Two wins and two defeats means the Lions tour could veer in any direction before they face the Maori on Saturday. Robin Davey says selection is becoming clearer, but so, too, are the Lions’ shortcomings.
The British and Irish Lions are at the crossroads, having lost two of their four games in New Zealand and, ominously, the unofficial fourth Test against the Maori All Blacks is next up on Saturday.
Just one more midweek game against the Chiefs and the Lions are into the first Test against the world champion All Blacks.
The Lions management can say all they like about the whole purpose of their visit being to win the Tests – and to some extent that’s true – but it is palpably not the best preparation for the forthcoming three-match series to lose two of their opening four games.
The latest came against a fired-up Highlanders team on Tuesday when the Lions contrived to throw away a comfortable 22-13 lead going into the closing stages, to lose the match 23-22.
Owen Farrell unaccountably missed an easy penalty which would have given the Lions victory, though the kick came within moments of him taking the field as a replacement for the injured Dan Biggar.
Nevertheless, the Lions showed a worrying inability to make the most of their chances and not for the first time on their tour, either. The All Blacks will gobble up similar opportunities, for they are ruthless in finishing off chances when they arise.
Although just four matches in, the Lions already appear to have arrived at a Saturday and a midweek side with a glaring difference between performances from one game to another.
In their previous outing last Saturday against previously unbeaten Crusaders, the Lions achieved their best win of their tour against the best Super Rugby side they’ll face.
Though tryless, their four penalties to one success was notable not just for the victory against a side which had won all their 14 matches this season, but for the fact they also kept the opposition to just three points for only the third time in their history – no mean feat.
In the process, players like Farrell, Conor Murray, Mako Vunipola, Alun Wyn Jones, George Kruis and Taulupe Faletau surely cemented their places in the Test side.
The Lions boast enviable depth at scrum-half for Murray was peerless against the Crusaders, his kicking game tying the home side down while Rhys Webb was one of the Lions better players against the Highlanders.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said for other positions. The scrum in the midweek game was a particular concern and though Biggar performed particularly bravely – in harness with Webb – the defence as a whole left a lot to be desired. Players like James Haskell, Dan Cole, Rory Best, Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw were a disappointment.
Coach Warren Gatland’s side against the Maoris is a shadow Test line-up, as it was probably always meant to be, but the discrepancy between one Lions XV and another has become abundantly apparent quite early on.
This is the side I believe Gatland could well pick for the first Test: Halfpenny; North, Davies, Te’o, Watson; Farrell, Murray; Vunipola, George, Furlong, AW Jones, Kruis, O’Mahony, Faletau, Warburton.
One caveat to that is Gatland could well go with a Jonny Sexton-Farrell combination at 10-12 while O’Mahony’s fellow Irish back row forwards Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander are also in contention.
Whatever side takes the field will clearly be up against it, and the Lions cannot afford what would be a morale-destroying defeat against the Maoris.