Aled Price takes a look at the All Blacks’ pack options and deciphers exactly which combination could pose the most problems for the Lions.
1. Joe Moody
The most understated and least appreciated member of this All Black pack, Moody quietly goes about his business with precision and aplomb. The Crusaders man is challenged for the number 1 jersey both internationally and regionally by the experienced Wyatt Crockett.
There is no greater motivator than competition for selection, ensuring both men have been in fine form this season. The highlight of his career in black so far must be the one-handed back door offload in the 2015 World Cup quarter-final against France. Whilst fierce in the loose I would expect the Lions to target this side of the scrum, with Tadhg Furlong a fantastic scrummager they could get impressive results with the tactic.
2. Dane Coles
The best hooker in the world, his skill set and decision making are astronomically higher than all other competitors. Has a natural ability to find the try line and as is always mentioned when discussing the Hurricanes man, he is like an extra back rower.
Dependable at the lineout and scrum, where he really excels is his ability to allow NZ to play wider. By operating in the wide channels so comfortably he stretches the men in black’s attack, offering himself for carrying and hitting rucks. The strength in depth at hooker isn’t as strong as other positions, his capability to stay fit will be crucial to decide who wins the epic test series.
3. Owen Franks
Famously only interested in scrummaging and lifting weights, the younger of the Franks brothers is a mammoth man. Any player who can squat 280kg for ten repetitions is not a man to be trifled with. With 90 caps to his name, his experience of enormous occasions and big stage victories is sure to intimidate the potentially inexperienced Lions front row.
The Canterbury native is dominant in the scrum and destructive in defence, and don’t expect anything to change. A position of relative weakness depth wise for Steve Hansen, expect Franks to be wrapped up in cotton wool ready to be unleashed on the Lions.
4. Brodie Retallick
The most skilled and naturally talented footballer ever to play in the second row. The World Rugby Player of the Year in 2014 is a man mountain. Standing at over two metres and weighing 120kg, he has the soft hands and the rugby brain of an outside half.
Playing 60 Tests since 2012, his importance for the men in black cannot be underestimated. Starting this season extremely powerfully with the Chiefs, expect Retallick to come into the test series firing on all cylinders. An enormous match-up of seismic proportions awaits between him and Maro Itoje, a contest I dare miss out on or predict the victor.
5. Sam Whitelock
The second member of the best second row combination in rugby. His worth is perfectly exemplified by his absence being so catastrophic when NZ lost to Ireland in November. The 84 times capped Crusaders man offers tremendous leadership and grunt at the breakdown and is a traditional number 5.
Perfectly complimenting the more showbiz Brodie Retallick the two-time world cup winner is the glue that holds this front five together. The Lions are blessed with several world-class operators at lock, expect a titanic tussle for dominance.
6. Jerome Kaino
Standing at 6’5″ and weighing 113kg, the Auckland man is biologically designed to play at blindside flanker. Combining brute force and pure strength with a dog-like work ethic, he perfectly compliments the other back row players.
Although originally selected for the All Blacks against the Barbarians in 2004, Kaino is yet to play against the Lions, an aspiration he will surely achieve this summer. At the age of 34, and with his international career surely coming to a climax, he will be desperate for a series victory.
7. Ardie Savea
A straight shootout between Ardie Savea and Sam Cane. Pragmatism versus pace, experience versus youth and reliability versus flair. Criticised in previous seasons for drifting in and out of games, he has started 2017 with a bang, providing consistently commanding performances.
Whilst not offering the same breakdown expertise that Cane offers, the Hurricanes flyer has made twelve tries and scored four in five games this year. I would expect the Lions to challenge the breakdown heavily this series and would not put it past Hansen to select Cane purely on that basis. Nevertheless, I would select the Wellington man on form and entertainment value.
8. Kieran Read
Captain of the hallowed black jersey, the Canterbury man is the fourth double World Cup winner in the pack. With his selection an automatic one granted he is fit. Whilst returning this weekend from a lengthy spell on the touchline with an elbow injury, expect the number 8 to come back fit and firing. His lineout work as a third jumper and defensive dominance grow forever stronger, along with his leadership.
However, his offloading and carrying game have waned in recent years as he has aged, losing a bit of dynamism. There is no doubt though that the All Blacks are a stronger side with his presence. Capped 97 times, how special would it be for him to hit a century of games in the jersey with a Test series victory as captain?
Aled Price, Pundit Arena