The wait is almost over. The British & Irish Lions have left London for New Zealand and in four days’ time will play their first match of the 2017 tour.
Ahead of that clash with the NZ Provincial Barbarians we asked our experts to look into their crystal balls and offer some predictions — both concerning the Lions and the All Blacks — for the next six weeks.
Who will be the key players, the heroes of the tour and where might the Test series be won or lost?
There is extra onus on Taulupe Faletau following Billy Vunipola’s withdrawal. Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
Tom Hamilton: With Billy Vunipola absent, the Lions’ game plan revolves around Taulupe Faletau. The ball-carrying onus falls on the Bath back row. CJ Stander and Ross Moriarty will bring plenty of ballast, but Faletau is the key man for the tourists.
Martyn Thomas: Owen Farrell. Taulupe Faletau’s worth to the tourists has rocketed since Billy Vunipola’s injury, but the Lions will not beat the All Blacks unless they can keep the scoreboard ticking over. Farrell’s clinical kicking is therefore key.
Sam Bruce: Ben Smith. With Beauden Barrett now a minor concern with concussion, Smith can fill the brilliance void from fullback should the fly-half miss any action. He owes the All Blacks for the yellow card that brought the Wallabies back into the 2015 World Cup final.
Nick Bewley: Brodie Retallick. Has the biggest engine in the game, just watch him stamp his mark from the first minute to the last. From his defence to his set-piece work, not to mention his ball-handling skills, the All Blacks lock will be everywhere. I expect him to keep Maro Itoje quiet too.
Eden Park will host the first and third Tests between the Lions and the All Blacks. Simon Watts/Getty Images
TH: It’s very hard to look past the first Test. The match against the Maori All Blacks will give the Lions an indication of where they are at, but lose the first Test and the Lions face a mission to win the series. That game is key; everything the Lions do from landing in Auckland to their various sojourns around the country will be geared towards that first Test on June 24 at Eden Park.
MT: Maori All Blacks. Of course, the first Test is crucial to the Lions’ hopes of winning the series; if they lose at Eden Park then that dream is gone. But they cannot afford to arrive in Auckland under-cooked, and therefore the match against the Maori is pivotal. The score matters less than giving Test combinations playing time together.
SB: First Test. If the Lions are to have any chance in the Test series they simply must win first up in Auckland. Four years ago in Australia they survived a near miss when Kurtley Beale slipped on a match-winning penalty. They won’t want to temp fate again.
NB: Maori All Blacks. A week before the first Test, against a side full of players with international experience in what will be a hostile atmosphere. History tells us last time the Lions lost to the Maori they were awful in the Tests, so a win in this match will do wonders for their confidence.
James Haskell, centre, has been tipped to make the most of his late call up for the Lions. Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images
TH: Maintaining on-tour morale is key and James Haskell and Joe Marler will play key roles in keeping spirits high. Both are amusing characters but Marler should end up being the hero of the 2017 tour. He will rightly fancy his chances of starting the first Test and will bring plenty of off-field enjoyment to the party.
MT: James Haskell. The esteem in which the Wasps flanker holds the Lions shirt was obvious, not only when he was called up as a late replacement but also in the way he dealt with his initial omission. Haskell will bring an infectious enthusiasm to the tour, one that could well propel him into Test contention.
SB: Julian Savea. They just love “The Bus” up and down New Zealand and he plays his best rugby at Test level. Watch for him to run over the top of at least one Lions winger on multiple occasions.
NB: Ben Smith. After plenty of hoopla over putting Jordie Barrett, Damian McKenzie or David Havili at the back, ‘Bender’ will show everyone why he is the best in the business. Whether it be a try-saving tackle or some magic in attack, Smith will deliver a key play that will be remembered.
One to watch
Could Rieko Ioane, right, have a big role to play against the Lions? Phil Walter/Getty Images
TH: With Faletau destined to start at No. 8 and Sam Warburton hot favourite to be the Lions’ openside, Iain Henderson would bring another dimension to that back row. The Ulsterman is a great lineout option, boasts a superb work-rate and could be the Test bolter.
