With any ten test Lions tour, Warren Gatland and his coaching staff will need to be mindful of player fatigue and its implications for the tests when selecting his sides for the earlier matches against the New Zealand Barbarians, the five Kiwi Super Rugby franchises and the Maori All Blacks. Saying that, Gatland will want to give his leading squad players time to play against high quality opposition in readiness for the All Black onslaught, a scenario open to the Lions coaching staff with Steve Hansen allowing his All Black players to play for their domestic teams during the warm up games. There is no question that this tour is going to be among the most punishing of modern times, with the Australian tour of four years ago having been relatively comfortable against a fairly week Wallaby team.
3 June – New Zealand Barbarians – Whangarei
The opening game for the Lions and almost certainly the easiest one they will face. With the game coming only weeks after major domestic cup finals in the Northern Hemisphere, it would be a surprise to see the likes of Jonathan Davies, Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Conor Murray and Courtney Lawes featuring, but Gatland will be looking to give a run-out to more inexperienced members of the team to allow them to acclimatise to the Kiwi style of rugby, and perhaps to players who haven’t played for an extended period due to injury. I would therefore expect to see Anthony Watson, Ben Te’o and Iain Henderson featuring alongside the experience of Rory Best, Taulupe Faletau and Sam Warburton.
7 June – Blues – Auckland
A real test for Gatland’s men in their second match. The Blues have been average this season in the Australasian Group of Super Rugby having recorded 6 wins from 11 so far, but that does include the demolition of the Rebels in the opening week and wins against the Bulls, the Brumbies and the Force. The Lions will need to be particularly mindful of the Ioane brothers who have been regular try scorers this year and the All Blacks, Steve Luatua, Patrick Tuipulotu and Sonny Bill Williams. Gatland will have the luxury of having had his full squad together for a more reasonable period for this game and will therefore probably name a strong side of test hopefuls including Murray, Jonny Sexton, Maro Itoje, George North and Stuart Hogg.
10 June – Crusaders – Christchurch
A test match all but officially considering the sheer quality available to the Crusaders and their dominant form that has seen them win every game of the season so far including hugely impressive wins against the Highlanders, the Waratahs, the Sunwolves and the Bulls. Numbered among their ranks are World Cup winners Kieran Read, Owen Franks, Wyatt Crockett, Sam Whitelock, Joe Moody, Luke Romano and Israel Dagg and they have several other All Blacks in addition to those. This match will be a real indicator of the Lions chances and reasonable expectations on this tour. If Scott Robertson names a full-strength side (probably minus the injured Read) and the Lions struggle, then it is indicative of the Lions likely struggles against the full All Black team a month ahead, but if the Lions play effectively as a team and isolate the inexperienced members of Robertson’s team then it could be a truly terrific contest. Gatland would be a fool to name anything but his strongest team in Christchurch: Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly, Stander, North, Itoje, the lot.
13 June – Highlanders – Dunedin
By this point in the tour Gatland will be looking at squad rotation and will likely have picked up injuries. This is unfortunate because in the Dunedin-based Highlanders, the Lions face one of the strongest New Zealand teams of the last five years and one packed with current All Blacks. Gatland’s men will therefore have to contend with the likes of Aaron Smith, Liam Squire, Malakai Fekitoa, Waisake Naholo and Ben Smith. The South Islanders also have a large and aggressive pack that will need to be neutralised before the ball can be played out wide. Expect Ross Moriarty, Taulupe Faletau, Alun Wyn Jones and Robbie Henshaw.
17 June – Maori All Blacks – Rotorua
An unknown quantity as an invitational side, but still providing a real test, the Maori All Blacks last played in November in tests versus Harlequins, Munster and the USA. Gatland will probably use this match as an opportunity to rest some of his bigger names and give those on the edge of test selection the opportunity to press their claims. With the possibility of fringe All Blacks such as Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Rieko Ioane and Damian McKenzie getting the call, it will be interesting how Gatland tries to nullify their hard-running threat and may try to match up like-for-like by selecting Anthony Watson, Rhys Webb and Jamie George.
20 June – Chiefs – Hamilton
It doesn’t get any easier for the Lions as they journey across the North Island to Hamilton to take on the Chiefs. The Waikato franchise won two Super Rugby Championships on the bounce in 2012-13 and are still a real threat, currently sitting third in the New Zealand conference and sixth overall. Amongst the stars that Dave Rennie may be able to select include current All Blacks Sam Cane, Liam Messam Brodie Retallick, Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Cruden and several other players with experience of wearing the shirt. Leinster-bound James Lowe has been a try-scoring machine this season and Tim Nanai-Williams is electric with ball in hand. With the first test against the All Blacks only four days away, Gatland probably won’t field a full-strength team, but will want a strong performance and may well select Dan Biggar, Ben Te’o and Lawes to do the job.
24 June – New Zealand – Auckland
The first test and a crucial one in dictating a successful tour. Of the last three Lions tours, the team that has won the first test has gone on to win the series and the Lions can’t afford to give the All Blacks an inch. In the absence of injuries, it can be imagined that the First Test team will comprise Murray, Farrell, North, Warburton and Itoje with the other spots filled on performances earlier in the tour. Lining up against them will be the likes of Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, Brodie Retallick and Aaron Smith and it will be the fine margins that dictate the outcome. But make no mistake, if the Lions find themselves on the backfoot early, chances are this will be less a battle and more a siege.
27 June – Hurricanes – Wellington
The current Super Rugby Champions and fifth in this year’s competition so far, the Hurricanes are unlikely to have all if any of their All Blacks playing due to the scheduling of this match between test matches. In their absence, Gatland will probably give his charges a well-deserved rest, handing playing spots to non-test players such as Ken Owens, Kyle Sinckler, Greig Laidlaw, Te’o and Henderson. Even without their All Blacks, the Hurricanes will still be gunning for success on home turf with Jordie Barrett, Reggie Goodes, Chris Eves and Brad Shields likely to get game time.
The final two tests
There is no question that the Lions are going to throw the kitchen sink at the All Blacks but will it be enough? There will likely be a high attrition rate during the test considering the size of the All Black team and therefore it is possible that players who no one saw starting tests at the beginning of the tour may get their opportunity. Dan Biggar, Tommy Seymour and Joe Marler may fall into this bracket. It is also possible that players not currently selected to tour may make the Test team following earlier injuries, an eventuality that occurred four years ago when Alex Corbisiero replaced Cian Healy and started the first and third tests.