6 Nations Preview: Ireland looking to retain Grand Slam title

Ireland start their defence of the Grand Slam this weekend, against England (Saturday, February 2nd).

Ireland will be looking to retain the GS, a feat no team has managed to accomplish in the history of the 6 Nations (both England and France achieved back to back Grand Slam titles in the ’90s).

Ireland go in to the tournament as favourites, being defending champions and the second best team in the world. After having won the Grand Slam last year, they went on to achieve a series win in Australia, and another win over the All Blacks.

Retaining a Grand Slam is harder then achieving it, but Ireland go into the tournament possibly even stronger than last year, with the return of Sean O’Brien and the rise of Joey Carbery.

In the past, Ireland have often faltered under high expectation, but this Irish side seem to be made of sterner stuff. Players like James Ryan and Jacob Stockdale bring a winnner’s mentality to the team, something it has lacked in previous years.

This will also be Ireland’s last 6 Nations under Joe Scmidt as coach. That will give added motivation for the team to go all the way.

And there is of course the World Cup at the end of the year and peformance in the 6 Nations will certainly affect on the morale of each team, either way.

Ireland face England in their first game of the tournament. England ranked 5th last year, in their worst performance in recent memory. They managed to get through a tough November Series, and have some dangerous players, but Ireland should win this, especially playing at home.

Ireland will probably face a much tougher test in Murrayfield against the Scots (February 9th). Scotland have undergone a resurgence under new coach Gregor Townsend and have won 11 out of their 18 tests under his leadership.

A win against Ireland in Murrayfield would be something to savour, and something Scotland achieved in 2017. Scotland should also have had a much easier opening fixture, against Italy.

Ireland then have a 2 week break before travelling to Italy, on February 24th. Italy should never be underestimated, especially with Conor O’Shea as coach (though they are yet to win a 6 Nations’ match with him as coach (2016).

The truth, though, is that Italy aren’t approaching Ireland’s league. Ireland have only lost to Italy once in the last 20 years (2013).

Another 2 week break before Ireland host France (March 10th). France are currently suffering through some of their worst form in many years, capped off by a first-ever loss to Fiji.

Of course, it was France that Ireland faced in their opening fixture last year, and France almost won that game, before Irelad showed real grit in retaining the ball through 40 phases of play before clinching the game with a drop goal.

This is another game that is Ireland’s to lose. Ireland have had the run of France in recent years, having only lost once to the French since 2011 (2016). The other 7 games have seen 5 wins and 2 draws.

Ireland then only have 6 days to recuperate before travelling to Cardiff to face Wales (March 16th). This may well be Ireland’s toughest game of the Championship. Many pundits are talking about Wales’ being Grand Slam dark horses (ie they have a real chance of winning it).

It will be known by then if Ireland are still in the chase. It will also be Wales’ last 6 Nations under Warren Gatland and the players will certainly want to send their coach off on a high.

This fixture has been incredibly even since Ireland won it’s last Grand Slam (2009). Of the last 13 games between the sides, Ireland have won 6, Wales have won 6 and there has been 1 draw!

In conclusion, I believe that Ireland will manage to win the 6 Nations title, but lose to Scotland so fail to achieve the Grand Slam.

Rob Kearney
Jacob Stockdale
Bundee Aki
Robbie Henshaw/Gary Ringrose
Keith Earls
Jonny Sexton
Conor Murray
C J Stander
Sean O’Brien
Peter O’Mahony
Devin Toner
James Ryan
Tadhg Furlong
Rory Best
Cian Healy

That is a team that can, and has, beaten the best rugby has to offer.
What are your predicitions?

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Ireland are Favourites against France

James Ryan, Jacob Stockdale and Bundee Aki will make their 6 Nations debuts as Ireland begin their 2018 campaign against France, at the Stade de France (Sat, 3rd @ 4.45pm GMT).

