By The Spotter
At first glance, this tenth Lions team to NZ doesn’t appear to have the roar factor. Will they end up looking more like toothless tigers? Steve Hansen and the All Blacks will be wary of Owen Farrell and a few others, but there is no-one in the group who is, or is on the way to being, an all-time great. Also they have that nice young Welshman Sam Warburton as captain- the sort of man that your nana would be happy to have over for tea and pikelets.
In fact, the squad is rather lopsided with Welsh players when you consider their patchy form of recent times- why you would almost think Gareth Edwards and Barry John were lending a hand on selections. A bit bizarre that there are more Red Dragons than Irishmen. Is Gatty a little guilty of playing family favourites?
And we may as well dismiss the notion right here that a Lions criteria for selection relates to ‘personal character’ (or whatever term it is). How else to reconcile the selection of Joe Marler, England’s tighthead prop, not exactly an arch transgressor, especially compared to some villains of the past like Cholley of France or our own Richard Loe; but a player nevertheless who has been in trouble more than once for disciplinary issues and who called Wales’s Samson Lee ‘a gypsy boy’. (To Marler’s credit, he did apologise). It is illogical to say that Dylan Hartley missed out on issues of character, therefore.
It is true that Hartley is prone to being a low-rent idiot, but he has curbed those inclinations since Eddie Jones became coach. He is a formidable obstacle in the tight stuff, had his Rugby grounding in New Zealand and is captain of a national team with an enviable winning record. Hard to believe there wasn’t a place for him in the huge squad of forty-one, ahead of Ken Owens and England’s reserve hooker, Jamie George.
So no Hartley in the team or as captain, and Ireland’s Rory Best passed over for the armband as well. The man who led his country to their first-ever victory over the All Blacks a few months back after over a century of trying. Not to mention his brilliant performance in helping beat England in Dublin recently, when Eddie’s lot were going for the Six Nations Grand Slam and the world record for consecutive top-tier test wins. Very peculiar, especially when you consider too that Warburton is beset with injury at the minute.
On the point of the make-up of the squad, what is very clear is the days of naming a touring team with a set first XV and second XV in mind is a relic of a bygone era. These days it is all about squad rotation and multi-skilled, impact specialists. How else to explain the inclusion of so many who are only bit-parters in their national sides?
To the Mount Everest-sized task this team are facing. Regarded as the two best post-war Lions teams to hit these shores, the 1959 and 1971 tourists, both had sets of backs who would have filled almost every position in the corresponding All Blacks sides and had forwards who were as uncompromising as New Zealand’s, and in the case of 1971, better at set pieces. Yet the ‘59ers lost 3-1 (only winning the last test, although NZ were extremely lucky to win the first, thanks to six Don Clarke penalties to four tries) and the ‘71ers scraped home with a fortuitous draw in the last test for a 2-1 victory- their one and only series win to date.
By talent alone, that 1971 Lions team should have been able to put a twenty point margin on the All Blacks in one of the tests, but one should never underestimate the fighting qualities of the men who wear the black jersey. And that is why this group of Lions to New Zealand will be lucky to win one test. Let alone the fact they have suicidal itinerary, they are up against the best team in the world in charge of a practically incomparable sporting legacy; who have an absolute magician in career-best form in the pivotal number ten jersey and possess more dynamism all over the park.
The two best players of the forty-one coming, Owen Farrell and Sean O’Brien, need to play the three test matches of their absolute lives and somehow hope they can inspire at least seven or eight others into doing the same. Will there be any Lions come the end of the tour to compare to past greats that have been here like Jackie Kyle, Gareth Edwards, Willie John McBride and Gerald Davies? I’m trying, but cannot see it.
As far as I can envision (and happy? to be proven wrong), there would have to be some sort of refereeing hatchet job on the All Blacks for things to be even that close. Let’s wait and see, but judging on past history alone you would think the Lions will be returning to the UK with their tails firmly between their legs.
For a nice bit of nostalgia to finish, here is one of the most famous tries in All Blacks-Lions history, from the old Athletic Park, in June, 1977. And you’ll notice that even though Grant Batty had a dodgy knee, the pace of Andy Irvine in trying to catch him is downright scary.