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Gatland has a strong squad, but All Blacks miles ahead

COMMENT: Neil Francis

On June 13, 2016, a strong Wales side took the field in Hamilton against the Waikato Chiefs. Both were under-strength, but the Welsh fielded 12 current internationals, with more on the bench.

The Chiefs are a bulk provider to the All Blacks but were shorn of all their quality, with the fledgling Anton Lienert Browne and the hapless Stephen Donald the only New Zealand internationals there.

The pundits were calling it Wales by 10 or 15. The Chiefs trounced the Welsh, and the only thing that you can’t reconcile is the 40-7 scoreline. It was a humiliation.

The fluency and then the directness of how the Chiefs played was bewildering.

Everywhere on the field the Welsh were competent. To hold Waikato to just 40 points was a phenomenal result.

On that three-Test tour the Welsh yielded 121 points; they were competitive throughout but the scoreboard never lies and in the end they walked off meekly in the final Test.

And the Welsh were lucky in the sense that New Zealand had lost all their superstars after winning the World Cup in November 2015; this was an experimental side. Food for thought for Warren Gatland.

For a touring side like the Lions, the most important covenant is believing that they can win the Test series.

All of Gatland’s coaching team have faith that they can win the series, but as Mark Twain says, “faith is believing in what you know ain’t so”.

I have been watching the Super 18 with interest this year before it reverts to the Super 15. It is my contention that if the Crusaders, Chiefs or Hurricanes played in the Six Nations they would win the title every year.

The quality and the skill levels of their rugby is phenomenal. We can talk about how strong our pack is or how good our defensive systems are or how we are going to hang on to the ball and pummel the Kiwis because they don’t like it up ‘em. It will be to no avail.

It was interesting to see some of the views of the New Zealanders when the Lions squad was announced: they see it as a fair reflection of yet another average Six Nations: there isn’t an outstanding side that can consistently win away.

We await the All Black trial and their warm-up match in Samoa but there will be enough quality in New Zealand to beat the Lions six or seven times.

Despite a reasonable thread of quality running through the Lions side, the Kiwis won’t be running off to buy a job lot of Pampers any time soon. 

The Scots will be miffed at only two of their players being chosen but in 2014 they finished second last; in 2015 they finished last; in 2016 they finished fourth; and this year again they finished fourth.

They have plenty of handy players but you would not pick any of them ahead of some of the players that have been selected by Gatland.

The Scots have been pretty poor for the last four years, and that is why they only have two tourists.

It is hard to gauge from the squad selection what type of game Gatland intends to play.

If he tries to play ‘Warrenball’ by picking the likes of Billy Vunipola and getting them around the corner, it will be a short-lived Test series.

Conventional wisdom leads us to believe that we will have a 9, 10, 12 of Connor Murray, Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell.

The back-row you’d think will have Sam Warburton at No.7, with Vunipola at No.8 and it is anyone’s guess who will play at blindside. I am assuming that Gatland will play Warburton in his best position at openside.

If that is the case we can expect a lot more kicking and the Lions playing a territory game.

There is quality at tight and some reasonable performers behind, but the game played in New Zealand is one of handling, deft passing and running.

The skill levels of the All Blacks are still 25-30% more accurate and more rounded than those of the Lions players, and this deficit you just can’t make up on a five-week tour.

This Lions side I believe has a better chance than the side that toured in 2005, but depending on some of the selections and whether the Super Rugby franchises are allowed to field their first-choice players, this looks like a tour where faith is the only thing that you might have at the end of it all, and then not too much of that either.

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