Coach Joe Schmidt has picked the strongest team available with the only front line absentees being Sean O’Brien and Gary Ringrose (injured) and Simon Zebo and Donncha Ryan (not picked as they’re both playing abroad (well Zebo soon will be).

James Ryan packs down with Henderson in the second row, having played together against South Africa and Argentina during the November Series. The former St Michael’s and Under 20s star has played very well for Leinster this season.

Aki reunites his Connacht centre partnership with Robbie Henshaw. The two also lined out against South Africa last November. Aki has shown explosive power while Henshaw will want to get back up and running after a disappointing Lions tour (by his standards).

Stockdale also feature in the November Series, where he managed to score a try against South Africa and a brace against Argentina. He’s joined by Keith Earls, enjoying a wonderful season at Munster, and the ever-reliable Rob Kearney.

There was talk of a first cap for Leinster’s young sensation, Jordan Larmour at full back, but Schmidt has gone for Kearney’s experience and dependability under the high ball. Kearney, Earls, Best and Healy are the only players starting that featured in Ireland’s Grand Slam of 2009.

O’Mahony, Murray and Sexton all featured in last year’s Lions Series while Stander played in the provincial games. With the absence of Sean O’Brien, van der Flier has a chance to make the Ireland no. 7 shirt his own, as he has done with Leinster.

While it would be wrong to underestimate the French, Ireland have seldom come to the French capital in a stronger position. France have just changed their head coach, who has chosen a 19-year old, with only 3 months of top flight rugby under his belt, to make his international debut in the pivotal position of out-half.

Matthieu Jalibert isn’t the youngest person to play international rugby but he’s the youngest to feature in a 6 Nations match at out-half and the second youngest player to feature in the 6 Nations since the game went professional back in 1995.

New French coach, Jacques Brunel, has a wealth of experience and not a little bit of hardware to his name. During his tenure as French forward’s coach, France won 4 Grand Slams (2002, ’04, ’06 and ’07).

During that time France also reached 4th place in 2 World Cups (2003/2007). France also beat New Zealand in the 2007 quarter-final, but poor results (France lost to Argentina twice during the tournament) led to the entire French coaching staff losing their jobs.

While coaching Perpignan, Brunel led them to a Top14 trophy in 2009 and losing finalists in 2010. Earlier in his coaching career he had also led Colomiers to the 1999 Heineken Cup final, where they lost to Ulster.

Brunel also coached Italy for a time. In 2013, they enjoyed one of their best ever championships, with wins over France and Ireland (their first win agaisnt Ireland in the 6 Nations).

France will have the home advantage going into the match and the fact that nobody knows what style of play they will bring. Really, if Ireland can keep their heads they have no excuses and should record quite a comfortable win.

Ireland don’t respond well to being favourites, though.

Since 2011, Ireland have won 4 tests, France 2 and there have been 2 draws.

Of the last 3 games in Stade de France, both teams have won a game and there’s been one draw.

Paddy Power are offering evens on the match.

It’s also 20 years since Ireland last ‘won’ the Wooden Spoon in the tournament. To show how much improved Ireland are, in the 20 years from the late 1970s to 1998, Ireland held the Wooden Spoon on 6 different occasions.

Ireland, and England, are the only teams to have avoided the Wooden Spoon since the 6 Nations started, back in 2000.

Ireland are 2nd favourites to win the Championship this year, with England hoping to go for a third successive trophy. Wales have been decimated by injuries and Scotland and Italy have promise but are still inconsistent.

