Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' talking points: Dylan Hartley, Lions call-ups, and All Black form
Last Updated: 17/04/17 2:23pm
Stuart Barnes talks about Lions captains, the inclusion of Dylan Hartley, and New Zealand's Super Rugby form.
1 These are trying times for players. On Wednesday the Lions announce their tour party of 37 or 38 players for the most daunting trip of them all, New Zealand.
There will be a substantial number of men who will think about little else between now and then. The years roll back to 1993 and the Monday morning announcement as it was then... I stared at the telephone, silently pleading for it to ring and Geoff Cooke to say, "You're in, Stuart."
But no, it was resolutely silent. There was no Sky Sports News then, just the CEEFAX service on the BBC.
I convinced myself I was out; to such an extent that when the headlines broke, stating two Englishmen, neither of whom went by the name 'Stuart Barnes' were omitted, I despaired that even CEEFAX had forgotten me. But the page scrolled on and there it was.
There will be players sharing the same joy as all the different Lions have through the years, and there will be others joining the forgotten list of those missing out. Spare a thought for them.
2 It seems that Sam Warburton will be named captain. He wouldn't be my choice; I think his game lacks the go-forward needed to force the All Blacks to defend. The more tackles the New Zealanders are forced to make, the less defending the Lions are forced into.
Against such a great attacking team, a low tackle count equates with far more chance of winning than a high one. Still, that's only an opinion. If and when Warburton is named skipper, good luck to him.
3 He and his mates will need it. Watching the worst of the New Zealand franchises, the Blues, lose narrowly to the reigning champions, the Hurricanes, on Saturday morning in Limerick, I was struck by the quality of the game and the improvement of the Blues.
They might not have beaten another New Zealand team to date but they are three from three against non-Kiwi opposition. Their season might be made or broken by the Lions game.
What looked a tricky match appears quite a lot tougher on the evidence of what I saw as I scoffed my white pudding and slurped my peppermint tea.
4 The Blues would have won had it not been for a certain Beauden Barrett. His game was glorious. The tactical kicking, often overlooked, was immaculate - his running game, inspired. Twelve years ago, Dan Carter delivered the finest Test performance I have ever seen from a 10.
Barrett seems set to take the game to the next level. Bar injury, the Lions will have to come up with quite a strategy to keep him quiet and nobody wants an injury to any player. At least, with the Hurricanes facing the Lions between the first and second Tests, they'll only have to face him three times.
5 A close look at the tour itinerary and I come to the conclusion that this might be one of the shortest of Lions tours, but it is definitely the toughest. When the Maori All Blacks are seemingly the second easiest match, you know the tour is tough.
The Super Rugby teams will at times be short of Test players but New Zealand has such strength in depth. They could be an outstanding Lions team and lose the series, the same thing happened in 2009. The Lions team that lost that series to the then-reigning world champions were a better team than the one that triumphed in Australia. Heroes don't always win.
6 Dylan Hartley finished up on the losing side yesterday as Saracens brought the big guns off the bench and nicked a late win against Northampton. It showed the steel and self-belief that differentiates between winners and losers.
The Saints are playing the best rugby of their season but keep losing late in the game. Whoever came up with the hare-brained idea to kick for the corner and not the posts to take the margin beyond two converted tries will be meditating long and hard.
Had Hartley been on the field as captain, he would have pointed to the posts. Win the game first.
7 It has taken until the last weekend before the announcement for me to come around to picking Hartley in my squad. I felt he played as well as we have seen him all season. He rose to the challenge of Jamie George.
Why the late change in my thinking? To beat the All Blacks the fundamentals must be right. That starts with the set piece and his set piece is superb.
Having hookers whizzing round the field at thirty miles an hour might look good, but having the ball and doing what you want with it is better. I hope Hartley is selected, if he does I reckon he'll make the Test team.
8 European semis this weekend, a reminder there is life beyond the Lions. Sky Sports will be covering the semi-final between Clermont Auvergne and Leinster. There will be a lot of happy Leinster players and perhaps a couple with a point to prove.
Tough as the assignment is, I reckon they have a good chance of making the final. They only have to beat Clermont - and not in their own bear pit - while the French team must beat Leinster and themselves.
Normally Clermont find a way to blow it. Think back to Wesley Fofana in that epic Bordeaux semi-final... a lot of neutrals will be willing them on. Their quest to conquer has taken on a Munster-like quality.
9 On that very subject, I cannot see Munster winning against Saracens in Dublin. They are winning, but what quality of opposition are they beating? Nothing remotely as good as Saracens. Munster is famed for its willpower but in Saracens they meet a team equally formidable in that department.
I don't expect Saracens to freeze so Munster need another of those miracle moments. Doubts over the fitness of Conor Murray makes me even more sceptical.
They've proven me and many of my media like wrong in the past, maybe they can do so again. I have my doubts but hey, a Munster versus Leinster final is still on the cards.
10 It is possible that these two teams will meet twice in finals. I don't think this will be the case in Europe but the odds are on it being an all-Ireland shoot-out at the Aviva on the final day of the PRO12 season. What a final that would be, an epic and emotional ending to the domestic season.
Next stop; the Lions tour announcement, keep those eyes peeled on Sky Sports News HQ. Even seasoned old cynics like me are bursting with excitement and it's not at the thought of watching the last episode of Homeland tonight or eating my Whispa Easter Egg...