Ollie Phillips: Even if they are thrashed by the Maori All Blacks, criticism of the British and Irish Lions is unwarranted

 
Ollie Phillips
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Crusaders v British & Irish Lions
Anthony Watson is a contender to play full-back in the first Test against New Zealand (Source: Getty)

I have a feeling the British and Irish Lions will be on the wrong end of heavy scoreline against the Maori All Blacks on Saturday and a lot of criticism will be heading their way.

People will surmise that the Lions are miles away, not good enough and unable to stand up to New Zealand when the Test series starts on 24 June in Auckland. But even if the worst happens in Rotorua, I believe those opinions are unmerited.

The Lions have already taken flak for losing two of their opening four matches with critics suggesting the tourists should be turning over some of those Super Rugby outfits by enormous margins. There is absolutely no chance of that.

Those sides have been playing together all season and know each other inside out. The Lions have come together as a scratch team and have played some excellent rugby at times, looked dangerous and chalked up some respectable scorelines.

If the Lions had been together four months, then fair enough, criticism may be justified. But it’s only been a matter of weeks and it’s the same for any globetrotting side, it takes time to gel.

They beat a Crusaders side which hadn’t lost all year and had nine All Blacks in their squad. The Lions are way ahead of where I expected them to be, and while I doubt they’ll win the Test series, I’ve seen enough to suggest it will be closer than I initially thought.

Head coach Warren Gatland and his players need to keep a level head, stayed focused, not panic or get disheartened and just recognise they are building towards the first Test.

Looking at the side Gatland has selected for the clash with the Maori All Blacks, barring three or four places and injury, I believe this is the starting XV for the first Test. For me, the positions which are still up for grabs are fly-half, wing, full-back and hooker.

Owen Farrell is Gatland’s No1 fly-half by a standout margin – when he plays the Lions have more composure and direction – but a grade one strain to his quadricep makes him an injury doubt for Auckland.

Johnny Sexton has the chance to stake his claim tomorrow, or indeed knock Dan Biggar off the bench should Farrell recover. I also think it’s a big game for Jamie George as he’s in a straight shootout with Ken Owens for the hooker’s jersey.

Saracens duo Maro Itoje and George Kruis are paired together in the second row, although I still think Alun Wyn Jones could come in and relegate Itoje to the replacements.

With Stuart Hogg’s tour over due to injury, I would be devastated if Gatland opted for Leigh Halfpenny at full-back for the Test opener. He’s a good player but is simply not playing well enough to deserve a starting place.

My back-three would be Anthony Watson at full-back and Liam Williams and George North on the flanks. With Watson at No15, there is an attacking threat from the running perspective. Halfpenny won’t offer that and also could be targeted by New Zealand in the air.

Ollie Phillips is currently cycling across America for Asthma UK. To show your support and donate, please visit: www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Ollie-Phillips2017. Twitter: @OlliePhillips11

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