Ireland team to face France:
15. Rob Kearney (Leinster)
14. Keith Earls (Munster)
13. Robbie Henshaw (Leinster)
12. Bundee Aki (Connacht)
11. Jacob Stockdale (Ulster)
10. Johnny Sexton (Leinster)
9. Conor Murray (Munster)

1. Cian Healy (Leinster)
2. Rory Best (Ulster) (c)
3. Tadhg Furlong (Leinster)
4. Iain Henderson (Ulster)
5. James Ryan (Leinster)
6. Peter O’Mahony (Munster)
7. Josh van der Flier (Leinster)
8. CJ Stander (Munster)

16. Sean Cronin (Leinster)
17. Jack McGrath (Leinster)
18. John Ryan (Munster)
19. Devin Toner (Leinster)
20. Dan Leavy (Leinster)
21. Luke McGrath (Leinster)
22. Joey Carbery (Leinster)
23. Fergus McFadden (Leinster)

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Under-performing Ireland face France in pool decider of Women’s Rugby World Cup

Ireland will play France in the pool C decider of the Women’s Rugby World Cup, this Thursday at 5pm, at UCD. The World Cup is currently taking place in Ireland. France are one of the favourites to win the tournament, with 8-1 odds. Ireland’s odds are 50-1.

Host nation Ireland have had a slow start, narrowly beating Australia, 19-17 and coming back from a 14-0 deficit against Japan to win the match, 24-14.

France, on the other hand have started much stronger, beating Japan, 72-14 and Australia, 48-0. France have scored 20 tries so far in the World Cup, to Ireland’s 6.

Ireland actually beat France earlier in the year, in the 6 Nations, but it was only Ireland’s second victory out of 24 matches against the French. France have won 21 times against Ireland, with one match drawn.

France are one of the strongest teams in Women’s Rugby World Cup history. Although they’ve never won the tournament, they’ve come 3rd 5 times and 4th twice. Ireland’s best result is 4th place, in 2014, where they lost to France.

The 2014 World Cup saw Ireland’s best ever performances, with a shock win over 4-time champions New Zealand in the pool stages and reaching the semi-finals for the first time.

The 2017 tournament is the 8th Women’s Rugby World Cup since its inception, in 1991 (though the 1998 tournament was the first to be officially recognised by the IRB). Although the tournament is supposed to take place every 4 years, the organisers moved it to 2017 so as not to clash with the 2018 Olympics.

The tournament pool stages are been held at UCD with the knockout stages taking place in Belfast, at Queen’s University and Kingspan Stadium, formerly Ravenhill.

If Ireland manage to beat France, they will qualify for the semi-finals. If not, depending on their ranking they will contest the 5th-8th place play offs. The top 7 teams will qualify for the next tournament.

Ireland suffered a major blow before this year’s tournament kicked off, losing their inspirational captain, Niamh Briggs to injury. Claire Molloy has taken over the captaincy of the team.Under

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The British and Irish Lions will share the 2017 series with New Zealand, after drawing the last test, 15-15. It’s the first time that the Lions have drawn a series with New Zealand after 12 tours.

While it wasn’t the win that the Lions would have been looking for, it was still a tremendous achievement by the players and coaching staff, to draw a test series with the reigning, double, World Champions, especially as a lot of people, fans and pundits alike, were convinced that they would suffer a whitewash in the series.

The Lions’ players had been faced with the toughest itinerary in the tour’s history. After only a week of preparation, they were required to play 10 matches in the space of 5 weeks.

Those matches would be against the 5 New Zealand Super Rugby teams, the Maori All Blacks and a 3 test series against arguably the best team in the world. With the first game taking place only 4 days after the players had arrived in New Zealand.

The tour got off to a poor start for the Lions, after struggling to beat the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians, and then suffering a loss to the Blues, the weakest of the 5 club sides they would be facing.

Things looked bleak for the Lions’ first big game, against the Crusaders. But the Lions shocked everyone by handily beating the club that had topped the Super Rugby table, and denying them a try for the first time in 12 years.

But another Lions loss, this time to the Highlanders, had the naysayers out in force again. There was no doubt that the Lions would lose against the Maori, a team that was unbeaten against international sides since 2003, and had beaten the 2005 Lions.

The 2017 Lions were made of sterner stuff, though, and handed the Maori one of their heaviest defeats, 32-10. The midweek side’s first win of the tour, against the Chiefs, buoyed Lions fans optimism for the upcoming first test.

