Every man, woman and child in New Zealand (NZ) lives and breathes rugby. It’s a religion. Even Kiwi dogs are crazy about the game. Did you hear about the time when a little old lady saw former Irish and Lions hooker in the street and gave him some advice about his scrummaging technique? Or the time the Canterbury crowd at the New Zealand Cup race day in Christchurch spat on a horse owned by former All Black coach John Hart in disgust at the All Blacks performance at the 1999 Rugby World Cup? Or what about the time the Prime Minister used a police escort to travel at 140km in order to catch a plane to get to the All Blacks test match in Wellington that evening? Ok, the third one is true (no offence Keith, but your story sound spurious at best. And maybe one or two drunken idiots spat in the direction of Hart’s horse, the strangely aptly named ‘Courage under fire’. It’s hard to legislate against stupidity).
It makes a great and easy story, but the truth is a lot of people in NZ really don’t care much for rugby at all. And many more only ever tune in when the All Blacks play. Very few people in NZ watch the Six Nations and virtually no one watches the Heineken Cup (European Rugby Champions Cup if you must) or Aviva Premiership or Pro12. Certainly not a fraction of the numbers in the UK who watch Super Rugby on Sky TV.
This ambivalence extends to many in the NZ rugby media. Most couldn’t tell you much about half of the Lions squad even a couple of weeks into the tour, a decent proportion of the rest will just resort to outdated generalisations (lumpy forward pack, nothing in the backs, scoreline always divisible by three etc). A recent example of this hubris and ignorance was a column by former Radio Sport breakfast host Martin Devlin. A 55kg man who couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time (but is quite humorous at times) who called then-All Black captain Taine Randell a “soft cock” after the defeat to France in the 1999 RWC. Devlin basically claimed the Lions didn’t have a chance in NZ based on the fact that former Hurricanes and Blues flyhalf Jimmy Gopperth won the “Player of the Season” award in the Aviva Premiership, over other, perhaps more notables players. One such player he mentioned was Saracens, England and Lions second row/loose forward Maro Itoje, a player he described as “being massively talked up ahead of the New Zealand tour”. Massively talked up? Surely Devlin must have his own opinion of Itoje, given he has been in the England team for two full seasons now. Saying a player you’ve never see play probably isn’t very good is a bit like someone trashing a movie they’ve never seen just because they don’t like the producer. Actually its worse, it’s like a movie critic whose job it is to watch movies doing that. What does it say about the quality of NZ rugby journalism where a guy will rubbish a player he’s apparently never seen play. Itoje hasn’t just been ‘talked up’, he was named the European Player of the Year in 2016 and shortlisted for World Player of the Year. He’s demonstrably pretty handy indeed.
I believe the All Blacks will win the test series, but do the Lions have a chance? Yes. Do they have some decent players? Yes, most certainly. So, as you’ll likely never hear much about the players in the NZ rugby media, here’s a little additional insight into some members of the British and Irish Lions of 2017, in particular those who I think will be part of the first test team.
Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)/Stuart Hogg (Scotland): Leigh Halfpenny was the player of the series in the last Lions series in Australia, largely on the basis of his goalkicking (breaking Neil Jenkins’ Lions point scoring record in the process) but also had some nice touches in general play. He managed to leverage his achievements in the series into a shortlisting for the 2014 BBC Sports Personality of the Year, although lost out on the award to then-reigning Wimbledon Men’s Champion Andy Murray (clearly despite the name, “personality” matters little when it comes to awarding the trophy). The following year he also signed with big spending French Top 14 club RC Toulon, according to French-based rugby journalist Gavin Mortimer for circa €850k per year. In the past year Toulon also signed Japanese international fullback Ayumu Goromaru, meaning they had well over €1m invested in goalkicking fullbacks, one of whom if you take the goalkicking out of his game, is a slightly better than average international player. The other is little better than mediocre, as the Queensland Reds found out. It seems that Toulon have figured it out too, in regards to Halfpenny. Again, according to Mortimer, Toulon offered Halfpenny €350k per annum in his new contract. Initially Halfpenny and his team reportedly refused but found no other interest in England or France at that level so ultimately accepted the deal. I am not alone in thinking that Liam Williams is actually Wales’ best fullback, but Wales prefer to play him on the wing and Williams for whatever reason hasn’t hit his stride on the tour.
