On Saturday June 3, the British and Irish Lions will play the first match of their 2017 rugby tour of New Zealand. It is the first of a gruelling ten match schedule which includes games against each of the five Super Rugby sides, the Maori All Blacks and three test matches against the reigning world champions, New Zealand.
This will be the 12th series for the Lions in New Zealand since the first in 1904, with just one series victory back in 1971. This time, the Lions squad face an All Blacks team ranked number one in the world, who have won their past 36 Tests at Eden Park, where two-thirds of the series will take place. New Zealand has only lost four times to teams from England, Ireland, Wales or Scotland since rugby union turned professional in 1995. Bookmakers are offering strong odds for New Zealand to win the series 3-0. It seems unlikely then that the “best” players of British and Irish rugby will have much to roar about when they head back home.
However there should be a level of optimism for the team from the Northern Hemisphere. The precise selection of the 41 players named in the 2017 squad (comprising of three Scotsmen, 15 Englishmen, 11 Irishmen and 12 Welshmen) illustrates the meticulous planning that has been put into defeating the world champions in their own backyard.
The forwards in particular, are an impressive blend of size, physicality and pace, while the decision to include seven recognised goal kickers represents the emphasis that head coach Warren Gatland places on scoring when opportunities arise. Players, coaches and supporters should be quietly confident in a squad which represents the pick of players from nations that are ranked second, fourth, fifth and eighth in the world, and have a memorable series victory over Australia in 2013 as credit in the bank. Yet still the odds remain heavily stacked against the northern hemisphere side.
While rugby union has a history that dates back to the 19th century, it is only since the introduction of the Rugby World Cup that the southern hemisphere sides have noticeably dominated their northern hemisphere counterparts. Of the eight Rugby World Cups that have taken place, only once – England in 2003 – has a northern nation been successful. The most recent tournament in 2015, won by New Zealand, saw the semi-finals contested by only southern hemisphere countries.
Since 2010, New Zealand (32 wins in 34 games), South Africa (25 in 31) and Australia (27 in 39) have significantly superior records against their northern hemisphere rivals.
Catching up with the southern sides
However… The 2016 autumn internationals saw Ireland defeat New Zealand for the first time. England continued their resurgence under the tutelage of Eddie Jones by defeating South Africa, and notching up a fourth successive victory over Australia following a 3-0 series win during the previous summer tour.
An injury-hit Wales defeated Argentina, while Australia were fortunate to defeat Scotland. And while it could be argued that New Zealand, Australia and South Africa are going through a programme of rebuilding for the Rugby World Cup in 2019, the successes of 2016 suggests that the northern hemisphere teams are developing faster.
By the time of the first test match against the Lions on June 24, New Zealand will not have played as a team for seven months. Their opponents by contrast, will have played practice matches against six full strength domestic teams.
And although the single defeat by Ireland does not signify that troubled times are ahead for New Zealand, it does illustrate that New Zealand’s programme of rebuilding is a work in progress. The absence of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, who all retired from international rugby after the 2015 Rugby World Cup, may be keenly felt in the weeks to come.
New Zealand will be under more pressure this summer than they have been in recent history. And if this Lions squad was visiting Australia or South Africa, they would surely be the bookies’ favourites. But with rugby fans around the world eagerly anticipating the challenge ahead, this could be an almighty chance for the Lions to show they have claws.