If the Lions were going to have a chance in any of the tests, logic dictated that it would be the first test. It was in this test that the Lions would be the most likely to catch New Zealand unawares.

The Lions put in an impressive performance but were handily beaten in the first test, 30-15. The situation was made worse by the midweek side’s inability to get the tour back on track, drawing the final midweek game, against the Highlanders.

Many predicted that the All Blacks would open the floodgates for the second test, but they were unable to get a grip on the game, with Beauden Barrett missing his kicks and their star centre, Sonny Bill Williams, been red carded. The Lions were finally able to take advantage of New Zealand’s misfortune and they won the second test, 24-21.

Even after the Lions win, though, people still doubted them and their coach Warren Gatland, and believed that the final test would prove the naysayers predictions true: Lions would be put to the sword.

Instead, the Lions never let New Zealand get away from them in the match. The Lions were helped by Beauden Barrett having another off day with his kicking, and New Zealand making mistakes, that kept the Lions level with New Zealand, 15-all.

Then, substitute hooker, Ken Owens, caught the ball while offside and New Zealand looked to be awarded the wining penalty. The referee, Romain Poite, decided that the accidental offside didn’t constitute a penalty offence, and awarded the scrum to New Zealand.

The decision has come in for a lot of criticism, though the New Zealand squad and coaches had accepted it. The law seems to state that accidental offside is a penalty offence, full stop, but Poite went against the letter of the law in this instance.

While his decision can be disputed, it seemed fair that the series ended in a draw. Overall, nothing much divided the teams and it’s fitting that they share the series.

It has to be said that it was a tremendous achievement by the Lions squad, especially the saturday/test players who won the big games against the Crusaders and the Maori and held the All Blacks to a series draw.

Some players deserve special praise:

MARIO ITOJE: the young player returns as one of the best second rows in the world. He also showed great leadership qualities, on and off the field, and looks to be a future England, and Lions, captain.

ALUN WYN JONES: while he played below his legendary status, he became only the seventh player to play a series for the Lions against all 3 of the Southern Hemisphere giants: South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

PETER O’MAHONY: though he suffered the ignominy of going from captaining the Lions in the first test to being left out of the 23 entirely for the second and final tests, the Munster man had a great tour, capped off by leading the Lions in their famous win against the Maori. Should lead Ireland into the next World Cup, and beyond.

SEAN O’BRIEN: enhanced his already powerful reputation with blistering form all through the 5 most important games. It’s hoped that his injury, sustained during the last test, is not a serious one. Leinster and Ireland need him back.

TALUPE FALATEAU: the loss of his cousin, Billy Vunipola, before the tour started seemed a blow to the Lions chances of success but Falateau was a tremendous replacement. He put in incredible performances, both in defence and attack, over the test series.

CONOR MURRAY: another player that enhanced an already strong reputation. Became the first Northern Hemisphere player to score 4 tries against the All Blacks.

OWEN FARRELL: was the coaches go to man for the series, and delivered under enormous pressure. Another young player with an already great reputation.

JONATHAN DAVIES: his fellow tourist’s pick for player of the series, his initial selection seemed to be based more on reputation than his form at the time, but he put in a mesmeric display in all 3 of the tests. Even better than the 2013 series.

SAM WARBURTON: second tour as captain and, along with Mako Vunipola, Jones, O’Brien, Falateau, Jonny Sexton, Farrell and Davies, he remains undefeated in a Lions test series after 2 tours.

WARREN GATLAND: all credit to the coach. He came under a lot of criticism during the tour, from all sides and some of it personal, but stuck to his guns and pulled off an amazing (moral) victory. Some are now pipping him to take over as New Zealand coach after the 2019 World Cup.
‘One day a feather duster, the next a crowing rooster’!

And so the 2017 Lions tour comes to an end. After 5 weeks, it’s been an amazing experience. One of the most exciting tours (maybe the rugby hasn’t been great at times but the matches have been full of excitement) in recent memory.

