Former All Black Nick Evans says quality Lions lineup can push New Zealand
A word to the wise. Former All Black Nick Evans warns you underestimate the capabilities of Warren Gatland's touring British and Irish Lions at your peril.
Evans should know. The now 36-year-old, 16-test All Black has played the last nine seasons in England for the Harlequins club and has as good a handle on the balance of power between north and south as anyone still lacing 'em up.
So when Evans warns that the All Blacks will have to be on their mettle in their looming three-test series against Gatland's Lions in June and July, it's advice worth heeding.
The Quins playmaker, who recently announced he would retire at season's end, was impressed by the squad of 41 Gatland named on Wednesday to make the trek south and believes they will front with a group capable of pushing the All Blacks to the limit.
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"I still back New Zealand, but I think it will be a lot closer that many think," Evans told Fairfax Media from London. "This is a very good [Lions] side. It's a hell of a tour, and the schedule is horrific from a Lions' point of view. But it's all about the tests and in the end that's all you are judged on.
"They will be good. They have a very strong forward pack, and the set piece will be massive. They will maul a lot, and from what I've been seeing in Super Rugby Kiwi teams haven't been defending the maul very well.
"It's an area the Lions will target, so the All Blacks will have to be disciplined and can't give them kicks into the corner to set up the big rolling maul.
"They will also have a good defence. Andy Farrell, now of Ireland and formerly England, is a very good defence coach. And they have backs that can hurt you, and some big, strong boys."
If Evans has a doubt about the Lions, aside from Gatland's trust in a big contingent from his Welsh side, it's whether they can generate enough points to live with the All Blacks.
"I just wonder will they be able to create enough opportunities and have the quality to take them against New Zealand because I know the All Blacks will create opportunities. And if the Lions kick poorly for territory, New Zealand is the best in the world at unstructured footy, and when opportunities arise, most of the time they take them.
"So are the Lions good enough to create opportunities, then nail them? I'd imagine they're only going to get two or three in a game, so they've got to nail two of them."
Evans monitors the Kiwi game closely from afar and says he has one main concern around the All Blacks heading into the series.
"Goalkicking worries me. The Lions have a massive advantage there. Beauden Barrett is not kicking, and Aaron Cruden only really started last week against the Cheetahs. So you've got Jordie Barrett and Damoan McKenzie doing most of the kicking [in Super Rugby] and they're probably not going to be in the starting XV.
"The Lions are well served there. They've got Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell who are dead-eyed, 80-85 percent plus in the Six Nations, and are also both very good tactical kickers as well."
Evans also had a good handle on the two Kiwi backs who have emerged as "bolters" among Gatland's expanded touring squad.
"Ben Te'o is a big Worcester second five-eighth, and with him and [Ireland's] Robbie Henshaw it goes to show what Gatland's mindset is going down there. They're a big centre pairing, and he may put one alongside Owen Farrell at 12 and have one coming off the bench for impact.
"Jared Payne was a surprise. I wasn't expecting him to be there. He might be taking him for a bit of local knowledge. He's a jack of all trades, plays at 13 and 15, and put in a hell of a shift against England in the final Six Nations game, and has been playing really well for Ulster."
Evans was not surprised, though, to see New Zealand-born Dylan Hartley miss out at hooker to his England understudy.
"Hartley is a fantastic leader, and galvanises the troops with England, but to be honest Jamie George is the better player. His lineout delivery is lot crisper and he offers more around the park."
Evans also predicts we'll see Farrell at second five in the tests, despite Gatland nominating the Englishman as a selection at No 10.
"My top backline would be Connor Murray, Sexton, Farrell, Henshaw, Anthony Watson, Liam Williams and Stuart Hogg, with George North also contending on the wing. They've got a lot of options in a big squad, but there's ability there if the weather is decent to move ball into the wider channels."