Super Rugby 2017

Week Nine

A Thought For The Week:

The British and Irish Lions are heading over to New Zealand the week after the conclusion of their Premiership and Pro12 final. Their first game is the following Saturday against the Provincial Barbarians, a fairly easy warm-up game, one would think.

The tour schedule and fixtures were agreed a long time ago, and the Lions management signed off on that schedule. They were happy then, now they are starting to have second and third thoughts about their tour to the Land of The Long White Cloud. They are starting to wonder whether facing the New Zealand Super Rugby franchises before and in between the Test matches is such a good idea……

Let me start off by saying that no tour to New Zealand is ever easy, for anyone. You are not going to go off and play against the Hurricanes or the Chiefs, or the Blues or any single other team and just their local supporters. You are playing against the whole country. New Zealanders are parochial by nature, but that trait extends to nationalism the moment a foreign rugby payer sets foot on their hallowed soil. A dyed in the wool Highlander will vociferously support the Blues, if they are playing the Lions!

And when the Test Matches come around you are in a whole heap of trouble! The entire country, and I mean everybody, is against you!

Let me emphasise that the New Zealanders are not a nasty bunch when they are against you, they have some of the fairest crowds in the world. If you do well, you will receive due recognition and applause. This is not Australia where the crowds will constantly abuse you, tease you, or fling a whole chicken at you, as happened to Pat Symcox in a cricket test. The New Zealanders are welcoming hosts, yet they will be 100% behind their teams, and if you do badly, they will gleefully let you know.

I am reminded of the rather unsuccessful 2005 Lions tour of New Zealand under the supposedly uber-coach Clive Woodward. After the Test series a billboard went up giving Clive Woodward’s contact details as telephone number 0800101010.

In words it expressed the number as: Oh Eight Hundred Won Nothing Won Nothing Won Nothing!

The 2005 tour was the last time the Lions visited New Zealand, they won all their games against provincial teams, but lost all three tests and were beaten by the New Zealand Maoris too.

And now the Lions are going back, under a New Zealand born coach, Warren Gatland.

They face a daunting task, and history is not with them either. The Lions have played 38 tests in New Zealand over the years, winning just 6, losing 29, and drawing a mere 3. That is a winning percentage of just 16%. (Their winning percentage against South Africa is 37%, against Australia 78% and Argentina 86% – the latter due to a single draw.)

Warren Gatland has admitted the upcoming tour schedule is a worry as they prepare to face New Zealand. This time around they will face all the usual suspects: the Provincial Barbarians, the Maori All Blacks, and then the real deal, the All Blacks. But they will also face the daunting prospect of playing each of the five Super Rugby franchises too.

This is their schedule:

Saturday 3rd June: New Zealand Provincial Barbarians
Wednesday 7th June: The Blues
Saturday 10th June: The Crusaders
Tuesday 13th June: The Highlanders
Saturday 17th June: Maori All Blacks
Tuesday 20th June: The Chiefs
Saturday 24th June: The All Blacks
Tuesday 27th June: The Hurricanes
Saturday 1st July: The All Blacks
Saturday 8th July: The All Blacks.

It would be a very stupid or very brave man, perhaps even a stupidly brave man, that looks at that schedule and thinks it will be easy.

Warren Gatland has already started muttering about the lack of preparation time he has with the Lions team. He said: “Last time we had a week in Hong Kong and arrived in Australia with five days to spare, which feels a lifetime compared to arriving on the Wednesday with the first game that Saturday.”

Looking ahead to that first Test against the All Blacks at Eden Park in Auckland, Gatland added: “The ideal scenario would be not playing a match in the week of the first test.” His team face the Chiefs in the week before that crucial first Test, and then the Hurricanes in the week before the second Test.

Two-time British & Irish Lion (2001 and 2005) Scot Bulloch, knows just what a test it will be for the Lions to emerge victorious this summer.
He said: “It’s the biggest challenge in rugby. It’s going to be very, very difficult. The actual schedule they have got is almost suicidal.”

I am looking forward to this Lions tour from two perspectives:

1) The British media, particularly the English media, encouraged by Eddie Jones, have been suggesting that the 2017 All Blacks are ripe for the plucking. They are suggesting that the New Zealanders are not the team of 2015 and that the British Lions are stronger and more polished than ever before.

There has been a lot said about some perceived weaknesses in All Blacks rugby. I am not sure that they have been watching the New Zealanders closely! There do not seem to be too many weak spots in the AB stable.

And no New Zealander likes to be told that they are going to get beaten!

2) When I take a close look at the British Lions squad, I see an awful lot of old-school rugby players. I do not see too many of the sparkling, adventurous and enterprising types that you need to take on the All Blacks. This tells me that Warren Gatland is looking to play a conservative, strangling game, with goal kicking as the primary scoring weapon. Can anyone strangle the modern All Blacks?

And the Lions’ coach is already saying that the tour schedule is suicidal…. I hope he is not looking for excuses before the tour actually starts.

The Fitness Charts:

As the world waits for the British & Irish Lions to arrive in New Zealand, both teams are watching the rehabilitation progress of a number of their players. Some are critical members of their squads:

For the Lions:

Sam Warburton
The Lions captain and flanker has been out of action since April 10 with a knee injury and will have to find form and fitness on tour.

Peter O’Mahony
Irish loosie and lineout ace departed with a head injury during Munster’s loss to Saracens last weekend. There are no assessment reports.

Conor Murray
Outstanding Irish halfback in doubt to make the tour because of a shoulder/neck injury suffered during the Six Nations which has also given him arm weakness. Due to see a neurologist about “persistent nerve pain” but Gatland says he must play for Munster prior to the tour.

Sean O’Brien
The Irish loose forward has been plagued by hamstring problems and is back training with Leinster after the latest one. With his injury history – he’s had close to 20 surgeries – O’Brien will beat the odds if he makes and lasts the tour

lun Wyn Jones
The world class lock, a back-up captaincy candidate, suffered a shoulder injury playing for Wales mid-March. Avoided surgery, back training and may play for Ospreys next week.

For the All Blacks:

Dane Coles
The ace hooker injured a knee in mid-March and the Hurricanes have taken a cautious approach to his return. Should be back next week to face the Stormers. Of the currently injured players, Coles is the one the All Blacks will be keenest to see back.

Israel Dagg
Latest prediction is he will get five Crusaders matches before the Lions arrive, following minor right knee surgery after a Super Rugby round three injury.

Elliot Dixon
The Highlanders’ loose forward was hospitalised with a knee infection last week. Could return to action in South Africa next week.

Nehe Milner-Skudder
Magical, injury-prone outside back still resting with toe fractures suffered six weeks ago. Rehab has taken longer than expected – might face the Cheetahs on May 20 and prospect for the Maori team to play the Lions a week before the first test.

Tawera Kerr-Barlow
The Chiefs’ France -bound halfback and fringe test prospect was concussed in Perth during the latest Super Rugby round.

Patrick Tuipulotu
Suffered a training-ground back injury this month and is a week-to-week proposition.

Jerome Kaino
The veteran back-row will undergo knee surgery later this week, and is now set to be on the sidelines for at least a six-week period.