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Owen Farrell is a leader – his absence would be a huge blow to the Lions

The general consensus is that if the Lions are going to beat the All Blacks they will need to score three or four tries but that is a myth. They are in New Zealand to win Test matches, they are not going to play a lot of rugby, they are not going to showcase many skills and they will 100% try to strangle the All Blacks. If they execute the gameplan, built around a very solid defence, a very solid set-piece and a very accurate kicking game, then one try could be enough.

The problem at the moment is that there have been too many individual errors – and they have come at crucial times. Stupid penalties have cost them dearly and that will be a concern for Warren Gatland. That individual execution just isn’t there yet and they cannot expect to get six or seven try-scoring opportunities against the All Blacks. They will get two or three and, on form, I can’t see them nailing them.

I have said before the fly-half Owen Farrell is a leader for the Lions and if he misses the first Test next Saturday, it is a huge blow. It is not terminal, though, because Conor Murray is so important to their kicking game and Johnny Sexton showed some good form against the Crusaders – we saw the template in that match. They are going to try to turn New Zealand around and kick them out of the game. Gatland will select as many kickers as he can, attempt to win the territorial battle and marry that with a very strong, aggressive forward pack who will hope to take the All Blacks out of the game with the set piece.

It’s two wins and two defeats so far. The loss against the Highlanders does not mean there’s any need to panic but it just seems like one step forward and half a step back and that will worry Gatland. You wouldn’t say the Lions bottled it but they found a way to lose. They created opportunities but did not quite have the skill level and the execution. They’ve been talking about keeping the penalty count down, especially when they are in winning positions but again that was a problem against the Highlanders. They have to keep the penalty count to single figures if they are going to have any chance because as they’ve shown, too many penalties kill their momentum.

Overall, the Lions have defended reasonably well against sides who score a lot of tries. The assistant coach Andy Farrell has got them working well together, they’re coming off the line and the biggest thing the Kiwi sides are struggling with is that, when they play through No9, they are way too flat because they’re not used to a really fast and aggressive line speed like the Lions are bringing.

Gatland has had a fair bit of stick and I think it has affected him but at the same time I think he targeted the Crusaders game a long time ago and he will have felt vindicated by the Lions winning that one. We saw what will be pretty close to the Test team and he was clearly very happy with the result and how they went about it. They shut down a good Crusaders side and they’ll go into the Tests with that kind of attitude. They’ll try to choke the hell out of the All Blacks and force them to play in areas and in a way they’re not used to.

If they beat the Maori All Blacks on Saturday playing like that it will give them massive belief to go on and test the All Blacks, or even beat them. Gats and his coaching staff will say: “Look, we dismantled the best Super Rugby team in the country, if we do the same against the Maori, the belief is massively going to be there against the All Blacks.”

Twelve years ago the Maori game was huge, it was like they were carrying the whole nation on their backs when they beat the Lions, and this is the game I actually thought would be the unofficial fourth Test. The Maori team are really strong, perhaps not as strong as 2005 when they had Carlos Spencer, Luke McAlister and Leon MacDonald, but they are still a very good side. There’s Ash Dixon, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Damian McKenzie – a lot of talent - and up front they will be very physical.

The Maori team used to be the main stepping stone to the New Zealand XV before the franchises took off. It really brings the pride – mana – it means a lot and it’s a shop window for these guys to get to the All Blacks. History tells us it’s going to be a game with huge intensity. The history is there for these guys to back it up.

We didn’t see one against the Highlanders but against the Maori there will be another haka. It divides opinion and I think it divided my opinion as well. I had initially heard that every team was doing a haka and my worry was that it would be dampened down and you really don’t want to take the sting out of it. I know the Lions are professionals but it may take just that half per cent out of them against the All Blacks. I don’t want them to stand there and think: ‘Oh, here comes another one.’

But when I saw the Blues doing their tribute to Jonah Lomu and Kurtis Haiu I was really impressed. Then I watched the Crusaders’ one and thought, that’s actually really good. It has got some criticism, or the number of them has been knocked by some people, but it’s a personal thing really. Some people love it, for some it’s not their cup of tea, but it’s something the All Blacks have done for more than 100 years so it’s not going to change. It’s something a little bit different and a little bit special.

Nick Evans’ first Test XV

1. Mako Vunipola Mako has just been brilliant. Joe Marler has gone very well in the matches he’s played but I just think Mako offers a lot around the field, something that the other looseheads don’t. On top of that, he has been scrummaging really well.

2. Rory Best I don’t know whether they completely trust his darts at the moment but I’d have him in there just for his experience and because he’s a leader.

3. Tadhg Furlong It’s between him and Dan Cole for the starting spot, because I definitely think Kyle Sinckler has done enough for a place on the bench, but Furlong edges it after his performance against the Crusaders.

4. Alun Wyn Jones In a word, experience. He gave away a stupid penalty against the Highlanders, which I’m sure meant a rap over the knuckles, but he’s the kind of character who will bounce straight back. He’s got that nous and the big-match temperament the Lions will need.

5. Maro Itoje I’ve got him at lock because the back-row is so competitive. I just had to fit him in somewhere. He’s hugely competitive, he’s very good at the lineout – just very good all around the field.

6. CJ Stander He gets through a lot of work, I don’t think he’s been amazing because he can be a bit one dimensional. A couple of time there were four-on-threes or five-on-fours but he’s very quick to tuck the ball under the right arm. But defensively and at the breakdown he’s fantastic.

7. Sean O’Brien O’Brien gets the nod over Warburton, who I just don’t think is fit enough. It’s a big call but I wouldn’t have him. I think you’re going to get a lot more out of O’Brien than a half-fit Warburton and O’Brien really seems to have good games against New Zealand as well.

8. Taulupe Faletau He just picks himself. Billy Vunipola’s withdrawal was obviously a big blow for the Lions but Faletau is just a classy operator at the top of his game.

9. Conor Murray He’s a huge part of the game-plan and if he kicks as accurately as he can, it’ll put a lot of pressure on the All Black’s back three. His organisation with the forwards is great as well, he’s not afraid to be very vocal and his combination with Sexton brings fluidity.

10. Johnny Sexton He started poorly and I would have had Farrell at No10 last week but I saw enough of Sexton against the Crusaders to have him in there. It’s probably the hardest position to pick out of all of them.

11. Anthony Watson He needs a good game against the Maori but if he plays well he’ll play himself into the Test side because no one in the back three has really put their hand up yet.

12. Owen Farrell The Lions just need him fit and if he is, I’ve got Farrell at 12. Gatland wants as many kickers in there and if he’s at 12, you have the ability to move the ball maybe one or two phases or passes wider and then kick, which gives you more scope in the territorial battle.

13. Jonathan Davies Again, he’s there because he’s a left-footer who can kick whereas Ben Te’o isn’t a kicker and I expect Gatland to pack his side full of as many kickers as he can.

14. George North He’s another one who picks himself. The back three haven’t showered themselves in glory but I just can’t see Gatland not picking North. He’s a go-to man.

15. Leigh Halfpenny It’s a tough one. I wrote Daly, then I crossed him out, then I wrote Halfpenny, then put Daly back in. But Halfpenny can take over goalkicking if Farrell can’t. Daly would be more likely to run from deep – which I’d love to see – but Gatland will want that security.
Source: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2017/jun/16/owen-farrell-leader-lions-all-blacks

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