The 2017 Lions must go to New Zealand mob-handed – and only heavy hitting hard nuts need apply. That is the message from Dick Best, the assistant coach of the 1993 Lions to New Zealand, and also from Peter Winterbottom, the legendary England and Lions openside who was part of the pack that inflicted a 20-7 defeat on the All Blacks in the second Test of the close-run 1993 series.
That 13 point loss to the Lions in Wellington remains New Zealand’s worst reverse on home soil to a British or Irish side. It is also only two points away from their heaviest-ever defeat – 20-5 to Australia in 1964 – and in the week that the 2017 Lions squad is announced by head coach Warren Gatland, both men are adamant that the tourists must be locked, loaded, and travel to New Zealand in force.
In an exclusive interview Best told The Rugby Paper that the Lions should not pussy-foot about when it comes to the size of the squad they will need to be successful in the hardest series of matches the touring side has faced in its 129 year existence.
With the Lions tackling a murderous itinerary which includes playing all the New Zealand Super franchises and the Maoris, as well as three Tests against the double world champions, Best pulls no punches: “This is a ludicrous fixture list because you are playing ten games in five weeks back-to-back against the best teams from the best rugby country in the world. So we need everybody.”
Best’s comments also carry a health warning. “The ferocity, pace and physicality of the itinerary means that more players will be damaged. It’s bound to happen. So, if you take 24 forwards you should plan for 50 per cent attrition, because it is quite possible you will lose 12 to injury before the Test series.”
He says: “Don’t worry about the tour party being too big. Take 45 players if necessary, because what you don’t want to be doing is spending all your time at airports ferrying them in. Nor do you want players coming in cold, who are not familiar with the calls or the structures, whether forwards or backs. You want them all on the ground in one place, and up to speed. You want this to be the best prepared Lions tour there has been.”
If Gatland makes sure he has all the players he needs on New Zealand soil in the first week of the tour, Best believes they have a fighting chance. He can pick from the best 30 forwards in the Home Unions, and out of that you have a pack capable of taking on the All Blacks. What the Six Nations has shown is that there is considerable depth available to the Lions now, and if there are injuries to the men in Test positions it isn’t the end of the world.”
He adds: “You basically have to pick three complete teams, because it could well be the third line-up which will find themselves playing for their lives in the third Test in Auckland.”
Winterbottom brings the same hard-headed clarity in his analysis of the task facing the Lions at the breakdown, where New Zealand have a long tradition of outplaying their rivals.
“You need back row forwards who are in there all the time, in the mix, on the ball, being a pain, causing trouble. They’ve got to have enough dog in them. You don’t want blokes who get knocked off the ball. You need that aggression, blokes who are going to fight for it.”
He continues: “It will be crucial they can not only tackle but put pressure on at the breakdown. You have to be strong and cause them problems in that area especially, and not allow them to dominate, because if you give New Zealand quick ball they will create continuous try opportunities.”
Winterbottom says it is that disruptive quality, as well as the capacity to take the game to the All Blacks, that dictates why his first choice back row is Ireland’s CJ Stander at blindside, Welshman Sam Warburton, right, at openside, and England’s Billy Vunipola at No.8.
“Stander’s defence is pretty good and he’s a barnstorming carrier. He’s not the biggest blindside but he makes ground against the best defences. Warburton should be at 7 because when he gets his hands on the ball at the breakdown he doesn’t shift. He can also be put up in the air quickly and is a useful line-out option, as Wales have shown. Billy Vunipola gives you go-forward, and on form he’s a handful. For the last year he’s been one of the best No.8s in the world alongside Kieran Read, and being injured for part of this season has not been the worst thing because he will be raring to go where others are knackered.”
As for Winterbottom, the idea that the All Black back row is bullet-proof is not one he shares. “Sam Cane is not Richie McCaw, and neither he nor Read are massive men, and although Jerome Kaino is a big blindside he’s getting on, and Liam Squire is still inexperienced. It is an area where we can really compete.”
Winterbottom’s first-choice selection coincides with Best’s, and they both agree that two more Irish flankers, Leinster’s Sean O’Brien and Munster’s Peter O’Mahony, should get the nod.
“When O’Brien is on form he’s a hell of a player and strong over the ball, so he will cause New Zealand problems, and O’Mahony is an all knees and elbows prickly old pear who could come good in NZ.”
However, Winterbottom is less convinced by the England and Scotland back rows, and believes that James Haskell’s chances hang in the balance. “He did very well for England in Australia last summer, and he’s a big strong boy. But Haskell is a bit like Micky Skinner – on his right day immense, but you never quite know what you’re going to get, and sometimes he’s a bit untidy and gives away penalties. Even so, I’d probably take him if his foot is okay, although Ross Moriarty had a very good season for Wales and must also be a close call.”