MT: Gatland will know the bulk of his preferred Test team, but form and fitness will dictate who actually runs out at Eden Park on June 24. Exeter wing Jack Nowell was at the top of his game as the Chiefs dispatched Saracens and Wasps en route to the Aviva Premiership title, and is well in contention for a back-three place.
SB: He may struggle to make the All Blacks squad first up, but an injury could open the door for Rieko Ioane. A former sevens star, Ioane has been in superb form for the Blues this season.
NB: Rieko Ioane. Such a raw talent. The 20-year-old is a strong chance to add to his two Tests, with his speed and strength sure to cause the Lions problems. If he’s not in Steve Hansen’s plans, he’ll almost certainly get two cracks at the Lions anyway with the Blues and the Maori.
Top try scorer
Stuart Hogg is no stranger to scoring tries in a Lions shirt. Nigel Owen/ActionPlus/Corbis via Getty Images
TH: Stuart Hogg is well placed to start the first Test from fullback and should see plenty of ball in the warm-up games. He has an eye for the try line and should cause the Lions’ opponents all sorts of difficulty.
MT: George North. The giant wing is a favourite of Gatland’s, and saves his best form for the big occasion. The Welshman will see plenty of game time in New Zealand, and that can only mean one thing: tries.
SB: Waisake Naholo. Got to be right up there with the fastest players in the game, Naholo combines that turn of foot with brute power and superb finishing skills. Still has to see off Israel Dagg on the right wing at the selection table, though.
NB: Julian Savea. Don’t let a relatively quiet Super Rugby campaign for the Hurricanes fool you. ‘The Bus’ always saves his best for the black jersey, and I expect plenty of ball to come his way with the Lions wingers not exactly known for their defence. I’m picking four tries from the three Tests.
Top points scorer
Beauden Barrett, right, will have an important role to play for New Zealand if fit. Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
TH: Look no further than Owen Farrell. He is the best kicker the Lions have in what is an impressive arsenal. Alongside Farrell, the Lions have Jonathan Sexton, Leigh Halfpenny and Elliot Daly but the Saracen should be the man who steers the tourists through the Test matches.
MT: From a Lions perspective you cannot look past Farrell. Barring injury he will be the man entrusted with place kicking during the Tests, and his ability to rack up points under pressure is unquestioned.
SB: Farrell. If the Lions are going to record a series win, Farrell will need to kick at close to 90 percent for the series. If he does that the tourists will go close, and he should be right up there on the point-scoring chart.
NB: Beauden Barrett. Who else? A Lions player might rack up more points with more games on offer, but it’ll take something remarkable to usurp Barrett as the All Blacks top points scorer. Yes, his goal-kicking can be wayward, but he’s likely to make up for it with a couple of tries such is his attacking threat.
Thing we’ll be talking about come July 8
The Lions will be followed around New Zealand by thousands of fans. David Rogers/Getty Images
TH: Never again can a Lions team travel with so little preparation time. They did their best to fast track a game plan and squad unity, but started the tour with one hand tied behind their back. They battled valiantly but the schedule was abysmal and dealt them a rough hand. And how they missed Billy Vunipola.
MT: The 2021 tour to South Africa. Whatever the outcome of the Test series, the sight of hundreds of thousands of fans following the Lions around New Zealand will only whet the whistle for the next trip. The fight to stop that tour being condensed in size again begins as soon as the final whistle blows in Auckland.
SB: Why Lions series should never be lost to the calendar. After another thrilling series, won 2-1 by the All Blacks, we will reflect on this very special event rugby owns all on its own. No other sport has anything like it. See you in South Africa!
NB: Gatland has a lot to lose this tour. Should it all go belly up for the Lions and Gatland’s chances of coaching the All Blacks, and any New Zealand Super Rugby franchise for that matter, are about as strong as mine. Win though, and he may well succeed Hansen post 2019.
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Lions tour: Not-so-early predictions
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