Lions must roar in New Zealand

Rugby needs the British & Irish Lions to overcome the odds and challenge the All Blacks in the coming Test series, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Can the Lions avoid a 3-0 drubbing? That was the big question at the start of 2017. Worryingly for the Lions and for the sport itself, many continue to ask this question as the highly anticipated series in New Zealand draws close.

A lot has transpired over the past four months. The performances by the home unions in the Six Nations had many northern hemisphere scribes declaring that the Lions’ prospects were not as bleak as first thought.

Then Super Rugby kicked off. Then New Zealand rugby delivered a timely reminder of the gap that exists between them and the rest of the world.

After nine rounds, the New Zealand franchises as a collective have won 19 out of 20 matches against foreign teams. The Stormers boast the sole win against Kiwi opposition, having beaten the Chiefs at Newlands in round seven. The same Stormers side was smashed 57-24 by the Crusaders in Christchurch this past Saturday.

South African teams like the Lions and Stormers have endeavoured to improve their conditioning, handling, and contact skills and have obtained some favourable results. However, the truth of the matter is that the Kiwis aren’t waiting for the South Africans or the best that the British and Irish have to offer to close the gap. They’re forging ahead to new territories.

The eight-try performance by the Crusaders against the Stormers is but one example of such ambition and progress. While they’re still the most physical team around, it’s what they do from the set-piece or breakdown platform that sets them apart. Most will remember the running lines and the offloads, but how often do we see Kiwi flyhalves and centres using a grubber, chip, or kick-pass to breach the opposition defence?

Beauden Barrett kicked 12 times in the recent game against the Brumbies. The All Blacks and Hurricanes flyhalf is ranked second in the tournament for kicks from hand. The All Blacks will present an all-round threat in the coming series, and Lions head coach Warren Gatland and defence coach Andy Farrell are unlikely to get much sleep in the lead-up to the first Test.

Rugby needs the Lions to push the All Blacks close. Much has been said and written about the brutal touring schedule, as well as the age-old challenge of uniting the home nations under one banner. But when you consider recent performances, you’d have to say the Lions should be the All Blacks' toughest opponents in 2017.

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England (ranked No 2 in the world) and Ireland (ranked No 4) have been on the rise for some time. Eddie Jones has transformed the England pack into something resembling the abrasive and uncompromising unit that won the 2003 World Cup. New Zealander Joe Schmidt has coached the Irish forwards to attack the breakdowns as if they were Kiwis.

Gatland has selected 27 players from these two countries in his final 41-man Lions squad. It should come as no surprise that 16 of the players in the Anglo-Irish group are forwards.

The Lions will need to challenge the All Blacks up front in order to nullify the likes of Barrett and company out wide. It is something the Boks and Wallabies have failed to do in recent times. It is why the Rugby Championship – not to mention Super Rugby  – has been so one-sided of late.

The Springboks lost more than eight Tests in 2016. They lost respect. Earlier this year, coach Allister Coetzee admitted that the team had a lot to prove in the three Tests against France in June. The kicking game and defence require work, but so too does the approach to the collisions and breakdowns.

Whether Coetzee and his lieutenants can put a sustainable system in place, is another story. It’s an open secret that Rassie Erasmus (who is currently with Munster) has been sounded out about the Bok coaching job, and that he could be on board later this year. Coetzee and company will be looking to win the series against France at all costs, and as was the case last year, may not plan ahead to the subsequent Rugby Championship.

We all have a fair idea of how the 2017 Rugby Championship will pan out. There is still some mystery, however, around the Lions’ tour to New Zealand and the challenge they may pose to the All Blacks’ dominance.

It’s been too long since the All Blacks were seriously challenged in a tournament or series. Rugby needs the Lions to do well when they travel east this June.

Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile/Getty Images

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Jon Cardinelli