Big Cat Diaries; Who's Impressed & Who's Been Found Wanting

June 16, 2017

Let’s face it, most Lions fans were under no illusions; going to New Zealand was going to be an incredibly difficult task. Not just because they face the All Blacks on 3 occasions but due to the immensely high quality rugby played by the domestic sides. Coaches say it too frequently but in this case, there are no easy games.

Yet, many seemed to be shocked that the Lions had suffered two defeats to teams that only contain ‘a handful’ of New Zealand regulars, as if the other players in the team wouldn’t pose the tourists a threat. The reason New Zealand are the world’s best is due to their immense strength in depth – the Lions were always going to lose along the way so I’d suggest no one panic.

Looking ahead to that increasingly pivotal, first test against New Zealand, I wanted to analyse some individual performances and see who has put their hand up as a potential starter, and who may have slipped into the midweek setup.

Hit:

Kyle Sinckler

They say tour is about both the on-field and off-field experience and this guy seems to be grabbing the opportunity with two meaty hands. He’s put together a string of brilliantly positive performances so far, with the only blips being a poorly executed pass whilst finding himself in unchartered territory for a prop forward, and a rather clumsy shoulder charge. His banter is meant to be first rate too. I’m knit-picking!

I don’t think he’ll start the first test but he would be a fantastic impact player to bring on; many will be stunned if he doesn’t make the bench.

Rhys Webb

A known quantity within Europe but the test for the Welshman was whether he could deliver at the highest level; the verdict – oh yes!

His ability to snipe a gap in the defensive line is fantastic and the relentless quick service he provides will be essential in ensuring the Lions tempo is consistent, and lasts the full 80.

Again, I don’t think he will start, as Conor Murray looks nailed on; but this guy will be an extremely valuable asset off the bench – in the words of Eddie Jones, he’ll definitely be a finisher.

Ben Te’o

There was a lot of chat about this fella before the tour started, due to him offering the Lions a very obvious but potentially devastating style of play. His rugby league background and knowledge of the Southern Hemisphere game has definitely helped him in securing many valuable yards and line breaks.

He looks more and more likely to start at inside centre due to the probability of Farrell playing 10, and Te'o may be critical to exposing unapparent defensive weaknesses in the All Black line. The pick of the centres so far.

Iain Henderson

So, I’ll be the first to admit that I was rather shocked by the inclusion of Big Iain; with the likes of Joe Launchbury and Jonny Gray missing out, I think many were, but so far his selection has been more than vindicated.

A fantastic and positive performance against the Highlanders, which was epitomised by his amazing clear out on the Lions five metre line to win a turnover, has encouraged many, including myself, to eat their words. Once again, I don’t think he will oust the likes of Itoje and Kruis for a starting position but he’s more than justifying his selection!


Miss:

Jared Payne

With the injury to Hoggy, Payne had the chance to really stake his claim on the 15 jersey against the Highlanders, yet unfortunately, it just didn’t happen for him. A few poor errors and an all-round unspectacular performance hasn't exactly given Gatland a selection headache.

He did well to make the squad after missing most of the 6 Nations through injury but I think he will have to settle for midweek rugby.

Liam Williams

Another back 3 aficionado who just hasn’t quite hit the ground running yet. It’s almost as if he’s trying to do too much on the field and is neglecting the basics. Nothing more exemplifies this than his poor efforts under the high ball so far – an area he usually excels in.

A test spot is by no means out of sight for the talented Welshman but he has dropped down the pecking order for now, due to the brilliance of others such as Antony Watson – next game for Williams is huge.

Dan Cole

Cole hasn’t massively impressed yet and due to the exciting emergence and energy of his England team mate, Kyle Sinckler, he may struggle to make the bench for the test. A victim of his own high standards.

However, he’s a quality scrummager and that will do him no harm, especially since the scrum has struggled against a number of sides so far.

Sam Warburton

Similar to Cole, this one isn’t down to poor performances, but instead that others may be playing him out of the side.

An imperious performance by Sean O’Brien against the Crusaders, mixed with an overall mediocre Warburton showing against the Highlanders, plus the skipper’s injury problems, suggests the 7 shirt could go down to the wire.

We know Gatland isn’t afraid to make big decisions; just think Brian O’Driscoll 4 years ago!

Lots will come of Saturday's fixture against the Maori but for now that's my feelings. 


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