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Friday, June 02, 2017

British and Irish Lions must prepare for All Blacks aerial threat

It's business time as the Lions are in New Zealand ahead of their first match against the NZ Provincial Barbarians on Saturday, but one area the wingers may need to work on throughout the midweek matches is defending cross field kicks.

Warm up matches such as that of the Provincial Barbarians are the perfect opportunity for Warren Gatland to prepare his side for three tough Test matches. But one area the squad will be mindful of working on is defending cross field kicks, before they face New Zealand on 24 June.

All Blacks sides have traditionally played with intensity as well as organisation, but they also demonstrate flair. With the ever-elusive hooker Dane Coles, number eight Kieran Read’s offloading ability and most of all the skillset and kicking ability of fly half Beaden Barrett, the Lions will be facing a big challenge.

The Barrett Factor

Barrett, arguably the most in-form player in world rugby, made 30 kicks in his last four matches for New Zealand during the autumn international tour matches.

Obviously, some of these will have been clearing kicks, but in that case why is it that the two most likely candidates to start Test matches for the Lions at fly half, Owen Farrell and Jonathan Sexton, made just 16 between them?

It’s hard to believe that the All Blacks would have spent more time inside their own 22-meter line clearing the ball than England or Ireland.

Barrett's current form in Super Rugby is undisputable and in 11 matches for the Hurricanes he has kicked the ball 116 times in open play. Again, this might not seem like an issue if it suggests possibly winning the ball back 116 times, but this means the Lions may have to receive a kick every seven and a half minutes.

OK, so what if Barrett isn’t picked for the Test matches? Well, Aaron Cruden made 21 open play kicks in his last five games for the All Blacks, which is again more than the combined efforts of Farrell and Sexton.

And given that the All Blacks have a reliable clearing method via the box kick of Aaron Smith, New Zealand will almost certainly use Barrett’s cross field kick as an attacking force in the three Test matches against the Lions.

So who do the Lions have in the squad to deal with this threat?

Just two wingers within the Lions squad are over six foot, but one luxury that Gatland has is that three of his selected wingers in the squad have experience playing full back and therefore a greater knowledge of defending kicks.

But with the likes of Julian Savea and Waisake Naholo potentially challenging in the air, will Gatland opt for the pace and agility of Jack Nowell and Tommy Seymour, or will he go for the presence of George North and full back experience of Anthony Watson and Liam Williams, or even Elliot Daly?

Gatland has chosen wingers Tommy Seymour and Anthony Watson to play against the NZ Provincial Barbarians on Saturday. It’s hard to tell whether his decision would be the same if players weren’t being rested after playing European and domestic finals with their clubs, but Gatland will certainly want to work hard with his back three in defence.

Besides, Gatland’s son Bryn is playing fly half for the Barbarians and will do anything he can to win one over his old man, maybe even with a few cross-field kicks.

It will be interesting to see which wingers are paired up by Gatland over the coming midweek games, but one thing for sure is they need to be prepared for the dangers posed by either of Barrett’s boots when the three Test matches come around.

New Zealand Provincial Barbarians vs British & Irish Lions kick off is at 19:35 local, or 8:35 UK time

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