It’s crunch time for both the Lions and Canada this weekend as both head into Test matches they simply have to win. The Lions to keep the series alive, and Canada to keep their World Cup dreams alive as they head into the second round of a two Test World Cup qualifying battle with the United States. The Lions came unstuck in the end last weekend after a brave fight and a try to be remembered, but ultimately just couldn’t match the sheer skill and finesse of an All Black side that for all intents and purposes was just warming up. Meanwhile Canada put on a heroic showing for the home crowd in Hamilton in a thrilling match but once more their lack of execution, missed opportunities and inability to close out big games came back to haunt them resulting in them having to settle for a draw. Nevertheless in Canada’s case they at least managed to break a depressing string of losses albeit with a draw.
New Zealand vs British and Irish Lions
Saturday, July 1st
As the Lions head into a crucial and potentially series deciding second Test with the All Blacks this weekend, the omens don’t look good for the Men in Red. While there were flashes of sheer brilliance last weekend, epitomised by Liam Williams break out from the Lions 22 resulting in Sean O’Brien’s try for the Lions, the Lions performance was ultimately overshadowed by a truly mesmerizing display of skills by the All Blacks, which sadly only served to highlight the glaring differences between New Zealand and the rest of the world. There is no doubt that the Lions will be up for this weekend’s encounter in no uncertain terms, as the aura of the Lions jersey is still a powerful talisman, but spirit alone may simply not be enough to overcome the all round ability that seems to be in endless supply in the Land of the Long White Cloud.
There is a serious danger that after this weekend, this Lions Tour may end up being one of the most overhyped and undercooked Lions tours in history. Put your hands up if you didn’t cringe during Sky Sports pre match coverage when Scott Baldwin pranced around the pitch at Eden Park in some sort of embarrassing Game of Thrones spin-off. We actually switched to the New Zealand coverage of the match after the first 20 minutes which we found much more balanced and down to earth. We always had our doubts about the choice of Warren Gatland as tour Coach, anxieties that were reinforced when we saw Rob Howley thrown into the coaching mix. Still all that aside it’s a Lions Tour and wearing the sacred red jersey is always a special talisman for the players, whatever adversities they may be faced with. With the Lions 1-0 down they will need to dig deep into the archives of inspirational Lions history over the years if they are to defy the odds and overcome an All Black team that has few if any chinks in its armor.
Some pundits seem to be labouring under the illusion that the wet weather forecast in abundance for Saturday’s match in Wellington is likely to favor the Lions. We are struggling with the reasoning behind this. If you’ve ever been to New Zealand and Wellington in particular, you’ll know it’s one of the wettest and windiest cities on the planet, making Europe’s damp winters seem lightweight by comparison. In short, European teams may be used to plenty of wet weather ball, but the New Zealanders are no strangers to it either. Try chucking a rugby ball around in Invercargilll in the middle of July and you’ll see what we mean.
As pointed out above the Lions did put in a worthy shift at Eden Park last weekend. While they were ultimately outclassed they did hold their own for long periods of the match and defensively at times were superb. However, the continuous onslaught of black jerseys clearly took its toll as many of the Lions players looked dead on their feet by the sixty minute mark with the bench struggling to shore up the damaged walls. The All Blacks by comparison looked like they were just getting started on the hour mark. The intensity from both sides was ferocious but New Zealand’s execution was simply streets ahead of the Lions, and the error count was simply too costly for the Lions despite some enterprising and potentially game changing moments. Spilled passes, fumbled catches and lapses in defensive focus were the Lions Achilles Heel all afternoon.
This weekend the Lions will have to find something special as the All Black line up for Saturday looks to have few if any weaknesses even with the absence of the incomparable Dane Coles at Hooker and the withdrawal of fullback Ben Smith and centre Ryan Crotty due to injury. We felt that the tactic of using Conor Murray’s box kicking was overplayed last weekend especially as the match wore on and New Zealand were simply able to read it too well and place players accordingly. While the wet weather may tempt the Lions into more of the same we hope it is not the case as even in the wet the All Blacks have shown few weaknesses in terms of the aerial game, whereas the Lions kicking game was often error strewn and didn’t go to hand often enough last weekend.
