The Lions tour of New Zealand could be a disaster if the tourists fail to match the All Blacks and the five New Zealand Super 18 sides’ pace, strength and skills.
One statistic highlights the daunting challenge in front of Warren Gatland’s men: in nine rounds and 44 games, the five New Zealand Super 18 sides have only lost once to non-New Zealand opposition.
That loss, suffered by the Chiefs against the Stormers away, means that the Kiwi teams are collectively unbeaten against non-NZ side at home this season. After the Chiefs game, the Stormers toured New Zealand and suffered a horror pair of losses: 57-24 against the Crusaders and 57-14 to the Highlanders. In a schedule which has parallels with the Lions tour, the bashed up Stormers side will next face the red-hot, Beauden Barrett-led, Wellington Hurricanes. Today, the management announced that four players will be flown in to cover injuries suffered in the two games in New Zealand so far.
Admittedly the greater size of the Lions squad will mean the test side will be shielded from much of this brutality, but if injuries to the midweek players are incurred, the test players may have to be exposed. The Wellington Hurricanes game sandwiched between the first and second tests on 27th June, looms as the game which may break the back of the Lions. The Lions will have six tough games and a test before that game, and the resources of the 41-man squad will be be severely tested as Gatland will not want to select the first-test players, who will have competed just three days before the Hurricanes game.
Gatland will also probably want to give his test players a chance to acclimatize to conditions and playing styles, while building form and combinations in the earlier games. However, given the bone-shuddering defense and lethal attacking brilliance of the New Zealand sides, he may be advised to shield his first choice test players as much as possible.
The Hurricanes, for example, average seven tries per game and have a points differential of 217. The Crusaders are currently unbeaten in nine games and the Chiefs and Hurricanes have incurred only one loss. The Hurricanes and Crusaders lead the attacking statistics in in the Super 18 almost all categories (tries, defenders beaten, clean breaks, metres run). The Highlanders sit fourth in the Zealand conference, but have only lost games against New Zealand opposition and are on a five-game winning-streak. Even cellar dwellers the Blues’ five losses were all against New Zealand opposition and were mostly tight affairs. From the bottom to the top, the All Blacks themselves have not lost a test in New Zealand for seven years and 44 games.
The overall picture for the Lions is bleak: at home New Zealand rugby sides are very, very formidable.
After a long European club season, will the Lions be sharp enough to cope with quicksilver threats like the Chief’s Damian McKenzie? Will they be able to cope with the pace and power of twin cannonballs from the Hurricanes, Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso? Will they be able to shut down the Crusaders’ brilliant offloading game? It’s a grim horizon for Warren Gatland’s men.