There has been a lot of talk of reducing the amount of time devoted to the Lions. A truncated tour, of 4 weeks and 8 games, has been bandied around.

I hope, and fervently wish, that this tour has shown what a valuable commodity the Lions is, and how pivotal it is and how it should remain as is. The rugby calendar would be the worst WORSE if it was changed. It’s only every 4 years. I’m sure clubs could work around it

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New Zealand Beat Lions In First Test Of Series

The New Zealand All Blacks have beaten the British and Irish Lions, 30-15, in the first test of the 2017 series. Although the Lions managed to score one of the great tries, they still went down to a superior New Zealand side.

The Lions threatened the New Zealand line on occasion, and found gaps in their defence, but, as like so many times on this tour, the Lions were unable to convert pressure into points, with one glorious exception.

The Lions almost had a dream start to the match, winger Elliot Daly been forced into touch at the New Zealand try line, only 2 minutes into the game. The Lions showed great intent, but it was New Zealand that first got points on the board.

First, through a penalty by Beauden Barrett. If it could be said that the star out-half had a weakness in his game, it was his kicking but he was sublime on the day, with a perfect record.

Soon after, the All Blacks scored the first try of the game. New Zealand had been awarded a penalty close to the line. While the Lions players turned, expecting the kick, scrum-half Aaron Smith, pouncing on their lapse, passed the ball on to Barrett, who passed to Israel Dagg.

Dagg through a pass out to hooker Codie Taylor. It was a poor pass, but the hooker showed the skill of an out-half, or a New Zealand front row, by catching the ball off his boot straps and running in to score. I remember seeing the great Australian out-half, Mark Ella, catch a pass like that on the Wallabies Grand Slam tour of Britain and Ireland back in 1984.

New Zealand were leading 10-0, and it looked like they were going to keep piling on the points, but the Lions responded in real style. Liam Williams took the ball in his own 22, found a gap and charged up the field.

He was caught by the defence but managed to pass on to Daly, who made more ground. Daly passed on to Jonathan Davies, who almost scored but was caught.

Williams managed to offload to Sean O’Brien who was in support, and had been for the full 80 metres, and O’Brien beat the defenders to score. It will go down as one of the great tries in Lions history. Farrell was unable to add the points, though, and the half finished with New Zealand, 13-8 ahead (with penalties by Barrett and Farrell).

New Zealand had been dominant in the first half, but the Lions had showed that they weren’t far behind. The second half started like the first, with the Lions been denied a try close to the All Blacks line.

It was a similar story, though. The Lions found the gaps but were unable to capitalise. New Zealand, in contrast, were more clinical in their play, with young winger, Reiko Ioane scoring 2 tries on his first start for the All Blacks.

The All Blacks were running away with the game, and it was 30-8 up to the last minute. But the Lions wouldn’t give up and managed to score right on the death, with replacement scrum-half, Rhys Webb, touching down.

New Zealand won comfortably, but the Lions showed some deft touches. The test series is still very much alive. The Lions need to be more clinical in their play, and watch their penalty count.

The question now is what changes need to be made to the Lions team for the second test? Liam Williams was the star for the Lions, with some lovely running. He made one grave error, where he was unable to collect a high ball, and Ioane pounced to score his second try. Despite the mistake, he should be left where he is for the next test.

Both wingers, Daly and Anthony Watson, were great in attack, but caught out in defence. I would still like to see George North get a chance. The giant wing is a big game player.

Jonathan Davies was another superb performer. The All Blacks seemed unable to contain him and he made yards every time he had the ball. Te’o did a great job of nullifying the great Sonny Bill Williams, rekindling a rivalry from their rugby league days.

Farrell was unable to get a hold of the game, but neither was Sexton when he moved into out-half. I believe Warren Gatland may decide to start next week’s test with Sexton at 10 and Farrell at 12, which would mean moving Te’o to the bench.

