Paul Wallace believes New Zealand’s decision to allow some All Black stars to play for their Super Rugby teams during this summer’s Lions tour could cost them dearly.
Both Crusaders and Blues, who accounted for half of the 36-man New Zealand squad that toured in the autumn, will release players back to their club sides, who will face the Lions in the traditional midweek games.
It promises to add to the difficult challenge Warren Gatland’s men face, but Wallace, part of the victorious 1997 Lions tour to South Africa, believes the options available to the Lions boss are greater than those of Steve Hansen.
“The last 30 minutes are huge these days, and the Ireland game in Chicago showed New Zealand don’t have the strength at the very top level,” said Wallace, an ambassador for the #ripleychallenge in aid of Prostate Cancer UK.
“They have amazing talent but under the pressure of Test rugby, I’m not sure everyone can handle it. Releasing players to Super Rugby teams will make those games more competitive, but if they pick up a number of injuries, I don’t think they have the depth the Lions have.”
Eddie Jones has popularised the concept of ‘finishers’ since his arrival in England; highlighting the importance of replacements in the modern game, with prop Kyle Sinckler and back Ben Te’o just two prominent examples.
In New Zealand, they say the All Blacks would rather be behind at half-time in a fast game than lead in a slow one, given how much faith they have in their skill set to dismantle opponents in the final half hour. But if Gatland decides to take them on at their own game, the Lions bench will assume greater importance – which could be good news for Ireland’s own ‘finishers’.
“I think you have to look at what way they’ll play the game, will it be set pieces, or an open game?” Wallace asks. “If you want to score tries, and the All Blacks always score three or four tries, you’d need to look at someone like Seán Cronin. To have his ability off the bench would be very good. The Lions will need to be dynamic when the final 30 minutes comes along, and the game can be slowing down in some areas.
“Of all the teams you play against this is where all 23 players are so important, and those off the bench may be more important than those starting.”
Cronin would be joined by Cian Healy in Wallace’s Lions squad, with the Leinster loose head offering explosive power from the bench, while Iain Henderson is another who could nick ahead of the likes of Donnacha Ryan or Devin Toner as an impact sub.
Elsewhere, the former Munster and Leinster prop sees plenty of Irish involvement, with two players sure to be the first names on Gatland’s team sheet.
“My first name on the Lions test team, period, is Tadhg Furlong, he’s that far ahead of everyone, he’s been phenomenal,” he said. “I think Rory Best will travel, Jack McGrath, too, and Henderson can cover back and second row — his game against England put him right in the mix.”
Ireland’s backrow depth could see up to four players included, but Wallace, who would like to see Josh van der Flier as a bolter, thinks there could be as little as two travelling.
“The break has helped Peter O’Mahony, and he would be a great tourist too, while Sean O’Brien is coming right into form.Then it’s between CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip, who would be hard to leave behind, given he’s been there before.”
Johnny Sexton is beside Furlong in the ‘nailed on starter’ category, but Conor Murray’s hold on the No9 shirt is not so clear, according to Wallace.
“If he’s fit, I think a lot of people have him down as starting but I’m not sure, I think Rhys Webb might be more suited to a high pace game.”
From there on, Ireland’s options begin to wither, with Wallace thinking the tour has come four years too soon for Garry Ringrose and Joey Carbery, the youthful Leinster duo, with the likes of Te’o and Leigh Halfpenny, Stuart Hogg, Mike Brown offering more solidity.
“Keith Earls has had one of his best seasons, but the paces of players like Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell, Elliot Daly is hard to ignore. Robbie Henshaw will travel. Simon Zebo’s maybe not at the elite of test level, but his versatility could see him go.”
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