It doesn’t take an astute rugby brain to realise the battle up front between the All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions will be crucial during the DHL New Zealand Lions Series 2017.
But after last night’s display against an under-strength Highlanders pack, the Lions still have plenty of work to do heading into the first Test at Eden Park on Saturday 24 June.
The scrum should be a key weapon for the Lions. This is the best of Britain and Ireland after all. Four countries who pride themselves on scrummaging.
As it turned out, it was the Highlanders who dominated the set piece and thoroughly deserved their 23-22 win.
The southern men also showed the Lions how to construct a line out drive as they barged over for hooker Liam Coltman’s try.
It was like living in a parallel universe. The Highlanders, not a team renowned for their set piece, giving the Lions a lesson in exactly that part of the game.
The Crusaders, once they sorted things out with the referee, stood up well to the Lions scrum too and it will be intriguing to see what a reasonably lightweight Maori All Blacks scrum can achieve in Rotorua on Saturday.
The problem for the Lions – their big problem – is that they won’t beat the All Blacks playing a high tempo game, attacking from turnovers, chancing their arm, giving the unexpected a crack.
As we saw in Christchurch, they will keep it tight. They will use their midfield to set targets and try to rumble it up against the All Blacks, hoping to punch holes with one off runners.
It won’t work because – from what we’ve seen to date – they aren’t good enough at it. That’s not to say they can’t improve, but the clock is ticking.
Warren Gatland needs to show his hand against the Maori All Blacks. He will have to start his Test side and run through a dress rehearsal for what he hopes to achieve against the All Blacks at Eden Park.
He will hope for more polish than what was seen in Dunedin. To give the Lions credit they did try to match the Highlanders stride for stride and, at times, looked good with the ball in hand. But it’s the little things that let them down. The final pass from prop Kyle Sinckler to fullback Jared Payne when the try was on. The angle of the run by Rhys Webb when he had a man in support.
The missed opportunities. The points left out on the pitch.
Gatland will also be wondering about his best midfield combination. Robbie Henshaw and Jonathan Joseph were pretty good against the Highlanders. But former Lions first five Stuart Barnes reckons Gatland will use Jonathan Davies and Ben Te’o – and play a tighter, more conservative game.
He has a big problem at fullback too with Stuart Hogg on his way home injured.
Leigh Halfpenny is a good goal kicker, but he is pedestrian. Anthony Watson looked lively when he replaced Hogg in Christchurch. He might be a risk, but the Lions need to take a few if they’re to beat the All Blacks.
And what does Gatland do with his loose forwards? Sean O’Brien was magnificent against the Crusaders but Sam Warburton is the captain. He was good only in patches in Dunedin.
And how do you fit both CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony into a trio that must also include Taulupe Faletau?
The night before the Maori All Blacks game Steve Hansen will look to put his starting 15 through their paces – not for all of the game, but at least some of it – against Samoa.
His headaches are better than Gatland’s as he sifts through one of the best squads he’s ever had.
If Friday’s game is also dress rehearsal then Sonny Bill Williams and Anton Lienert-Brown will start in the midfield, but has Waisake Naholo’s performance against the Lions (which was just superb) given him pole position to start on the right wing ahead of Israel Dagg?
With Tawera Kerr Barlow playing for the Maori All Blacks, does that mean TJ Perenara and Aaron Smith are the two halfbacks for the Lions test? And if so, which one starts?
With Kieran Read out, Ardie Savea should start at No.8. And with Jerome Kaino set to play after six weeks out with a knee injury, we could see a loose forward trio of openside flankers finish the test in Matt Todd, Savea and Sam Cane.