But I think we can expect, particularly with Farrell in doubt for the first test, to see Halfpenny in the #15 jersey at Eden Park next week. He should not provide the All Blacks with too many problems on the counterattack, but if they infringe he will almost definitely nail the resultant penalty.
Quick fact: I am reliably informed that Leigh Halfpenny has lovely eyelashes. That is according to a girl in my office. I didn’t even know eyelashes were a thing. Does George Clooney have nice eye lashes? Brad Pitt? Justin Bieber? Or are eyelashes the female equivalent of a bloke who says the first thing he notices on a girl is her eyes? Sure it is pal.
The presumed starter at fullback for the Lions test team as they flew out was Scot Stuart Hogg. Unfortunately he had a bit of a nightmare in the first match in Whangarei and then got clocked in the face by teammate Conor Murray’s elbow against the Crusaders. Let’s say his tour has been inauspicious thus far and in fact is now over, heading home due to the injury suffered against the Highlanders. But Hogg is a quality operator and will be missed. Still only 24, he has already played in excess of 50 tests for Scotland, possesses tremendous pace and stepping ability and a howitzer of a boot from hand and off the tee. A potent attacking player, if he played for the All Blacks he’d be held in similar regard to Ben Smith. In fact he is so potent, he has two kids already. He is from Glasgow, though. A lot of 16 year olds in Scotland’s largest city can boast more kids than that. Despite his relative youth, he has an old head on young shoulders. Literally. He looks about 35. He was worded by referee Nigel Owens for diving in the 2017 Rugby World Cup against South Africa, which one never likes to see in rugby but he does make a ‘W’ sign whenever he scores a try in honour of a schoolboy mate of his by the name of Richard ‘Wilko’ Wilkinson, who died when a car Hogg was also riding in crashed. Respect.
Quick fact: Plays for the Glasgow Warriors. Kind of like the New Zealand Warriors in the NRL, except good. They won the Pro12 league last year.
Elliot Daly (England): Generally speaking a centre or sometimes fullback for his club side Wasps, latterly of lovely Coventry, but has played mostly on the wing for England in the last year or two. To be honest, I was never really that impressed with what I saw when he played for Wasps, but he has gone superbly for England on the wing, which is where he seems likely to be considered by the Lions, despite getting some time at centre against the Blues. In addition to pace, he has a big, and educated boot; he can knock penalties over from 50 metres plus and when he kicks in general play it’s usually to good effect. He was apparently born in Croydon, a town to the south of London most famous as being the hometown of Kate Moss, and not much else besides. Certainly not of a positive nature. But unlike most of Croydon’s inhabitants, Daly has real class. Because of that class and his versatility, I expect he will make the bench for the first test.
Quick fact: The only England back to ever be sent off in a test match. Daly was red carded against Argentina for taking Puma number eight Leonardo Senatore in the air at Twickenham in 2016.
Owen Farrell (England): One of England’s biggest stars, Farrell is one of the most deadly goalkickers my eyes have ever seen. Although he isn’t a naturally brilliant running player, he brings a variety of outstanding footballing skills to the game, including a great long and short kicking game from hand, a good passing game, the ability to take the ball to the line and stout defence. He’s also a competitive SOB and as ornery as a menopausal spinster. Unfortunately, he will also throw himself on the ground to win a penalty and whines and moans at referees constantly. Much has been made of the way NZ players in Super Rugby have been questioning referees on every decision, especially this season, but only the worst offenders like a TJ Perenara especially, or Aaron Smith to a lesser degree can be compared to the likes of Farrell, Irish counterpart Jonny Sexton and Wales’ Dan Biggar. The latter two even turn on their teammates during matches, yelling and screaming and gesticulating like an aggrieved Italian motorist. Mercifully for referees and the other Lions players, English fullback Mike Brown, an even worse offender, has been left behind.
