There was barely a pack of Lions at Wales’s training base west of Cardiff on Monday with 27 of the 41 players selected absent on club duty. There was some value in the week with the local weather in May tending to be as wet as a New Zealand winter, and it duly poured down.
Every Lions tour seems to be more hyped than the previous one and this year is no exception. One of the players making his first tour, Kyle Sinckler, remarked he was still coming to terms with the attention, public and media, yet despite that and the commercial value of the team, preparation for the most demanding of trips is inadequate to the point that none of the four home unions would contemplate going into a World Cup campaign on the back of anything similar.
This is the sixth Lions tour in the professional era. Those 20,000 supporters estimated to be taking on the inflated prices for accommodation in New Zealand in the next few weeks would have been forgiven for thinking those involved in the running of the game in the four home unions, at Test and club level, would by now have tweaked the schedule so that, once every four years, it helped rather than hindered the Lions, a team made up of their players.
Instead, the Lions will play their first match in New Zealand three days after arriving and those players who take part in the Premiership and Pro12 finals will have taken part in neither training camp and will have had less than a day with the squad, arriving for the farewell dinner, before leaving for the airport and the flight out. Professional era? The Lions were better prepared in the days of envelopes and expenses and what this year’s tourists are having to put up with should make those involved in running the game here, who will doubtless lead the celebrations should the series be won, shame-faced; success would be despite, not because of, them.
Warren Gatland and his coaches welcomed 14 players this week – those not involved in play-off semi-finals. It was far from a futile exercise, though, and the number in one way worked out reasonably well for the coach and his assistants. The players nearly all occupied different positions and, with a second row needing to be added, it was possible to construct a team.
It would mean Stuart Hogg playing at fly-half, the position he covered four years ago, and Jared Payne covering full-back but otherwise it would see players in their accustomed positions: Payne; Seymour, Joseph, Te’o, Watson; Hogg, Laidlaw; Marler, Best, Sinckler, Henderson, AN Other, Moriarty, Warburton, Faletau.
With no time to prepare in New Zealand for the opening match, the team in Whangerei on 3 June will involve most of the players listed above, who next week will be supplemented by those from the losing play-off semi-finalists. If the form book prevails, Alun Wyn Jones would fill the gap in the second row and his fellow Osprey Dan Biggar provide a specialist No10 with another six players joining them for next week’s training camp in Dublin.
The management could be forgiven for cheering on Exeter this Saturday with Saracens supplying six players in the Lions’ squad but the European Champions Cup winners will have an influence on the tour that goes beyond the sextet. The manner of last weekend’s victory over Clermont Auvergne in the Murrayfield final as Saracens became the second English club to successfully defend the trophy lit the Lions’ torch.
Saracens attacked Clermont’s perceived strengths, first by starting at a furious pace, and they used the set pieces, the lineout especially, to create try-scoring opportunities, as they had against Munster in the semi-final. Their first try came directly from a lineout that had provided the platform for Chris Ashton in the opening minute only for Nick Abendanon to thwart the wing.
Saracens also had strength on the bench to make a difference in the final 25 minutes, striking back after Clermont had fought their way into contention. New Zealand have not been involved in too many close matches in recent years but when they are pushed, the quality of their replacements invariably sees them home.
The strength of the respective benches told when New Zealand hosted Wales last summer but the Lions will be able to trump the All Blacks, barring a calamitous run of injuries; and if they play Jonathan Sexton at fly-half and Owen Farrell at inside-centre, they would have the option on a split on the bench of six forwards and two backs.
Sexton and Farrell are masterful at creating space by running into outside channels. Saracens’ first try against Clermont came after Brad Barritt stood at first receiver for the lineout and Farrell looped outside him with the defence initially uncertain which direction he would take. Lineouts provide time and space in a way breakdowns do not because both sets of backs have to stand 10 metres back, double the distance at scrums. It is prime ball and whereas Wales achieved success by using Jamie Roberts to charge over the gainline from the set piece and take half a backline with him, Saracens manoeuvre space and make defenders think rather than wince.
The All Blacks are unlikely to be overpowered but Ireland showed last year they can be outsmarted. The New Zealand coach, Steve Hansen, this week mused that the Lions were probably the favourites for the series because of the depth of their squad: totally inadequate preparation and demanding warm-up matches tilt the balance the other way, but he knows his side will be tested as they rarely are in between World Cups.
• This is an extract taken from the Breakdown, the Guardian’s weekly rugby union email. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.