Murray played well, though he was outclassed by his opposite number, Smith. Webb did well when he came on, capped off by scoring a try, but I don’t think he’s good enough to start the second test. Great impact sub, though.

The pack were outclassed on the day, unable to get a firm hold of the game. Vunipola and Furlong didn’t have their usual affect and Kyle Sinkler did some damage when he came on as a replacement. There’s nothing between Jamie George and Ken Owens at hooker.

The pace of the game seemed to be beyond Alun Wyn Jones, and he was visibly struggling to keep up with it. George Kruis didn’t have a great game, and he is on the bench for Tuesday’s game against the Hurricanes. Maro Itoje should get a chance from the start next week to have an affect on the game.

Sean O’Brien was the best of the Lions pack, been destructive in defence and attack all over the field. Peter O’Mahony wasn’t his usual dominant presence and Falateau was outclassed by Kieran Reed. The New Zealand captain was a colossus in his first game back after breaking his thumb 6 weeks ago.

I would like to see a back row of Peter O’Mahony, Sam Warburton and Sean O’Brien. I think that would be an exciting combination.

The Lions are still in with a chance of winning the test series, but the advantage is still with New Zealand. It’s always easier when you’re 1-0 up in a series.

Only once have the Lions come back and win a test series after losing the opening game. That was in 1989, the great series against Australia. The Lions had lost the first test, but changed their team, and their tactics, and won the second two tests, winning the series.

The Lions were helped in the last test by the great David Campese, who made one of the most memorable errors in sport, where he tried to run the ball from his own line and was caught and Ieuan Evans touched the ball down to scored. A mistake from one of the true greats in rugby.

That Australian side went on to win the World Cup, 2 years later, in 1991, which shows what a strong team they were and what a great victory by the Lions it was.

The 2017 Lions can still win the series, but not if they don’t watch their mistakes, keep their penalty count low and finish attacking moves with the ball on the opposing try line.

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The British and Irish Lions scored a decisive win against the Maori All Blacks, 32-10, on Saturday. And now it looks like the majority of the 23 will feature in the first test, this Saturday, 24th June, at 8.30 am Irish time. Roughly the same 23 featured in the win over the Crusaders as well.

This looks to be confirmed as Warren Gatland has called in 6 new replacements for the Lions game against the Chiefs, on Tuesday (8.30 am Irish Time).

Gatland has come into some criticism for calling in these replacements, 4 from Wales and 2 from Scotland, as all 6 have struggled to gain selection for their own national sides, let alone the British and Irish Lions.

Gatland has stated that he wants to rest the test squad, and picked players that were closest to hand (Wales are touring the Pacific Islands and Scotland are touring Australia) as cover.

Eddie Jones, the English coach, has been particularly vociferous about Gatland’s selection, pointing out that with modern air travel, players could be called from anywhere.

The Lions are supposed to be the elite of Northern Hemisphere rugby, and players like Johnny Gray, Dylan Hartley, Joe Launchbury and Chris Robshaw, who missed out on the initial squad selection could easily slot into the set up.

Gatland has denied accusations that he has devalued the jersey of the Lions and has restated that his focus is on winning the test series. He did the same thing in 2013 when he called in 4 replacements before the first test, including Shane Williams, who had retired from first class rugby and was playing for a second division side in Japan. The selection seemed to pay off as the Lions went on to win the series. It will have to be seen if history repeats itself.

The 2 toughest games for the Lions, outside this year’s test series, was always going to be against the Crusaders and the Maori All Blacks, and the Lions have come away with a perfect 2 wins from 2.

The Lions dominated the Maori for the majority of the game and outclassed their illustrious opponents. It was the first defeat conceded by the Maori after a run of 20 straight victories against international sides, dating back to 2003.

Granted, the Maori had had only a week to prepare for the Lions fixture, and had gone into the match without a warm-up game, and thus were undercooked, but none of that should take away from what was a great Lions performance.

