As you read this I will be airborne on route to Auckland to arrive just before the first British & Irish Lions test. This thunderous clash of the world’s best rugby team and the best of the home nations is probably one of the most anticipated rugby matches this century.
We now know the make up of both teams and jaws were duly dropped at some of the British & Irish Lions selections. Big call to not have the young tyro Maro Itoje in the starting XV so the thinking must be that out of the 3 locks they have selected Itoje is the only one that can actually come on and change a game with his energy and mobility. Jones is a starter or he is not in the team so it does make sense and he is a powerful and skilful lock with bags of experience in what will be a young front five. Gatland loves a mind game and this team will definitely have the All Black coaches quickly reaching for their game plan to make some revisions.
I am pretty sure like most of us they were expecting Halfpenny at full back and North on the wing. This selection would have been very solid and demonstrated a clear Lions game plan of kicking and defending. With Daly and Liam Williams playing mid-week it would also have appeared the best those two could hope for would be a bench spot. Gats has shown he does like a roll of the dice and actually I love this selection. The back three can all tear it up and if there is an inch of space to be exploited they will find it. All three are also full backs so high balls should be no problem and Daly is a lovely comfort blanket to have with his massive boot for those long range penalties.
I also wonder whether after seeing the All Backs team sheet and no Julian Savea on the wing it could have tipped the balance in Daly’s favour. With Faz starting Gats has got options to really change the team if the Lions are struggling and he needs to do something different. Bringing Sexton off the bench and moving Faz to 12 will immediately change the back play and two ball players will stand more chance of bringing the speedsters into the game.
The forward pack looks mightily fine to this old prop. Mako’s scrummaging has really improved and the Irish tighthead Furlong is strong and square when he engages. I also think that front row has worked well as a unit. There is also not a step down in quality when the replacement front row come on which augers well for the Lions to keep up the intensity for the full 80. The one thing we all know about the All Blacks is how strong they are in the final 20 and this is when they normally kill teams off. Kruis to me is one of the key men. He has a massive work rate and is a superb tackler. His almost obsessive love of a line out calling puts him right up there with his coach and mentor Steve Borthwick. If you watch him closely in line outs you can almost see the cogs whirring as he is analysing how the opposition line out is moving and the cues the players are giving about where the ball is going.
For the back row I think O Mahoney, O Brien and Falteau wrote their own names on the team sheet with their performances as a unit over the last two Saturday games against very tough sides. I’m so delighted for the humble but magnificent Peter O Mahoney to be captaining the Lions for the first test. I am sure as disappointed as Sam Warburton must be he will also be the first to recognise that Peter has earned the right. Excitement does not even begin to cover how I am feeling right now looking at that team sheet. Only area possibly I would have looked at is whether they need Halfpenny and Warburton on the bench as fine players as they both are neither are impact ones who can change a game.
Can we win on Saturday? Of course we can. Will we win? Well if we knew the answer to that one where would the fun be? The ‘phoney war’ is over now and the real battle is about to begin.
Go well the British & Irish Lions.