Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' talking points: First Test looming
Last Updated: 19/06/17 8:18pm
Stuart Barnes on the Lions win over the Maori All Blacks, Tuesday's clash with the Chiefs and the first Test looming.
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The line speed the Lions are bringing to their game is causing havoc - so far.
Damien McKenzie has been one of the most devastating runners in Super Rugby but the decision to try him at 10 was a spectacular misfire. There's a world of difference between having a few seconds to scan the field in front of you from full-back and the split second in which the best fly-halves operate.
McKenzie was driven deep into the pocket from the very first minutes of the game and never got his running game going. His kicking was erratic, his control non-existent. Game, set and another Saturday match win for the Lions.
2. I think the entire pack played their way into the Test team. The front row had the look of a Test combination going into the game, having bettered the all All Black Crusaders front row. They cemented their positions. Maro Itoje had a monster of a match and might just have made the leap from impact substitute to starter ahead of Alun Wyn Jones.
In the back row Sean O'Brien lasted the full 80 minutes and grew into the game. My man of the match, his heavy duty carrying is central to the Lions getting over the gain line, something they have to do if the All Blacks' superlative offensive is to be checked.
With neither of the last two Lions captains set to start, it looks set to be Peter O' Mahony who will lead the team in their attempt to end New Zealand's long unbeaten run both at home and Eden Park. The outside bet to be captain is Owen Farrell but I think he has enough on his hands come Saturday.
3. The Lions needed the win and performance they produced. Twenty four hours earlier I smiled in bemusement at the brilliance of the New Zealand display against Samoa.
It was not a great Samoa side but the accuracy, the angles, the vision and precision of the Kiwis was poetry. It would be no disgrace to lose to a team that has the capacity to take the game to such levels.
4. A lot of fuss was made about the decision to bring players into the squad on the basis of geography. Does it devalue the Lions shirt, does it damage the aura?
The truth is that Gatland thinks this is the best way to prepare for the series. Win that series and nobody will care. Lose (or lose badly, defeat could yet be heroic) and we'll be picking through the bones of the tour and this decision will be used as evidence against Gatland. Right or wrong, I actually regard this as a brave call by the manager. He knew the flak would fly.
5. The small matter of the Chiefs before the first Test in Auckland. I watched them go through their paces on Sunday. Dave Rennie, who takes over at Glasgow next season, allowed Miles and myself to stay for the closed session.
Without giving anything away, watching the speed of the session and the focus on the running lines, I started to get a feel for the reasons New Zealand rugby has drifted so far from the rest of the world. It is a young team set to face the Lions. The visitors should, once again, possess too much power up front but there could be fireworks if the Lions kicking game is anything but spot on.
6. The Chiefs selection announcement is interesting. Dave Rennie is joined onstage by 10 year-old Sam Webb, who phoned Rennie a while back with his thoughts on the team to face the Lions.
Sam and the coach have discussed the make up of the team over the phone on various occasions. He reads the team with great solemnity and says we should watch out for Toni Pulu and Shaun Stevenson. I will. He works out that at 22, he'll be ready to play against the Lions the next time they travel to New Zealand. Good on you, Sam.
7. On Saturday I broke a world record...well, to be precise me and 7,699 others. The world's biggest ever Haka. Fitzy is doing the war dance on some other part of the packed field while I disguise myself in hoodi a , a typical reticent Englishman.
I probably would have been content to be a bystander but Buck Shelford saw me on the side and insisted I joined the throng....if you can't beat them......several of the Lions look on, content to sign autographs. It was a good place to be a rugby fan, in Rotorua on Saturday morning.
8. Good place to be a member of the England women's team on Saturday afternoon as well. With the World Cup coming up in August it is a great time to strike a psychological blow against the Black Ferns, their greatest rivals. The utter dominance of their driving game is a precursor of what is to come later that night and perhaps in August as well. A great way to relax ahead of commentary on the Maori match.
9. The Northern Hemisphere had quite a weekend. Scotland achieved an outstanding result, beating the Wallabies in Australia. A good start for Gregor Townsend.
What if Scotland were to play them twice more in Oz? Would they match England's recent effort? We'll never know the answer to that hypothetical question but it is fair to say Townsend has made a good start.
10. Eddie Jones continues to wave his magic wand. Remember the fuss when he named all those youngsters for the trip to Argentina? Few of his critics are now crying out in anger. Argentina are having something of a hiccup but still, 2-0 in South America is a fine effort. It's good to see George Ford relaxed and once again running the show.
In the interest of balance New Zealand hammered England in the under 20 final. Will their seniors emulate them Saturday or will the fortress that is Eden Park fall to the Lions pack, their rush defence and a sprinkling of stardust from somewhere?
The odds are on New Zealand but the Lions showed they should not be dismissed.....get yourself a Guinness, a Highland Malt, a pint of Brains or a Bath Ales, whatever your country, and start Saturday with a BANG.