In a bit over 140 days, the British & Irish Lions will arrive on New Zealand shores for the most anticipated rugby event of 2017.
The Lions will play three Test matches against the All Blacks, two in Auckland and one in Wellington.
Along with that, Warren Gatland and his men will have a hit out against all five of New Zealand’s Super Rugby franchises, plus a match against the NZ Barbarians and the Maori All Blacks. It will be the traditional blockbuster that Lions tours have become known for.
Now I want to stress that the following discussion is an opinion piece, none of these selections have been made based on any current form, mainly because New Zealand Rugby is on a holiday right now. Some selections are logical, some are not a surprise, and others may be of contention to some. You’ll also note that I haven’t selected a reserves bench. This is purely the starting XV, nothing more or less.
So sit back, relax, and have a read through what I think is the best All Blacks starting XV to take on the Lions in 2017.
The All Black Back Line For Lions Tour
Apart from those I highlight below, the All Blacks back line features three men who are certain selections. Beauden Barrett won IRB World Rugby Player of the year in 2016, and Aaron Smith will return to his peak after a long summer away from the spotlight and deep in thought.
You can’t go past ‘The Bus’ Julian Savea; he slots into the left wing, and he is joined on the right wing by the versatile Ben Smith who will turn down a big money offer from French rugby.
But all over positions are up for grabs, so the first area I want to focus on is the midfield.
Sonny Bill Williams gets selected, without question. Pending no major injury, hearing Williams’ name called out at the squad announcement is the surest thing of the series. The cross-code superstar will have had a near full season of Super Rugby under his belt by then, and you can bet that an opportunity to go against the Lions would have been a key factor in his decision to stay in New Zealand for another year.
George Moala will pair with Williams in the midfield, providing a powerful duo for the back line to work around. It may not be the fastest pairing, but the power and offloading abilities of both Williams and Moala will be the catalyst for Barrett, and the two wingers to score from. Don’t forget, Moala was mighty impressive in 2016; had it not been for injury he may well have been the front-runner.
Damian McKenzie is fresh off an impressive year at all levels of the game. His debut for the All Blacks against Argentina was reward for that, but the real key to McKenzie’s skill on the park is his self-belief off it. In McKenzie, the All Blacks have a fullback that can be a third goal-kicking option behind Beauden Barrett and Aaron Cruden, or perhaps even a shock experiment.
The Forwards Provide Grunt Up Front
Owen Franks recently put pen to paper and committed to New Zealand Rugby through till the 2019 Rugby World Cup. A regular starter for the All Blacks, Franks performs in almost every game, but his decision to knock back a multi-million dollar offer in French rugby should be rewarded with a place in the starting XV to face the Lions.
I’ve gone with Matt Todd at No.7, but it was a toss up between the Crusaders flanker and Sam Cane.
Cane wins on experience and proven ability at the International level, but there is a big but at play here. The problem is that Cane is prone to making, at times deliberately, some very silly decisions on the field. During the Super Rugby semi final against the Hurricanes, Cane cost the Chiefs a penalty by deliberately running into and shunting a Hurricanes player who was trying to get into his sides offensive line. Cane is co-captain of the Chiefs, but in that game he was non-existent apart from that one moment.
Todd, on the other hand, has long been touted as the next Richie McCaw in Crusader country. It has been a tough road to the All Blacks however, and since making his debut in 2013, Todd only hit his stride in 2016 with somewhat regular selection.
In my most shocking selection, Nathan Harris makes the starting squad. The position of hooker was of particular difficulty when coming up with this list. On experience, skill, and leadership, Dane Coles was the logical decision. But does the Hurricanes captain have a few ‘bumps in the road’ ahead of him? I can’t help but think so. The problem is, so many of New Zealand’s top rugby players were at the top of their game in 2016, and history states that at least a couple of them will experience a bit of a drop ahead of the Lions tour.
Sadly for Coles, I’ve placed him in this category. Harris gets selected prior to the series, to a lot of speculation, because it goes directly against the selection style of Hansen and co.
The Best All Blacks Starting XV to face British & Irish Lions in 2017:
- Wyatt Crockett
- Nathan Harris
- Owen Franks
- Brodie Retallick
- Sam Whitelock
- Jerome Kiano
- Matt Todd
- Kieran Read (c)
- Aaron Smith
- Beauden Barrett
- Julian Savea
- Sonny Bill Williams
- George Moala
- Ben Smith
- Damian McKenzie
So what did you think? Feel free to get in contact with me on Twitter or comment on this story to share your thoughts.
Last Word On Rugby will have full and comprehensive coverage of the Lions tour during 2017. Prior to the blockbuster tour, Super Rugby gets underway in September and one of the big questions on everyone’s lips, as always, surrounds Tana Umaga and that Blues back line. More on that to come in the near future.
“Main photo credit”