking game has diminished and his all round game has failed to improve.

We would also take his Welsh colleague Liam Williams. Williams has been one of the stars of Welsh rugby over the last season or so with his gung-ho attacking style. For all the undoubted upsides he does have defensive lapses and moments of madness. At wing his attacking skills can be utilised but his defensive frailties hidden.

The fourth spot goes to Tommy Seymour and not just because he would be the token Scottish choice! Seymour has been a potent force for Glasgow in recent times and his nose for the try line gets him a spot. He may have had a relatively quiet 6 Nations but his 2016-17 form warrants a place.

Others who are in the mix but we wouldn’t select are; Zebo, Trimble, Earls, Visser, Nowell, May and Watson.

 

Centres

Choosing 4 centres is pretty tough given the number of options, with the final decision greatly influenced by the style of play the team wants to adopt.

Our first choice is England’s Owen Farrell. His ability to slot in to 10, his strong defence and his goal kicking attributes give him the nod, while his growing leadership capabilities shouldn’t be overlooked.

Second up is Leinster’s Robbie Henshaw, who has matured nicely over the past year or so to provide not just a physical presence but an attacking threat, as we saw in his match sealing try against New Zealand.

Farrell’s England colleague Jonathan Joseph will also be touring in our squad. He may not be the abrasive physical type of centre that has become more popular in recent years, but his pace and movement are perfect for exploiting the space provided by our bigger ball carriers.

The last seat is given to Scott Williams. For a long time Williams has been in the shadow of his compatriots Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts, but no longer. His defence allied to his strong running lines makes him a squad member. Williams had a strong 6 Nations but needs to improve his passing off his wrong side and minimise the number of “ball rip” tackles he attempts.

Those in contention that miss out include: Jon Davies, Jamie Roberts, Gary Ringrose, Alex Dunbar and Ben T’eo.

 

Fly Halves

With Farrell covering 10 there are just 2 slots available and a number of strong contenders.

Although he may be the wrong side of 30 and seems to be continually being patched up, a place has to be found for Johnny Sexton. After a bit of dip in form after his French sojourn, Sexton seems to be getting back to his best where he controls the game superbly while providing a constant attacking threat.

Joining Sexton is Scotland’s Finn Russell.  This maybe a controversial choice but not since Gregor Townsend has Scotland been able to choose a 10 with such a natural rugby brain. He also brings something different to the Lions squad with his brand of high risk rugby and unpredictability; the sort of player who could quickly move his game to another level surrounded by players of top quality.

Those who just miss out are George Ford and Dan Biggar.

 

Scrum Halves

This is probably a unique position in that the 3 contenders are probably already known.

Although an excellent player, Greg Laidlaw, who was injured in the 6 Nations, misses out because of his lack of attacking threat so our first choice will be Conor Murray, a veteran of the successful 2013 tour. Murray’s kicking game is excellent and his big game experience will be crucial in the pivotal scrum half position.

Another 2013 touring party member, Ben Youngs is chosen for his lightening fast breaks around the ruck and maul. With some of the forwards punching big holes in the New Zealand defence, the likes of Youngs will be crucial in exploiting those gaps.

The final spot goes to Rhys Webb from the Ospreys. After injuring his ankle in the Autumn international against Australia, he has come back with a bang. He may give away silly penalties and not always make the right decisions, but his attacking threat outweighs these negatives.

 

Props

Previously held back by his poor scrummaging, Mako Vunipola has made huge strides in this department and it is no longer an area of weakness. Jack McGrath gets the nod over his Leinster team mate Cian Healy while the athleticism and ball carrying of Scarlet’s Rob Evans means he also makes the squad.

Tadhg Furlong’s impressive autumn series has been carried over in to the 6 Nations and it means he is in pole position to get the tight head Lions spot but he will face still competition from Dan Cole, who is another player whose game seems to have evolved over the last 18 months, to the point where he is not seen as just a scrummager.

Back in December we said the final tight head spot would be a shoot out between Scotland’s WP Nel and Wales’ Samson Lee. Unfortunately Nel hasn’t had any game time for Scotland and Lee has lost his Wales spot! Lee’s replacement Tomas Francis hasn’t convinced us yet he is test level material so he is out of the running.

Scotland’s impressive young prop Zander Fagerson comes in to the equation but with Scotland’s scrum a big area of weakness, a case for Fagerson is difficult. Attention then switches to Ireland’s John Ryan and England’s Kyle Sinckler. Given we want athletic, ball carrying forwards Sinckler gets the nod.

