It has not been the most convincing tour for either Warren Gatland or his British and Irish Lions.
The focus was on his current crop of Lions to deliver amid suggestions Gatland was favouring his Welsh squad members over others. The absences of some key internationals, certainly Mike Brown and Joe Launchbury, meant the onus was on the key men to prove Gatland right.
They are slowly but surely making this point. A wobbly opening win against the Barbarians was followed by a damaging 22-16 loss to the Chiefs. The midweek team were suffering while the Saturday side prospered against the provinces.
The three backs, Liam Williams, Jack Nowell, and Elliot Daly were all out in force, with Nowell crossing twice. Williams was going about his usual weaving running style and terrific airborne ability, while Daly used his versatility well down the flank. It is an unusual move to bring in relative newcomer Daly ahead of the threat of George North, who will see out the beginning of this showdown on the bench. North’s inconsistency thus far on the tour has been his undoing right at the last.
Nowells recent brace of tries gave him a perfect audition for the starting XV, but his lack of pace against his opposite number is concerning. Daly looks more secure on the other flank, while Williams will secure 15 ahead of Leigh Halfpenny. Unusual, but not when you consider Halfpenny’s goal kicking can be sacrificed for William’s wild swerving runs and aerial ability.
The formidability of New Zealand at the scrum and the ruck is what the Lions will have to defend against. Orchestrated beautifully by Aaron Smith at 9, they move fast, and out of the traps with quick hands of Sonny Bill Williams and lightning feet of Rieko Ioane. Breaking out of the scrum to cover the second onrush will need to be Gatland’s defensive priority.
There is a key battle too, in the air. It is little wonder Gatland has opted for those he can trust in this department. Williams at full back, a full four inches taller than fellow full back Halfpenny, offers terrific aerial threat. As adept at catching from his own kicks as he is at catching oppositions, his threat is more physically significant, especially in the face of aerial attacks from the All Blacks.
This is a heavy test for all concerned, both physically and mentally. They have stumbled somewhat during the midweek games, and even the Saturday team has hardly encountered a stroll in the park. Gatland has called for strong and courageous rugby, and his side – which admittedly boasts more talent than many Lions before them – will need every ounce of courage in their locker to down this particular demon.