As good a player as he is, Farrell isn’t universally popular, even amongst English supporters. In part due to his aforementioned petulance, but probably also because he plays for current two time European champions, Saracens. Saracens are kind of like the New England Patriots in the NFL, or the Auckland team back in the 1980s and 1990s. They are generally not beloved outside of their own supporters, most likely because of their continued success as much as anything. Although Sexton seemed to be the presumed starter for the Lions at flyhalf before the tour, Farrell is every chance to force his way into the #10 position as the series goes on. He has actually played predominantly at inside centre for England in recent times, so a chance to start in the #12 jumper too.
The thigh injury Farrell suffered in training now threatens to keep him out of the first test. Even at this stage, assuming the injury does indeed heal, I will be staggered if he doesn’t play a part in the test series at some point.
Quick fact: Farrell has the creepiest, potential serial killer pre-kick routine of any goalkicker not named Damian McKenzie. It’s difficult to top the latter’s demented Joker routine, but the way Farrell stares at the ball and then raises one eyebrow and crooks his neck to track its potential path to the goal posts a couple of times before starting his run up sits somewhere on the spectrum between OCD and autism.
Taulupe Faletau (Wales): The number eight formerly known as Toby, Faletau has since presumably decided that if he wants people to picture a fearsome international number eight when they hear his first name rather than a cute puppy, then Taulupe is the way to go. He is one of very few players to come out of the game against the NZ Barbarians with his reputation enhanced, or not damaged at least, which is not surprising in a sense as one thing I’ve always said about him is that I can’t remember him ever playing a bad game.
A tackling machine and good, long-striding ball carrier with the ability to offload, Faletau can potentially make people forget the absence of Viliami Vunipola on this tour. Billy, as he is somewhat better known had been in rare form during the northern hemisphere season but is missing the tour due to a shoulder injury. He’s a big loss, as he is not only a great player physically, he’s also a very smart player. He must be because he went to the famous Harrow School after all. Eton maybe be where Princes William and Harry went, have the weird, eponymous ‘wall game’ and also a dessert named after it, but believe me, its bitter rival Harrow is a pretty exclusive educational institution. Billy is undoubtedly one of an extensive lineage of Australia-born and Wales-raised young men of Tongan heritage to wander its fabled halls, where he came under the tutelage of a friend of mine, as it turns out. Science teacher and rugby coach Mr Buys speaks more glowingly about Vunipola’s ability on the rugby field than in the science lab, but I’m sure he knows his periodic table like he knows an blindside eight-nine.
I digress, Faletau replaced Irishman Jamie Heaslip in the third test of the victorious Lions series against Australia in 2013 and has been an automatic selection for Wales for a number of years. Although he has spent parts of the season injured and his form at club level has been patchy, he has hit the ground in NZ running. Perhaps the enforced time away from the playing field has been to his advantage, making him a little fresher than some of his teammates. The number eight jumper for the first test is his to lose.
Quick fact: This season joined the famous Bath club in the Aviva (English) premiership from Newport Gwent Dragons of the Pro12. Bath’s Director of Rugby is Todd Blackadder and Head Coach Tabai Matson. Crusaders supporters will be staggered to know that despite having a good team on paper, Bath missed the playoffs under Blackadder’s stewardship. Also, if you think Faletau might have been a good selection in Aviva Premiership Fantasy Rugby Draft this season, you are mistaken.
Maro Itoje (England): The chosen one, the Pearl, Super Maro, prize winning Maro, call him what you will, greater rugby minds than Martin Devlin universally rate him pretty highly. Despite being only two years into his England career, he is already one of the proverbial “first names on the team sheet” and discussed as a future England captain as if it’s a fait accompli. His athletic ability is off the charts, he has a phenomenal engine and incredible passion for the game. Which does manifest itself in plenty of yelling and screaming and chest thumping when his team wins a key turnover or penalty. If he’s on your team, you love that sort of fire. If he’s not on your team, it’s looks super blow-hardy. But when you can steal lineout ball, win turnovers on the ground, carry and tackle like Itoje can, not to mention stand 195cm (6’5”) and have the physique of a Greek Adonis, you can hoot and holler all you like. He apparently also writes poetry and is studying for a politics degree. He’s hovering dangerously close to Jamie Roberts, Richie McCaw and Conrad Smith territory ie excelling in so many aspects of life that you make the rest of us average Joe’s look like chumps. No one likes a show off. He has been pencilled in for a starting spot in the Lions test team for about a year and a half now, most likely alongside his Saracens clubmate and England teammate George Kruis.