 

Hookers

Given Gatland is a gnarly, Kiwi hooker he surely isn’t going to turn down the option of choosing another gnarly, Kiwi hooker is he? Probably not, which is why we think Dylan Hartley will go, even though he has had a pretty average 6 Nations.

Pushing him hard in an England shirt is the Saracens’ hooker Jamie George, and we would also take him on the plane. He has been a dominant force in what is a very powerful Saracens pack this season and even though he lacks international experience his form warrants selection. He is arguably England’s best hooker.

The final place comes to a straight shoot out between Rory Best and Ken Owens of Wales.

He may be 34 years old but Rory Best seems to have found a new injection of energy and verve this year while his leadership credentials will also be a plus in his column. We shouldn’t also discount the experience he has of playing and beating New Zealand.

Ken Owens had his best series of games for Wales, and seems to have emerged from Scott Baldwin’s shadow. Is it a coincidence that this has occurred while Gatland has been on his gap year? We are not sure Owens is fully appreciated by Gatland which is why we think he will choose Rory Best.

Second Rows

A really tough area to choose from. Who is in contention? From England – Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, Maro Itoje and George Kruis. From Ireland – Iain Henderson and Devon Toner. From Scotland – the Gray brothers, and from Wales – Alun-Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris. Selecting 5 from that lot isn’t easy.

We will start with 3 Englishmen – the rising star of Maro Itoje (who has played a fair bit at 6 in this tournament) who seems to be able to do everything, has to go. Joe Launchbury gets the 2nd spot due to his excellent 6 Nations. Launchbury does the hard work in hitting rucks and making tackles but his ball carrying game is underrated. Given George Kruis’ injury we will also take Courtney Lawes, with the caveat that a strong end of season for the Saracens’ star may see him regain this spot from Lawes.

Scotland’s Jonny Gray has been in great form this season and arguably usurped his brother as the best player in the Gray household. Our final choice is Alun-Wyn Jones from the Ospreys. If for no other reason, Jones is chosen for his force of character and ability to galvanise and push on those around him; important characteristics on a long tour to New Zealand. The full extent of his injury in the game against France should be known shortly.

 

Back Row

If we thought full back and second row were competitive spots, our options at back row are mind boggling. Where to start? Well, we want our team to be physical and abrasive but also they must be able to carry the ball. There are probably about 20 players in contention for these spots – too many to list, so we’ll dive in and say who we would pick.

From Ireland CJ Stander and Sean O’Brien have to travel. Stander has been a huge force for Munster in recent times, and brings South African power running with a good rugby brain. O’Brien continues to be a potent mix of a jackaling 7 with the barnstorming runs of a number 8.

In December we also had Jamie Heaslip in the squad but after a fairly average 6 Nations he has fallen down the pecking order. He may also find that come the Autumn his international place is under threat with the return of Peter O’Mahony to 6 with Stander moving to 8.

The Lions management will be hoping that Sam Warburton remains injury free, as he could be crucial in slowing the All Black ball and stealing the odd turnover or two.Bath’s Taulupe Faletau very rarely has a bad game and although he is returning from injury this consistency means he also gets a tour spot.

After an excellent 6 Nations Justin Tipuric should also be rewarded with a squad place. Tipuric doesn’t do as much of the hard graft as Warburton but he has become a leading lineout option for Wales and has the engine that will be needed against a mobile New Zealand team.

Billy Vunipola (another of the dominant Saracens pack) has arguably been the form player in the northern hemisphere this calendar year. He may also be coming back from injury but for a heavy man he moves very well and is difficult to stop off the base of the scrum.

The last selection is theblitzdefence’s favourite player James Haskell, who seems to have found a new lease of life under the Aussie Eddie Jones. As long as he focuses on the rugby his attributes will be a welcome addition to the back row mix.

Those that just miss out are: Jamie Heaslip, Peter O’Mahony, Nathan Hughes, Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw, Hamish Watson, Ross Moriarty and Thomas Young.

 

Test Squad

15. Stuart Hogg

14. George North

13. Jonathan Joseph

12. Owen Farrell

11. Elliot Daly

10. Johnny Sexton

9. Conor Murray

8. Billy Vunipola

7. Sam Warburton (captain)

6. CJ Stander

5. Maro Itoje

4. Joe Launchbury

3. Tadhg Furlong

2. Jamie George

1. Mako Vunipola

 

16. Jack McGrath

17. Rory Best

18. Dan Cole

19. Alun-Wyn Jones

20. Taulupe Falateu

21. Rhys Webb

22. Robbie Henshaw

23. Liam Williams

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