2005 was a special year for Michael Owen. As well being an integral cog in Wales’ first Championship win in eleven years, and a first grand slam since 1978, Owen was called up to the Lions squad to tour New Zealand that year.
Despite the 3-0 humbling that the Test team suffered against a rampant All Blacks side, Owen himself featured in six of the games on the tour and took away many fond memories from the experience.
“I really enjoyed the games against Taranaki and Auckland Blues. It was a tough tour but it’s awesome getting to know the guys from the other nations and striving to create a good team.”
Owen was also handed the captaincy for the Lions’ pre-tour test against Argentina at the Millennium Stadium, a game that would end in a thrilling 25-25 draw.
Warren Gatland’s choice of Sam Warburton as captain for the 2017 trip has divided fans and pundits alike, but Owen is sure the Lions coaches have picked the right man:
“He has great experience and is a top player who will lead with his actions and physicality on the field.”
When asked what makes touring New Zealand so challenging and seemingly unique in the world of rugby, Owen offers a blunt assessment:
“Quite simply because they have the best players in the world.
“I think the separation of the squad didn’t work [in 2005] although we did win all the midweek games. It was a decent idea which didn’t work in practice as we all had very different tours and failed to have that shared experience. We should have been more competitive than we were but didn’t develop a coherent style of play so we could challenge what was a great New Zealand team.”
However, Owen is remaining very positive about the tour and feels Gatland and his coaches have got their squad right this time around:
“It’s a great squad; there is so much strength in depth. I would have liked to have seen Garry Ringrose and Christian Wade picked. I am also a big fan of the Gray brothers and Launchbury, but I’m not sure who should have been left out for them to be included.
“The problem, as ever, is that the All Blacks have got special players that can win matches with great tries and I am not sure the Lions have players of the same ilk. The Lions will need to defend superbly and be clinical in attack. If they want to win the series they will need some incredible individual performances.
“Wales were superb in New Zealand last summer, but New Zealand won the first two tests with devastating 10 minute spells. The Lions will need to use their bench early and effectively to counter this. They could lose a warm up game as the provincial teams are so good and will need to be resilient if this happens. The coaching team is very experienced in terms of Lions tours so we have a great chance.”
Turning to events taking place back home, Owen believes the WRU’s potential takeover of the Dragons is the only way of taking the side onwards. Owen himself made almost a 100 appearances for the region and is keen to see changes taking place:
“From what I know it seems like the only option. The Dragons need a means of moving forward. They have been getting gradually worse and that needs to stop so they can galvanise the playing talent in the area and get a team to be proud of.”
Moreover, Owen is confident that Wales are on the cusp of winning trophies once more:
“Wales were close to winning [the Six Nations]. They could and should have won against France and England. Wales have got some great players who are capable of winning it but it was unbelievably close this year with nothing much between the top five teams.
“Wales just need to be a bit more clinical. They are going to need some young players to come through and create a bit more competition for places.”
This is likely to be forced onto Wales’ interim coaching set-up for the summer tour to Tonga and Samoa where Owen is looking forward to seeing a new generation of players coming through and putting pressure on the more established individuals.
With 12 Lions tourist this summer and with exciting Test matches to test the abilities of Wales’ finest youngsters, it truly is a momentous summer for the country.
“I think that we will see some of the best ever rugby matches on this Lions tour. There is so much talent on show in both teams.”
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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