Lions tour: All Black thoroughbreds too good for the one-trick ponies from north
It's here. At last. The All Blacks going head to head against the best of British and Irish rugby for three tests. MARC HINTON sets the scene.
Are the Lions one-trick ponies? If their defensive line-speed doesn't have the All Blacks running into the proverbial brick walls, do they have another tactic to unsettle their multi-faceted hosts?
All the question marks in this special rugby series between the back-to-back world champions from New Zealand and Warren Gatland's collection of the finest talent from Britain and Ireland seem to hover over the men wearing red.
Their margin of error is tighter than a Kardashian dress. And just as revealing. If they can't dominate up front, they're in trouble. If they can't put the squeeze on at the set piece, and around the breakdown, it could be carnage. They have to find a way to slow the All Blacks' tempo and to restrict their possession supply-line, or they'll be flapping at air for 80 minutes.
The All Blacks' qualities are tried and trusted, proven over and over again. Since Steve Hansen took charge in 2012 they have lost just four times in 69 tests. That's an average of less than one defeat a year. The group he has together now appears, if anything, to have taken their game to another level following the 2015 RWC retirements of a handful of the true legends of the game.
Then there are the Lions. Thrown together once every four years from bitter Six Nations rivals, asked to unite in just weeks for the common cause, theirs is a slippery slope they must climb. They have beaten the All Blacks just once (1971) in 11 tours, dating back to 1904. And that was a special collection of men.
This tour hasn't exactly dripped promise either, though last weekend's 12-3 strangle of the Crusaders by a group most figure will closely resemble the first-test selection at least offered some hope.
They lost one of their best players, Billy Vunipola, before the tour even began, and now must sweat over the fitness of one of their other key figures, Owen Farrell. Their likely top lineup won't be exactly dripping with world-class talent.
But former All Blacks coach John Hart believes they will present as a stronger threat than many New Zealanders are figuring on. He's not going as far as to suggest a Lions series victory, but has the margin a fair bit narrower than a lot of his confident countrymen.
"There is a gap between their test 23 and the rest. But I would think his test team was always going to be very competitive," Hart said. "They showed against the Crusaders they're going to play it their way. Everyone thinks they've got to beat us at our game. They'll never do that. They've got to play their own game.
"Their physicality from their top group and their defence has proven pretty special, and Connor Murray is a world-class halfback. I don't write them off at all."
Neither does former All Black flanker Josh Kronfeld.
"They're incredibly strong through their set piece and structures in and around the forwards," said the 54-test All Black.
"Their backs have been a bit sketchy, but we've also seen them light up when they need to. And their scramble defence is pretty incredible. They bring line-speed, and pressure well through midfield. But whether they've got a full 80-minute game, I'm still not sure.
"They have lost but I don't think people have realised how close in those games they were to winning. And I don't think the gap between a Super Rugby team and the All Blacks is as large as it used to be. If we're saying they're going to be easybeats, we're being morons. It will be a tough series, especially in that first hitout."
Hart is a firm believer Gatland has known his likely test lineup from the outset, and that comments about everyone having a chance of selection have been more about squad harmony than any open-door policy.
But he draws the line at the Lions stealing a series victory.
"The All Blacks are pretty special and Eden Park is a fortress. To win first up is going to be pretty hard. All-round the All Blacks will be too strong but the test series will be a lot closer than people think and the Lions will rise to a level that a lot of people are not giving them credit for."
Kronfeld says the keys for the All Blacks are all about imprinting their style.
"It's definitely playing their game and their pace. Where the Lions have struggled is when tempo changes. The Highlanders are good at changing tempo quickly, whereas the Crusaders play a similar tempo the whole game, and that's where they came a little unstuck."
Hart reckons the key men for the All Blacks are up front. If the big fellas do their job, the New Zealanders will be able to make their superior athleticism and talent count elsewhere.
"The forwards have got to get physical dominance. If we match them at the scrum and lineout and can win the breakdown battle, and get dominance in the physicality aspect, we've got far too much quality in our team compared to what they have in the backline and in attacking prowess."
Hart counts the absence of Dane Coles as an important one for the All Blacks, but believes Barrett can be the difference-maker he was for so much of 2016, especially when it comes to countering that trademark line-speed.
"Barrett is absolutely a key man. His ability to break open games with speed of foot and kicking is pretty special. There will be a lot on Aaron Smith too and his clearance of ball is a key aspect.
"The defensive line-speed is a tactic that is working for them but will only work as long as the opposition doesn't work out how to nullify it. [The All Blacks] will understand line-speed like that gives you space elsewhere and with a player like Barrett the quick way to nullify line-speed is to put the ball in behind on occasion."
Predictions? Hart has the All Blacks getting the job done in all three tests, but Kronfeld isn't so sure.
"I wouldn't be surprised if it's 2-1," he said. "The first one is the key. If they're going to pinch one it could be the first one, and then we're in for a series. On the flip side, if we're 2-up they might sneak the last if we try some different options."
The All Blacks' romp over Samoa suggests their preparations are spot on, as they were in 2005 when they thrashed Fiji before going on to sweep Sir Clive Woodward's tourists. Lions fans must hope Gatland has some tricks up his sleeve, or it could well be a case of history repeating in 2017.
5 KEYS FOR AN ALL BLACK SERIES VICTORY
Beauden Barrett does Beauden Barrett: If the best player in the game finds space, and works his kick magic, the All Blacks should generate the tempo and width they need to cut loose.
Strong set piece: Stand up at scrum and lineout time, and the New Zealanders are surely halfway to victory.
Muscle and hustle: If the New Zealanders can shade the breakdown battle and generate the quick ball they thrive off, it's as good as over.
Defuse those bombs: You know they're coming but if the All Blacks are true to form and safe under the high ball, the Lions may not have a Plan B.
Make it about the backs: The All Blacks' real advantage is out in the high numbers. If they see enough ball, that score will mount quickly.
- Sunday Star Times