The Lions are coming, and the question on the notoriously thirsty, Barmy Army’s lips must be – how prepared are the All Blacks? The only way that we in New Zealand can answer this question is by making a judgement and looking at the form of our players and teams in the Super 18 competition.
And, I must say what fun it has been to observe the past three months, given the unprecedented dominance of the NZ teams in the competition. If knowledge of both the Crusaders and Hurricanes 400+ points form over 10 games hasn’t reached British shores, then I fear that Lions supporters may be in for a shock over the attacking rugby that will be put on display.
Let me explain the current psyche of the typical armchair rugby watcher in NZ right now. If your team is playing in a NZ derby, then it’s a case of getting to the bar an hour early to ensure you have the best spot; because you don’t want to miss a second! (Take the Crusaders recent 20-12 victory over the Hurricanes as a prime example of the class on show).
If, however, it is a home match to one of the hapless Australian teams (I can say this, I’m a kiwi), then maybe date night with the other half could be on the cards, followed by a quick watch of the highlights, such has been the one sided nature of the overseas match-ups.
It has felt like an embarrassment of riches to admit the difficulty in galvanizing New Zealand viewers, for the matches involving non-NZ teams. Yet, the silver lining of this psyche has meant that the hype ahead of testing our high flying talent against the infamous Lions has never been more anticipated.
One drawback of bearing witness to the demolition of the overseas Super Rugby teams is that it has inevitably cast a degree of complacency over our expectation of winning.
However, let it be known all the way to the Upper tiers of Twickenham, Murrayfield, The Pricipality, and the Aviva, we’re not simply winning by hair and a whisker…These games against our Australian and South African counterparts have been blowouts. And not just on NZ soil.
The success rate of the NZ teams overseas at the moment is 93%; were it not for the Chiefs losing to the Stormers by 8 points, it would be a clean 100% record for wins both home and away against overseas opposition this season.
The tries being scored are increasingly jaw dropping – a recent match between the Hurricanes and the Stormers was an absolute showcase of the quality of rugby being played. For example, an audacious Beauden Barrett chip-kick inside his own 22, which led to a length of the field try. Or how about knicking the ball off the Stormers fullback inside the dead ball area to score inches from being out of play.
Put simply, the Hurricanes put on an exhibition on how to get across the line in style – but the less said about the goal kicking the better.
And these try-filled affairs have been spread across the five NZ franchises, with key All Blacks looking in intimidating form and seemingly hungry to put on the black jersey against the best of the British Isles.
However, you don’t lose heartbreaking Rugby World Cup pressure-cooker playoffs over the years without learning that test match footy is the real test. And with the absolute best of the Brits on a flight to our shores, we would be silly to think Super Rugby form will translate directly to the test match arena.
The biggest illusion we may be under in NZ right now, is that the Six Nations is a lesser competition than the Rugby Championship. We needn’t look any further than Chicago last year when Ireland achieved the impossible and beat the All Blacks, by showing attacking flair not seen in the green jersey by NZ fans.
Yet, the often regarded test for world dominance, for the All Blacks, has always been against England on the hallowed ground of Twickenham, yet due to the intolerable international schedule, this Lions Series is a chance to surpass even that.
If you are a longtime lover of a traditional ‘plug the corners, play the territory and maul it up,’ style of play, then prepare to be disappointed. For I believe over the course of Steve Hansen’s tenure with the All Blacks, he has shown one particularly unique approach to his predecessors.
Rather than forcing his players into a game plan that works best for the whole team, he instead appears to let his players utilise their natural strengths to dictate a game plan that suits the team’s attacking attitude.
Likely starting fly-half Beauden Barrett, may not have the ever present ability of Dan Carter to punt the ball into the back corner of enemy territory, leaving the opposition fullback wrong-footed. Instead, Beauden has a turn of pace and chip kick that can turn a game on its head in a split second – and the players around him run off his shoulder almost expecting an X-factor play. It is this attacking flair that appears to underpin a lot of what the NZ super rugby teams are achieving, and whether that flair will translate onto the international scene will be found out in a mere matter of weeks.
For those sorrow-filled Lions supporters who embarked on the journey south 12 years ago and have worked up the courage to do it all again, I do have some advice for the touring team – Look at the talent in your own ranks and allow them the freedom to play a game that uses the strengths that having four nations’ player pools to pick from allows.
If you have a forward pack that is a power house of muscle, then rumble it close to the ruck all day. If your fly half can land the ball on a penny anywhere in the field, then dominate the territory game. For it is easy for us to boast about successful cross field kicks and mid field bombs, but it has to be noted that these attacking plays encompass a great deal of risk, ripe for counter attacking rugby.
And make no mistake, these high risk attacking plays will be key weapons for both teams, which all but guarantees that this will be a series certain to emphasise to the rest of the world how attacking rugby is played.