We thought last weekend that New Zealand might have had the edge up front and if they were able to smother the ball through positions 1-10, a tough and grinding physical encounter might just swing their way especially once the bench started making its presence felt. After what we saw last weekend, we can’t help feeling that New Zealand has the clear dominance up front, let alone in the backs. The Lions front row was bossed around at scrum time last weekend and expect more of the same on Saturday. Vunipola, Furlong and George all put in an admirable shift last weekend but the All Black front row of Moody, Taylor and Franks had the mobility, strength and discipline to get the upper hand and we see no reason to expect any different this weekend. In the second row, New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock made mincemeat of the Lions George Kruis and Alun-Wyn Jones. So much so that we are flabbergasted to see Jones in the starting lineup again this weekend, as he looked distinctly tired at the best of times last weekend. While George Kruis didn’t exactly have a stellar game we feel that partnered with Maro Itoje, who gets his start this weekend, the efficiency of the Lions in this area of the park would be greatly improved. While we are heartened to see Courtney Lawes on the bench for the Lions, his strength and quiet rage would have been more effective than Jones in our opinion. In the back row, once more it’s all about the All Blacks. Sam Cane and Kieran Read were immense for New Zealand last weekend with Captain Read showing off some extraordinary skill and foresight in setting up one of New Zealand’s tries from the scrum. We feel that Peter O’Mahony had an excellent game last weekend and worry that Gatland will regret the decision to not give last week’s Captain a spot on the bench. Sam Warburton has Lions experience and can be a real warrior but we just don’t think he has the puff and fitness to last a match of this intensity. Taulupe Faletau had a good game last weekend but was simply no match for the awesome presence of his All Black counterpart and Captain extraordinaire Kieran Read.
In the half backs, we just can’t help feeling that the combination of Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett is too much for the Irish duo of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton. Sexton is a bit like the French team, as you are never sure which version you are going to get on the day, plus given his injury frailties despite his bravery and willingness to throw himself into the fray headfirst, the All Blacks will be targeting him all afternoon. We felt that Owen Farrell was completely outclassed by New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett last weekend, despite his considerable talents, but whereas Barrett was often the centre of attention Farrell appeared almost non-existent. While Farrell plays well as a centre backed up by a strong fly half, Sexton and Farrell have never partnered before at this level, whereas the New Zealand duo are a proven partnership allied to the phenomenal Anton Lienert-Brown and Sonny Bill Williams in the centre channels. Still the Irish half back duo of Murray and Sexton did get the better of Smith and Barrett last November, so it is not beyond the realm of possibility, but the weather is likely to favor the All Blacks in terms of familiarity and combinations.
In the backs while we can’t see any glaring weaknesses in the Lions’ offering, the All Blacks quintet just boasts too much all round talent. Israel Dagg who was outstanding last weekend on the wing takes the fullback position in place of the injured Ben Smith, and has proven time again that he is completely comfortable in either role. Liam Willams had a brilliant game last weekend at fullback epitomised by his setting up of the Lions first spectacular try, but as the match wore on he struggled to keep up and the errors started appearing. Anthony Watson had a strong game on the wing for the Lions and was dangerous in space but defensively he lost the plot at times and his execution in attack on occasion let the side down and the same can be said of Elliot Daly on the opposite wing despite some impressive carries. For us one of the Lions stars of last weekend was centre Jonathan Davies who we felt had a blinder of a game. We have always felt that despite some negative press Davies is one of Wales’ best players and when on form as he has been this tour, is one of the world’s most dangerous centres. The Lions will be looking for a big performance from the Welshman on Saturday and we feel he is one of their strongest cards. However, as mentioned above the centre partnership of Anton Lienert-Brown and Sonny Bill Williams is likely to prove too destructive on Saturday, even in the wet, for the Lions to really be able to counter it as the game wears on, coupled with the exceptional Waisake Naholo and Rieko Ioane on the wings. Ioane answered all the doubters last weekend in his Test debut regarding his inclusion in the starting fifteen over Julian Savea – in short he lived up to his billing and then some.
Once again we feel that the Lions pack the stronger bench, but we fear the All Blacks are likely to have done too much damage by the time the bench starts making an impact. As a result the Lions will likely be chasing the game in the final twenty minutes even more than they were last weekend. Despite the weather and the seeming inevitability of an All Black win, the sense of history and occasion is still likely to produce an epic Test match even though the series is likely to be wrapped up in New Zealand’s favour by the final whistle on Saturday. Consequently we are still anticipating tomorrow’s fixture with great excitement but ultimately predict a Lions victory by 3 points! Having said that though we like most, for the sake of a great series and a thrilling climax next Saturday, will be hoping for a historic if unlikely Lions win.
