An Elephant-sized Lion
TONY JOHNSON IS A COMMENTATOR AND PRESENTER FOR SKY TV’S RUGBY COVERAGE IN NEW ZEALAND.
THERE ALWAYS SEEMS to be an elephant in the room. Every four years it’s the World Cup, other years it might be a record win streak, an upcoming coaching appointment or a bunch of notable players about to make their next big move.
Over there in the corner, balancing on a unicycle wearing a pointy hat and dark glasses, is this year’s elephant, and it’s called a Lions tour.
They only come about every four years, 12 if you’re hosting one, and that makes them more special than anything else outside the World Cup.
Four months out, the magnitude of the task has already been underpinned by the All Blacks coaching staff nudging the posts on their much touted commitment to player welfare and hosting a summer summit to get everyone in the right frame of mind and shape for June.
And no question, the June series will be the bright light on the train approaching down the track right through this year’s Super Rugby competition.
The synchronicity between the All Blacks and the Super Rugby franchises has always been a strength of New Zealand rugby, although it was taken to a ridiculous extreme in 2007 when way too many players were taken out of way too many games as the coaching staff went all Clive Woodward and overcooked their World Cup preparations.
It’ll never get that bad again, surely, but don’t be surprised to see players being given extra time off here and there to make sure they’re in peak condition for June. Expect to see a no risk approach to injuries, especially those above the shoulder line.
So there’s potential downside in terms of the impact on New Zealand’s Super Rugby hopes, although after last year it would be hard not to see Kiwi teams again to the forefront.
And there’s upside too. Competition for places will be fierce, particularly in the backline and this will provide a compelling side attraction.
Things changed at halfback last year. Aaron Smith managed to take his status down a notch or two and by year’s end had lost his starting role to TJ Perenara, who combined comfortably with his Hurricanes teammate, World and New Zealand Player of the Year Beauden Barrett.
Any combination of matches involving the Chiefs, Hurricanes and Highlanders will be compulsive viewing just to see the battles between the inside back combos: TKB or Brad Weber and Aaron Cruden at the Chiefs, TJ Perenara and Barrett at the Hurricanes, Smith and Lima Sopoaga at the Highlanders, and I wouldn’t necessarily take Augustine Pulu at the Blues out of the equation.
However, it would be a huge surprise at the end of it were Smith not to resume his position at the front of the queue.
And then there’s the midfield. All things considered, given the departure of Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu, the Olympic games injury to Sonny Bill Williams and the later issues affecting George Moala and Ryan Crotty, things went pretty well in the middle of the backline in 2016.
The cork was taken off another sparkling talent in Anton Lienert-Brown, and the sight of he and Rieko Ioane playing together in Paris was surely a look into a crystal ball…or if you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, a palantir.
It’s going to be a tough call. Crotty is a ‘glue’ player, a man who doesn’t make mistakes, and somewhat underrated as an attacker. SBW knows how to play big, although there has to be a question mark over his viability after another serious injury.
Moala is all brute power and with a growing skillset, ALB is a star in the making, and with some adjustments to his defensive game in particular, Ioane could become special as well.
Given the likely strength of the Lions centres, experience will be a huge factor, which gives Crotty and Williams the inside running, but if Lienert-Brown continues on his current career trajectory he’ll be impossible to leave out.
Upside of the SBW move is that we’ll see him and Moala or Ioane playing together at the Blues.
It really is a space worth watching over the next four months.
And what about lock? The health of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick will be crucial. They are currently without peer, individually or as a combination and as long as they are on the field together New Zealand will continue to win far more tests than they lose.
Scott Barrett rapidly established himself as the number three on the northern tour despite his lack of experience, but beyond that things are murky.
Patrick Tuipulotu left the tour for reasons that remain undisclosed, and for all his athletic prowess and power in contact appears, rather disappointingly, to have stalled. He needs a big campaign with the Blues to stay in the frame, while Luke Romano is another who will want to re-establish himself after having to leave the tour in tragic circumstances.
Another sub plot to this year, quite aside from the Lions series, will be coaching.
There will have to be a move soon to start setting things up for post-2019.
There is a push coming from within the All Blacks for succession, with Ian Foster backed by Steve Hansen to step up to the head role, but while it is clear Foster has done a good job, it would be irresponsible of NZR not to cast the net wide.
It would be unconscionable not to establish dialogue with Joe Schmidt, while Dave Rennie heads a group of others that surely must at least be considered regardless of where they are in the world. The goalposts have been moved before to get the right men for the job, and they can easily be moved again.
In the meantime though, a well established, highly successful group will be focusing all energies on beating the Lions.
Winning a series against the Lions will be incentive enough, even without factoring in the inevitable niggling that will take place between the coaches. If the Lions win, then the calls will get loud for Gatland to take over after the next World Cup.
Hansen and his crew will have a plan taking shape, and there will already be a team pencilled, but not inked in as yet, and that is one thing that makes the upcoming Super Rugby season all the more fascinating.
RUDE HEALTH Keeping Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock in top condition will be crucial for the All Blacks.