The Lions had gotten off to a poor start on this tour, struggling to beat the New Zealand Barbarians, and losing to the Blues, the club with the worst record in New Zealand.

Things had looked dire for the Northern Hemisphere side, with many believing that the All Blacks looked likely to deliver their 4th whitewash in a Lions series, after 1966, ’83 and 2005. Now, with these 2 wins under their belts, the Lions look like they will give New Zealand a run for their money in the test series.

One question mark that stands against the Lions, however, is their attack.
While the Lions defence and performance in the set piece has been terrific, their attack has been poor.

In the 2 wins, the Lions only scored one try, which was from a driving maul. A penalty try was also awarded. Both tries came in the game against the Maori. The Lions failed to score a try against the Crusaders, though they also denied the Crusaders scoring a try themselves.

While breaks have been made, the Lions have been unable to complete moves and score tries. Players dropping balls or been unable to find and pass to teammates in support. This is a usual problem for a scratch side like the Lions, with players unused to playing together regularly.

As roughly the same 23 players featured in both of the victories, it would seem likely that these will be the chosen squad for the 1st test at least, if not the series. Also, few of the other players have stood up for selection.

While the Lions have been able to beat the Crusaders and Maori with a strong defence and set piece, they will need a lot more to emerge victorious against the New Zealand All Blacks.

The Lions can be competitive against the All Blacks, they will need to score tries if they want to win a test, let alone the series.

These are the payers that look likely to start the first test:

LEIGH HALFPENNY-the star of the 2013 series, had suffered a dip in form over the ensuing years, but looks close to his best after a slow start on tour. His elevation is also helped by the injury to Stuart Hogg. Hasn’t missed a kick all tour.

ANTHONY WATSON-scored a try in the opening fixture. Hasn’t been able to show much attacking flair in the more high profile games but his defence has been solid.

JONATHAN DAVIES-another star of the ’13 series. Late starter after recovering from injury setback. Made some great breaks against the Maori.

BEN TE’O-the Lions biggest attacking threat so far. Few have been able to contain him. Will likely be replaced during the first test for Owen Farrell.

GEORGE NORTH-the giant Welsh wing has been very quiet this tour. Gatland will be hoping he comes alive for the test series. If not, Elliot Daly would be a fair replacement.

JONNY SEXTON-one of the best out-halves in the world, the Irish star has come into his own after a slow start to the tour. Competition with Farrell is high for the starting birth.

CONOR MURRAY-came out as the likely starting scrum-half and has delivered in spades. Could be the Lions best no.9 since Gareth Edwards.

MAKO VUNIPOLA-one of the most competitive positions in the squad but Vunipola looks to have edged Jack McGrath for the test spot at loose head. Will want to add to his great series in 2013.

JAMIE GEORGE-pips Ken Owens for the starting spot at hooker, after yet to start a game for England. Great in the set piece, especially his throwing in the line out.

TADHG FURLONG-his already strong reputation has been enhanced on tour. Terrific performance all round.

MARO ITOJE-not even 23, but already one of the best second rows around. Star of the last two 6 Nations tournaments. Scored a try against the Maori. Terrific, passionate performer. Future Lions captain.

GEORGE KRUIS-paramount to the Lions dominating in the set piece. Both he and Itoje look to have kept the legendary Alun Wyn Jones out of the starting XV.

PETER O’MAHONY-only played one game of this year’s 6 Nations, but his performance in that match earned him a call-up to the Lions. Since then, his performances have been brilliant all round. May captain the Lions in the first test after leading so well against the Maori.

SEAN O’BRIEN-another player that has enhanced his already strong reputation. May have forced tour skipper, Sam Warburton, onto the replacements bench for the first test.

TOBY FALATEAU-for me, the star player for the Lions so far. New Zealand have yet to find someone to contain him. Streets ahead of his nearest rival.

