The most high profile touring party in world rugby will be taking on perhaps the greatest team in sport this summer as the Lions travel to New Zealand.
The three match series is going to pit some of the most creative and explosive backs against one another, while it will see some of the strongest and most technically gifted ‘forwards’ go up against each other, and we use the term ‘forwards’ tentatively, as the All Blacks front eight could play in the backs if they really wanted to!
Warren Gatland’s squad is a world-class one as the likes of George North and Owen Farrell will surely play a huge role in the tour. But the class of their opponents is so much that every single player that gets on the pitch will have to play above and beyond their best if they are to take any sort of victory.
The match up will see a number of heavyweight battles that are likely to decide how successful the Lions are this summer, but which three could swing the balance more in the favour of one side or the other?
Jonny Sexton vs Beauden Barrett
Nobody has any idea how this Lions side will look come the first test against New Zealand and the position that is dividing opinion most is at fly-half. Owen Farrell is a strong contender for the berth with his continued growth over the last few seasons seeing his all-round game improve massively. Dan Bigger cannot be ignored due to his kicking game and defensive work rate and the fact he is a player Warren Gatland knows well.
It is likely to be Irishman Jonathan Sexton that gets the nod though. Sexton is a mould of the two aforementioned players and, if Connor Murray starts at scrum-half, it would make sense for the two to play together.
While Sexton is superb in both defence and attack, he has an incredible understanding of the game and is fantastic at controlling the match. Against England in the Six Nations he was superb as he controlled the game with his kicking and passing as the Grand Slam chasing side were unable to ever really get into the game. In the summer though, he will face up against a man that can do all of these things and more.
Playing for the All Blacks is never easy, and replacing one of the greatest number 10’s ever is even harder. Beauden Barrett has done a good job of filling Dan Carter’s shoes though and he looks like a real force in the Kiwi team and may have tipped him to surpass their favourite number 10 if he carries on at the rate he is on.
Beauden Barrett is an incredible talent. His kicking is a strong side to his game but he is far more than just a points jockey. He seems to have the ball on a string when he kicks from hand in both dead and open play and his passing and timing is simply sublime.
He has an unnatural ability to ghost in-between defenders and find space where there is none. If he isn’t beating defenders himself it is because the opposition has been drawn to him to stop him which frees up huge spaces on the pitch allowing the already clinical All Blacks even more room. He is as close to the perfect 10 the Kiwis could have asked for and he is only getting better.
The battle between the number 10’s will be a hard fought one throughout the tour. Sexton is more experienced than his counterpart playing 66 matches and notching 612 points, while the Kiwi kicker playing in 49 matches and scoring 297 points.
On a Lions tour of New Zealand though everything that has been done in the past goes out the window and Barrett, if he continues to improve, is slowly proving that his name will go down in the history books as one of the greatest ever. Good luck the Jonny.
Taulupe Faletau vs Kieran Read
This will prove to be a real heavyweight clash in the forwards. Faletua has become an incredible addition to Wales’ team and he seems to be an exceptionally well rounded player. Equally comfortable running onto a crash ball as he is popping up on the shoulder of the man with the ball, the number eight is one of the leading players in world rugby on his day. His relationship with captain Sam Warburton could prove instrumental too as Gatland may choose a very Welsh back-row following the withdrawal of Billy Vunipola.
Faletau is likely to start largely because of Vunipola’s withdrawal from the squad as the Saracen’s forward would have played a massive part in the Lions’ chances this summer. Also in contention for the spot is Ross Moriaty who was playing at an incredibly high level in the Six Nations but is likely to miss out on a starting berth as Gatland may be more comfortable choosing Faleteau as he is his go to man for Wales.
In his way though is New Zealand’s captain and a player some regard as the very best. Kieran Read was given the honour of rebuilding following Richie McCaw’s departure. Such was the stature of the man that the team itself was in good shape when he left having secured back to back World Cups, but his exit from the side was always going to leave a massive hole.
Read is an incredible athlete. Clever and powerful at the breakdown, strong in the tackle and skilful like a back, if a young rugby player was looking for inspiration at eight or as an athlete in general then Read is the ideal model.
SEE ALSO: It’s good, but it’s not quite All Black
The two will go head to head in a clash that is likely to shape the tour itself. Faletau does face a battle to regain the performances levels that he has been playing at in recent years following an injury lay-off and the Lions will be hoping his cute abilities on the floor and powerful running will play a starring role in their campaign.
Read is a massive part of a side that do not do taking steps backwards though. The number eight has played in 97 matches, losing just 10 times which are frightening figures to behold.
If chosen Faletau will do everything he can to help Gatland forget about losing Vunipola to injury, but he faces the ultimate test to achieve this.
George North vs Julian Savea
What a battle on the wing. George North has been one of the breakthrough players for Wales in recent seasons and he is a vital cog on their flank. His blend of pace and power is a frightening prospect for any defender and he is often only taken down when the opposition put two or even three men on him. His ability to suck in defenders creates a lot of space for his teammates making it easier to make gain-line success.
Savea is another monster on the wing though. At 108 kilos his size is far closer to that of a forward which makes him a real match for North. While they may not appear on the same side of the pitch formation wise, Steve Hansen may ask his man mountain to switch wings and follow North to keep him busy defending and, when he gets the ball, match him and knock him backwards.
Bar sharing a hulking presence both men are lethal finishers. Whether using their size to bludgeon their way over the line or their pace to get away from defenders both men are multi-faceted attackers and give the opposition no end of difficulties when dealing with them on the wing.
It will be interesting to see whether North is given license to try and target Savea on the tour though. If the Welshman can knock the massive winger backwards then it will do more than just gain the Lions a few yards. It will give the team massive belief seeing one of their own send a New Zealander backwards, and on the other side it may see the All Blacks realise that this tour may not be a foregone conclusion in each of the three game.s
The battles across all 30 starters and the subs will be monumental and it would be foolish to claim any one matchup will completely dictate the victor of the tour. However the three above battles could prove to be key in the foundations of any kind of good performance or, dare we say it, single victory on the tour. Let’s be honest, if the Lions manage to leave New Zealand with a single triumph and an uninjured Brian O’Driscoll, it will be a very successful summer for them.