Best says that his second choice back row is O’Brien at 6, Welsh flIer Justin Tipuric at 7, and Taulupe Faletau at 8, and his third choice O’Mahony at 6, Haskell at 7 and Jamie Heaslip at 8.
“O’Brien has been good for Leinster, Tipuric is a fast link-man, and Faletau brings athleticism and is coming back at the right time. O’Mahony and Heaslip are important because they are both leaders, while Haskell gets in – although Scotland’s Hamish Watson is an out-and-out 7 who could go as a bolter.”
Best endorses the importance placed by Winterbottom on having forwards who are confrontational first and foremost. “In history any team that beats the All Blacks up front wins the series – and it doesn’t happen very often. When I was England coach in 1993 we beat them up in the physical battle in the pack, and that’s why we won 15-9 at Twickenham. When the Lions won that second Test in Wellington in 1993 we did the same. That’s what you’ve got to do.”
He continues: “The Irish forwards also lifted their game and got on top in Chicago in the autumn – although it was extraordinary circumstances because New Zealand were without their two best locks, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, who also happen to be the two best in the world, and had blindside flanker Kaino in the second row.”
However, Best believes that with eight Test-class locks the Lions are well placed. “Can we compete? Yes. I’m not as sure as others about Alun Wyn Jones, but you could easily have the four English locks in there – Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury – as well as Ireland’s Iain Henderson, Donnacha Ryan and Devin Toner.”
Best elaborates: “I’m a big fan of Kruis, who is one of the best locks in the world. He’s smart, a very good line-out forward, and a strong carrier. I don’t care if he hasn’t played much because he’ll be fresh as a daisy. I also love the way Donnacha Ryan smashes rucks all day long. My first choice pairing is Kruis and Itoje, but if it was Ryan in the last Test against the All Blacks with Henderson, I wouldn’t be too upset.”
Itoje earns plaudits from Winterbottom. “For me, he is the first name on your second row list. As well as his overall skills what’s great about Itoje is how competitive he is over the ball on the deck. He’s very strong there, which is what you want against New Zealand.”
When it comes to the front row Best is certain that the Lions have a head start with a former All Black hooker as head coach. “If there is one coach who will know what he wants at hooker, and prop, then it’s Gatland. He’ll want leaders, which is why either Rory Best or Dylan Hartley will be ear-marked to captain the midweek team – and it wouldn’t surprise me if he took four hookers, with Jamie George and Ken Owens also picked.”
Best returns to the logistics of the most demanding Lions tour on record. “On this tour there will be very little difference in intensity between midweek and Saturday games. You cannot expect players to back up by being on the bench on Saturday after ferocious midweek games. So, in crucial positions like hooker and scrum-half you will need fresh men starting, as well as on the bench.”
That is why Best advocates four scrum-halves, with Conor Murray, Rhys Webb and Ben Youngs being joined by Greig Laidlaw. “Laidlaw is another captain, and also a goal-kicker. You will need leaders throughout the squad, because you will lose people to injury.”
“Farrell has been a Test Lion, and although he will be pencilled in at inside-centre at first he is a Test match animal who loves the big occasion, and will relish the move to 10. The only thing he has to watch is that his defence can sometimes be a bit slack because he over-commits when he goes for the big Rugby League-style hit.
“I’d take Dan Biggar as third choice, and then have either Finn Russell, who brings an element of unpredictability, or George Ford next in the running. The tactical kicking of both of them requires attention, and while Ford could be handy when it comes to opening up New Zealand defences with his passing, too often he looks vulnerable when his pack is not on the front foot.”
Best says that Irish centres Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose will be buoyed by the win over the All Blacks. “They will have no fear, because they punctured the myth of New Zealand invincibility. I’d find room for both of them, and also for Jonathan Joseph, and the Welsh pair of Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies. Elliot Daly would be next in line as an outside-centre/back three utility, but Jamie Roberts is not the force he was and would not make my squad.”
There is a Welsh flavour to Best’s back three with George North at wing, Liam Williams as a full-back/wing, and Leigh Halfpenny at full-back. He adds: “Anthony Watson should go with Simon Zebo as both are electric wings who have experience at full-back. The last wing slot could go to Jack Nowell, who is a great workhorse, or a serious finisher like Tommy Seymour.
“You might also take Rob Kearney at full-back because he knows the mystique of the Lions from two former tours, he played in the Irish win over New Zealand, and he is another leader. As back-up Stuart Hogg has great attacking flair, but is too suspect in defence to be a front-runner.”
Best’s call for the Lions to increase the squad to 45 from the 37-strong tour party in Australia four years ago is more controversial, especially given that it is the number Sir CliveWoodward took on the 2005 whitewash tour of New Zealand.
Yet, when you consider that in Australia four years ago – where the midweek and non-Test Saturday games were lightweight compared to this trip to New Zealand – the Lions shipped in seven additional players due to injuries, it makes good sense.