He’s been an England player in waiting since he starred in and captained the England Under 20s team that won the 2014 IRB Junior World Championship. There was even talk of him being brought into the England team for the Rugby World Cup in 2015. Judging by what he’s achieved since, it may not have been a bad shout. Although perhaps he was better off having missed it. He does have a tendency to get penalised a lot. But frankly two or maybe three penalties per game for him isn’t a bad return, because he could easily be penalised about 10 times. He’s not a dirty player, if anything just overly enthusiastic, but his discipline is something he needs to work on.
Quick fact: From 2015 to 2016 Maro Itoje went almost a year and a half without losing a game in which he started. For 31 straight games with Saracens and England, if Itoje ran out of the tunnel, his team won.
Kyle Sinckler (England): On the shortlist for “player of the tour” thus far, the Harlequins prop has made almost every post a winner. He was widely regarded as a bit of a “swing for the fences” selection, but one that seems certain to make Warren Gatland look more genius than dope. A fullback as a younger lad, he isn’t as strong as a scrummager as Tadhg Furlong or fellow Englishman Dan Cole, but he brings about as much excitement to his work in open play as Gatland doesn’t bring to a press conference. He charges around like a bull that’s been shut out of the cow paddock with the ball in hand, but also has very soft hands, deft offloading skills and will sometimes even throw in a dummy. If you’re playing against Quins, England or the Lions and you wind up on the ground feeling like you’ve been hit by a grand piano, chances are it’s Sinckler. He certain likes to lend a strong shoulder to his tackling. The downside is he is, frankly, a bit of a nutter on the pitch. In a game for Quins at the end of the Premiership season the red mist descended and after a couple of minutes was showing no sign of clearing, despite being admonished repeatedly by the referee. It got to the point where fellow Quins, England and Lions prop Joe Marler pulled him aside and told him “enough”. When Joe Marler, who was just back from a two week ban for calling Welsh prop Samson Lee “gypsy boy” when he did this (this second incident in the clip. But the first does highlight my point about Itoje above), is the guy telling you to pull your horns in, chances are you’ve gone a little off the reservation. Just to be safe, the Quins coaching staff subbed him off a couple of minutes later. My expectation is that Sinckler will be named on the bench for the first test and used as an impact sub. The All Blacks would do well to keep an eye on him.
Quick fact: Harlequins used to be regarded as the aristocrats of the English club game, with many Quins players working in the City of London. Which is a nice way of saying they made shit tonnes of money working in finance or law. Sinckler is vast a departure from that past. He has apparently never met his father, and his mother worked double shifts at a police call centre to provide for young Kyle.
Jamie George (England): Back up hooker for England, starting hooker for the Lions? It seems likely. George was actually only a back up at his club side Saracens until the last couple of years. Stuck behind some-time Springbok hooker Schalk Brits, who has been an absolute superstar in the English Premiership since day one. But George’s quality seems to have finally won out. He has a bit of Steve Thompson about him in that he looks more, shall we say, Adriaan Strauss than Bismarck du Plessis physique-wise. Old school, shall we say, but looks were deceiving in Thompson’s case and they are in George’s case too. They might not have the sort of rig that a skin-tight rugby jersey is really designed for, but witness this grubber kick against the Wallabies to set up a try for Owen Farrell. If Zinzan Brooke did that people would still be talking about it to this day.
He has been a part of the Lions two most impressive performances to date on tour, against the Crusaders and Maori All Blacks, but if he gets the chance you can bet he won’t be afraid to try something a little out of the box. Maybe even unleash some of this “rugby chaos” Lions attack coach Rob Howley keeps talking about.
Quick fact: Early in his career George was sent by his Saracens coaches to a local boxing club to help toughen him up. After a couple of months he was taking to it pretty well, to the point he wound up having his first sparring session against a British Olympic gold medal winning boxed, rumoured to be James DeGale. Who apparently took a dim view of George landing a decent body shot on him and promptly put the aspiring young hooker to sleep. When he then disgraced himself in a fashion that even his England captain Dylan Hartley has yet to manage. Here George explains the story to James Haskell.