Ahead of the last independence referendum, I got into an argument about the outcome with an old friend. Before the votes were counted he kept quoting the polls, while I countered that the betting market was more honest because that reflected real money. Ignore the pundits and look at the betting for this Lions’ tour.
New Zealand are 1/4 on to win the series, while the Lions are 9/2 against and I know which odds tempt me more. Those who ignore history are bound to repeat its mistakes and history has not been kind to the Lions.
Much is made of home advantage, but even so the Lions’ overall win record of 37 per cent (40 wins in 108 Tests) is nothing to shout about. That winning margin drops to 16 per cent (six wins in 36 matches) when the opposition is New Zealand and that already ordinary record falls to 11 per cent (one win in nine matches) when the matches are played out at Auckland’s Eden Park, the All Blacks’ spiritual home, where they have not been bested since 1994.
Two of the three Lions’ Tests, the first and the last, will take place at Eden Park.
In mitigation the Lions’ fans can point to a narrowing of the gap between the southern and northern halves of the globe with Ireland beating the All Blacks last November.
They have a point and had the Lions’ management signed Joe Schmidt, who masterminded that victory, those Lions’ fans would be travelling in good spirits.
Instead they have Wales’ Warren Gatland, pictured, whose very name has been hijacked by a style of bash-it-up rugby that is a decade out of date and famous for an almost total lack of success against the ‘big three’, with Gatland scoring two wins from 30 Tests against Sanzar teams. Those touting “Gats” as an All Black coach in waiting had better take a good book because they are in for a long wait.
The Lions have a competitive squad of players, with a set of no nonsense English/Irish forwards, two world class fly-halfs in Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell and some finishing power in the back three, but remember what happened in 2005. Early on the tourists lost Simon Taylor, Lawrence Dallaglio and Richard Hill to injury and Danny Grewcock to indiscipline after doing a Mike Tyson to Keven Mealamu’s ear.
What little chance the 2005 tourists had disappeared with them and the class of 2017 has already lost the talismanic Billy Vunipola and, for altogether more tragic reasons, scrum-half Ben Youngs.
If Gatland can pick ten of his first choice XV by the time the first Test rolls around on 24 June he’ll consider himself lucky. If he can pick half of his preferred team to start the third Test come the 8 July he’d be dancing his way to the coach’s box.
Hope springs eternal and there is a path to a Lions’ victory. The All Blacks are under-cooked, Kieran Reid, Jerome Kaino and Dane Coles will be struggling for match time if they make the first Test, while the tourists keep most of their big guns on the field and catch the hosts cold in that Auckland opener. They take a leaf from Ireland’s book, holding on to the ball for long periods, making the All Blacks defend while grabbing any and every opportunity that comes their way.
One win leads to a massive blacklash in the second Test and the series in the balance at 1-1 before the decider, which is when the tourists grab history by the throat and bend it to their will. Forwards like Maro Itoje and George Kruis, Tadhg Furlong and Peter O’Mahony stand firm in the face of the furious All Blacks physical onslaught that did for Ireland in Dublin and the Lions flop over the finish line with their nose in front thanks largely to Farrell’s unerring boot.
That is one possibility but it is not the most likely way this summer’s story will unfold, as anyone who has witnessed the New Zealand franchises dominate Super Rugby on a Saturday morning will know.
History and statistics tell us that when the best team in world rugby play at home it takes an exceptional side to beat them and the betting markets will tell you that if this Lions squad is good, but it is not that good.