Paul Lewis: Lions are not a great team

By Paul Lewis

Warren Gatland (head coach) and Sam Warburton (captain). Photo / Photosport.
Warren Gatland (head coach) and Sam Warburton (captain). Photo / Photosport.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Like the 2017 Lions.

This is no team of elegant dancers, creative geniuses or hypnotists. These are crash-and-bash, keep-the-ball grinders and penalty goal kickers.

There's nothing wrong with that. Winning ugly is just as effective as winning with style. Winning is the point, after all; only the great sides consistently win with style.

But, even before the 2017 Lions have kicked a ball, they do not shape as one of the great teams.

History is an authoritative guide, if not infallible: in 2005, 1993 (the last time the Lions won a test against the All Blacks), 1983 and 1977, the Lions found a grunty forward pack and willing backs weren't enough. If you look at the only time they have won a series here, in 1971, the Lions had more to offer.

It has become de rigeur for some Kiwis to decry that team, charging them with the unspeakable sin of kicking the ball in the tests, playing for territory and kicking for goal.


When some fondly describe the '71 Lions as artistic, acerbic Kiwis respond that the Lions bored their way to victory in the tests.

Apart from a lasting case of sour grapes 46 years later, that analysis overlooks the talent of the '71 squad. They did not just possess a battle-hardened forward pack; they had backs like Gareth Edwards, arguably the best all-round halfback ever, first-five Barry John, the great Mike Gibson at second-five, the muscular speed of John Bevan and the sidestepping elusiveness of Gerald Davies on the wings. Anyone who saw him play will also recall the gliding grace of wing/centre David Duckham.

It must also be said the All Blacks of that year were comparatively weak; their backline struggled to penetrate. If the Lions dazzled in the provincial games but played conservatively in the tests, kicking and trusting their forwards to win it for them, New Zealand can hardly complain.

Throughout the 60s, the All Blacks, while often boasting forwards who could run like backs, did exactly that to win test matches against determined opponents.

However, you're hard pressed to find anyone in the Lions line-up with the same sort of world-class credentials as '71.

Jonathan Joseph has pace and footwork at centre, always a formidable combination. Wing Anthony Watson can be a bit flaky but is an unpredictable, dangerous attacker. Fellow wing George North is always a threat and Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg an accomplished runner. But how many of them will make the tests?

Owen Farrell, at 10 or 12, has fine distribution skills and is probably the best goalkicker in the world. Coach Warren Gatland was right to finger goalkicking as an All Black weakness; Beauden Barrett does not possess the accuracy of Farrell or Johnny Sexton and Gatland's was the first sally in the mind games, injecting a virus of doubt in the highly psychological realm of goalkicking.

Otherwise? The Vunipola brothers' carrying and offloading will be a weapon. Lock/loose forward Maro Itoje is an acknowledged talent. Rookie prop Kyle Sinckler comes with a reputation of being a 122kg "wrecking ball" with athletic ability - though the midweek team seems likeliest for him.

Those who called Sam Warburton a mistake at No. 7 and captain simply don't understand the New Zealand game and the importance of a ball-winning openside flanker.

The Lions' success (or lack of it) will be governed as much by when they don't have the ball as when they do. Andy Farrell is a clever defence coach; they will look to stifle the All Blacks, provoke mistakes, kick the goals and let the pressure mount. Warburton will be key.

They'll kick for territory and to re-gather the high ball, they'll depend on their set piece and maul - another comparative All Black weakness. The Lions' big midfield backs clearly fit a strategy of maintaining possession while gaining the advantage line, plus the option of an offload or three.

It's hardly the stuff of greatness. British and Irish rugby has clearly moved on since 2005. There is more pace, better passing and use of ball and the ability to play at a faster tempo. The forwards are better athletes but it seems likely the 2017 Lions will revert to type in the tests.

They have been called one of the strongest Lions teams but on selection alone, they remind me most of the 1977 Lions - a fine forward pack that had the better of the All Blacks, except in the loose, and backs of not quite premier quality.

The All Blacks, in the fourth test in particular, were reduced to three-man scrums to counter the set piece threat - but the comparatively stolid Lions back row had no answer to Ian Kirkpatrick, Graeme Mourie and Lawrie Knight. They lost the series 3-1 in spite of often appearing the stronger side.

If I had to place a bet now, it would be for a similar scenario - a strong showing by the Lions pack but All Black superiority in the loose, on the counter and in that un-coachable area: taking chances when the pressure is most intense.

- NZ Herald

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