REPLACEMENTS: Jack McGrath and Ken Owens are definites. Alun Wyn Jones may get the nod ahead of Courntey Lawes due to his experience. Warburton has been shunted to the replacements bench but makes a great impact sub.

Greig Laidlaw-the Scottish captain slightly edges Rhys Webb.

OWEN FARRELL- if fit, will definitely feature. Can play at the highest level at 10 or 12. Linked well with Sexton in the Crusaders game. Was injured for the Maori game.

ELLIOT DALY- has been picked to play against the Chiefs on Tuesday. Edges Liam Williams for a place on the bench.

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Poor Lions Fail To Impress In Opening Fixture

Well, the 2017 Lions have won their opening fixture in New Zealand but it was a close run thing. The New Zealand Provincial Barbarians actually were leading into the second half, before winger Anthony Watson scored the winning try, the match finished 13-7 in the Lions’ favour.

The Lions should have laid down a marker. Their first game in New Zealand, the start of the most gruelling itinerary in their history, a chance to show everyone what they are capable of and for players to stake a claim for the test jerseys.

Instead, it was a stuttering performance where the majority of the great play came from the opposition. The Barbarians were keen to follow the tradition of running rugby which may have cost them the win, running penalties instead of kicking them.

Bryn Gatland was my man of the match, marshalling the side well from out-half. He was much better then his illustrious counterparts. Jonny Sexton failed to get a command on the game, with passes going awry and poor kicking. Owen Farrell wasn’t much better when he replaced him.

(Warren is probably wishing his son qualified for the Lions after the display and no doubt the young man will be getting many offers to play in Europe).

Toby Falatue was one of the few Lions to impress, putting in crunching tackles, especially a miraculous try-saving effort. Watson did well to score the try, but so many around failed to rise to the occasion.

Jet lag was a factor in their performances, as the players only arrived in the country 3 days ago. Still, the pride of British and Irish rugby should have put in a better performance against a scratch side of part timers.

The 2001 Lions played a similar sort of team, albeit in Australia, and won the game, 116-10. Things were always going to be tougher in New Zealand, but if the Lions struggled against what should be by far the weakest team they’ll face all tour, how will they manage to even be competitive in the test series, let alone win a game?

The New Zealand media have gotten the knives out already, calling the performance ‘pathetic’, and stating that the Lions reached ‘unbelievable levels of mediocrity’!

The NZ media always tend to see themselves as a ’16th man’ when the Lions tour, doing their best to demoralise the opposition any chance they get.

Players have always talked about how New Zealand is the toughest place to tour as the whole country seems to be knowledgeable about the game and they’re all against you.

The Lions play the Blues on Wednesday, who are currently 6th in Super Rugby (this is the Southern Hemisphere equivalent of the Heineken Cup, comprising the best teams in New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. As well as teams from Japan and Argentina).

On Saturday week, the Lions play the Crusaders who are the top team in Super Rugby, having won all their games. They have also won the Super Rugby competition 7 times, more than any other team (albeit their last win was in 2008). Still, they may be the best club side in the world at this moment.

Many are calling the game against the Crusaders the Lions’ unofficial 4th test (with the Maori game being a possible 5th test). The Lions will have to be infinitely better than they were yesterday if they want to win.

It was the lowest score in a Lions opening fixture in their history. Also, one of the lowest scores by a Lions team in a match that they won. They need to put the loss behind them.

It wasn’t the worst opening performance in the history of the Lions. That dubious distinction belongs to the 1971 Lions team, that lost their opening game against Queensland (they played a few games in Australia before heading to New Zealand), the only Lions team to lose their opening fixture.

Some in New Zealand heard about the loss and labelled them as the worst Lions squad ever. Of course, the ’71 went on to win the test series in New Zealand, the only Lions team to do so.

That loss to Queensland was only 1 of 2 losses on the entire tour. The second loss was against New Zealand in the second test of the tour. In all, the ’71 Lions played 26 games, winning 23, losing 2 and drawing 1 (the last test).

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