Picture New Zealand as a metaphorical ‘rugby terrain’ and consider Warren Gatland and his British and Irish Lions as the group charged with ‘negotiating it’. To do that Gatland must first experiment with his squad, and especially the Lions back line depth, to find the winning combination before June 24.
Returning from Whangarei, after the tour opener, some questions have already been raised. In the less than stellar performance, excuses such as jet lag and a lack of preparation have been put out by the media. While the coaching staff and 23 players who ran out onto Toll Stadium will say otherwise, the combinations are not yet there. The forwards were combative, but in their execution they lacked composure and finesse in the backs.
Why is the back line the key? Because the All Blacks are bred to run. Their outside backs have speed and instinct. Even their forwards today are designed to work in the tight, then look for space–some even fit into the back line better than many in the business. So, as well as Julian Savea or Ben Smith, the Lions back line must perform as good as Brodie Retallick or captain Kieran Read.
The Challenge Ahead for the Lions Back Line
To beat the All Blacks twice in the space of three weeks in New Zealand is an unenviable task, and one that the British and Irish Lions have not managed since 1971. That is before you consider just how much better this All Blacks team are compared to the one of nearly half a century ago.
The hosts only loss since defending their Rugby World Cup trophy at Twickenham in October 2015 was to Ireland in Chicago six months ago. You need ‘magic’ to beat Steve Hansen’s side and the men from the Emerald Isle had it that day. But a Lions backline is peppered with the best of the United Kingdom–not just the men in green.
So over the next three weeks, trial and error will be utilized. Men will be selected for their purpose, to meet the challenge laid down by, firstly – five Super Rugby sides. As well, the Maori All Blacks will play them too–in what many call the ‘fourth test’. The side will be a trial, to sort out who fits, and who does not.
— Eden Park, Auckland (@edenparknz) May 5, 2017
What the Lions squad, and importantly the Lions back line must aim to do, is ‘rattle the champs’.
Plenty of Opportunity to Build Combinations on Tour
The tourists get three opportunities to achieve that goal. Wellington sits between two trips to Eden Park, Auckland, where New Zealand have not lost for over 20 years. The early games are testing points, steps on a path that will allow for a build in momentum, prior to June 24. Those six warm-up games will also require tactical diversity. No one game plan will work against New Zealand twice so Gatland must have more than one trick up his sleeve.
But having selected personnel that offer blistering pace (like Jack Nowell above), brute strength, and world-class skill sets, selection is key. Players strengths must include reliability under the high ball, and other attacking tactics. With the men on tour, Gatland has given this Lions back line every chance to succeed, if the other 12 players can perform their roles.
Lions Back Line Depth a Trial of the Right Combinations
Many of the men present in New Zealand, are proven stars. They include Grand Slam winners, Five Nations Champions, Aviva Premiership/Guinness Pro12/French Top 14 winners.
With men who have each been chosen on merit, must now develop relationships with the stars of countries who they once met on the field. Stuart Hogg, Liam Williams and Owen Farrell will all be used over these next six games. Gatland has promised much rotation early, so every one of the candidates for the Lions back line have time to ‘prove their worth’.
The Main Candidates
Realistically six wingers are vying for two positions, the likeliest of those to start looks to be George North. The Welsh star who rediscovered by the end of the Six Nations, the form that had eluded a player of his calibre for too long. He made the headlines four years ago for being simply electrifying.
— BBC Wales Sport (@BBCWalesSport) May 12, 2017
The memory of the first Australia v Lions test in Brisbane of 2013, where he scored one of the great Lions tries, but also for his titanic battle with Israel Folau. While some would love to see history repeat itself, that is not rugby. He must prepare for battle with a similar opponent in Julian Savea, but it is a battle he must audition for. No player can be selected on past form. His work leading up to June 24 will be a trial for him–as much as all the Lions back line.
One the opposite flank, should you pick based on form of the last 12 to 18 months it would be Elliot Daly. Accustomed to playing 13 for his club side Wasps, he had adapted to a winger’s role with England under Eddie Jones and has thrived. His skill set is such that versatility comes easy and the speed with which he accelerates is blistering. If the British and Irish Lions can successfully experiment with Daly over the next games, then the Englishman may prove to be the best option.
Prior Form a Good Indicator, But Tour Performances Will Tell
England team mates Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson will both believe their form this season and the chances afforded to them in the warm up games, may give them sufficient time to stake their claim for a start. And on Saturday, Watson undoubtedly made the first application for a place.
That sense of ‘x factor’ may just edge Watson ahead of Nowell. The Exeter man though has that sixth sense of the best lines to run. Given the possible dexterity of the British and Irish Lions back line, the combinations from fly-half through the centers is key. Nowell may prove a worthwhile choice–given one or two opportunities.
The Possible Options
The man with the most recent success against the All Black defense is Wales flyer Liam Williams. He was part of the Welsh side that toured New Zealand last summer and, despite being comprehensively beaten, the hope is that he will show the spark that many saw from him them. Injury halted his run in 2016, but starring with the Scarlets shows he can add real value.
Should Gatland be determined to field Williams, he could wear number 15 as opposed to the stand out choice for much of this year; Stuart Hogg. The Scottish back had a phenomenal Six Nations, yet in Whangarei he was confuded. The good came with the bad. And if players want to show there pedigree, than Hogg must grab any further opportunities.
Hogg’s team mate at Glasgow Tommy Seymour is another fine option for Gatland. In fact, the Wales head coach (in absence) he will be aware of Seymour’s talent. Watching him score the decisive try against Wales in this year’s Six Nations. By no means oozing flamboyancy but Seymour does exactly what you want from a winger and he will do so time and time again.
Yes, he is not quite in possession of the pace of say North or Watson, but he is a man for all seasons. He has it in his arsenal to oppose whatever New Zealand choose to throw at the British and Irish Lions back line.
Each One Will be Given an Opportunity
The opportunity to write their name up in lights as a leading figure in an unlikely Lions win is more than enough to wet the appetite of the chosen few. Competition for British and Irish Lions jerseys is strong, but none more so than on the wings and the pair who take the field will have been chosen with a plan in mind.
The job for Gatland is to design a plan, because his squad holds the pieces to present a real challenge to the mighty All Blacks.
The Lions squad to face the Blues at Eden Park on June 7 is:
Lions: Leigh Halfpenny, Jack Nowell, Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Elliot Daly, Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb, CJ Stander, Justin Tipuric, James Haskell, Courtney Lawes, Maro Itoje, Dan Cole, Ken Owens (c), Jack McGrath
Reserves: Rory Best, Joe Marler, Kyle Sinckler, Iain Henderson, Peter O’Mahony, Greig Laidlaw, Johnny Sexton, Liam Williams.
“Main photo credit”