USA vs Canada
Saturday, July 1st
Despite the result, it was a thrilling match last weekend in Hamilton. If Canada had cut out some of the schoolboy style errors they would have walked away the winners, something we to be honest in light of their recent performances were not expecting. Winger DTH Van der Merwe was as usual an unstoppable force in his own right and justified the price of admission regardless of what else happened in the match. What we did see from Canada though was some genuine passion, real intent and an outstanding attacking game, all sadly undone by woeful lapses in concentration and some handling errors that should have been left on a high school pitch. However, let’s be honest if you’ve read our ravings over the last few years such problems seem to be a constant in Canada’s performance and no closer to resolution. Away from home in front of an extremely vocal and patriotic crowd just getting revved up for the US 4th of July celebrations, Canada have just like the Lions a pretty monumental task ahead of them on Saturday, despite the many positives on show in Hamilton last weekend. On reflection, a loss in San Diego would not spell the end of Canada’s World Cup chances as they will have two more kicks at the can in terms of qualifying before the global showdown in Japan in 2019. Furthermore, qualifying in this round would put them in a pretty daunting pool with a rampant England, resurgent France and always ferocious Argentina – not exactly a Sunday afternoon stroll to the knockout stages!
Nevertheless a win on Saturday and the stress of qualifying for the World Cup behind them would be a big plus for a Canadian side that has taken a beating to say the least in the last two years, and one that still languishes in a disgraceful position of 23rd in the World Rankings. As mentioned above there were some excellent performances last Saturday in Hamilton but what is needed now is to pull those performances together as a clinically efficient and cohesive unit.
We felt the USA had the better scrum last weekend, and their second row was constantly causing the Canadians issues in the lineouts, despite some clear disciplinary indiscretions from the Americans. What we did like though was Canada’s back row efforts and as they did last week, we feel they have the edge this weekend. Readers of this blog know we are big fans of new lock Admir Cejanovic and barring a few mistakes felt he put in a sterling effort in Hamilton and we’re looking for him to take his game to another level in San Diego. Fellow back rower Matt Heaton also impressed and number eight Tyler Ardron was back to his very best. We liked Phil Mack’s urgency at scrum half, and consequently are less than excited to see the much more conservative and pedestrian Gordon McRorie taking over the duties this weekend. Shane O’Leary had a mixed bag at fly half and expect to see McRorie take over more of the goalkicking duties on Saturday.
If they can cut out the unnecessary errors we still vastly prefer Canada’s offering in the backs over the Americans. Wingers Taylor Paris and Andrew Coe ran some great lines last weekend with Paris providing some useful defence. However, Coe’s schoolboy dramatics and showboating in an otherwise excellent try scoring effort cost Canada the match last weekend. Hopefully he has learnt his lesson. DTH van der Merwe’s incredible pace, strength and skill set make him a one man demolition team against the US defences. Van der Merwe can singlehandedly turn a game upside down in Canada’s favor and the US will need to watch him like a hawk on Saturday. We felt that Connor Braid at centre and Ciaran Hearn at fullback in particular both had poor defensive games last weekend, and both these players will need to up their game on Saturday. Braid in particular is a significant threat and Canada will want to see him put in a big effort on Saturday. Overall we just feel that the Canadian back unit is tighter, pacier and more menacing than the American offering and expect Canada to have the edge here providing the execution is stepped up a notch in San Diego.
On the benches Canada packs some serious firepower in the shape of tireless veteran Aaron Carpenter who once more proved to be the hero of the day last Saturday in Hamilton. Carpenter is a player who always brings something special to the Canadian cause and is clearly a source of inspiration to those around him. We continue to like Lock Kyle Baillie, and centre Nick Blevins always provides some excitement with ball in hand. However, despite Canada having in our opinion the overall edge in terms of talent and cohesion we just think the Americans are better coached and have a better understanding of the game they are trying to play. Consequently their execution seems to be better and they seem more composed than the Canadians. This and the fact that an extremely passionate American holiday weekend crowd is likely to be an even bigger sixteenth man than the Canadian fans worthy efforts in Hamilton, makes us hand this match to the Americans by four points! However, once more just as in Hamilton a thriller in the California sunshine awaits!