This is a guest post from @KedgeOnline, be sure to follow him on Twitter.
When it comes to the international rugby calendar it doesn’t get much bigger than the Lions Tour.
It’s one of the oldest and most prestigious sports competitions on the planet and most American sports fanatics don’t even know it exists. Every four years, the tournament sees the British and Irish Lions, a combined all-star team from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, take on one of the Southern Hemisphere big three (Australia, South Africa and New Zealand).
This year, New Zealand, the most rugby obsessed nation on earth, will take their crack at the Lions.
The tournament consists of the Lions playing the powerhouse New Zealand national team, known as the All Blacks (it refers to the color of their uniforms, it’s not a race thing), in the traditional 3 match test series, a game against the Maori All Blacks (an all-star team of New Zealanders of aboriginal decent) and the added bonus of playing against New Zealand’s five Super Rugby (the biggest rugby club competition in the Southern Hemisphere) franchises.
There was also a tune-up game last Saturday where the Lions defeated the Barbarians amateur all-star team (think of it as if the NCAA All-Americans actually played a real game) 13-7.
The Tour kicks off for real on Wednesday when the Lions play Blues, the worst of the 5 club teams they will play. However, when you consider the balance of power in Super Rugby is so heavily tilted toward New Zealand (you can argue that the 5 Kiwi teams are the 5 best in the 18 team league) the Blues are still a pretty strong opponent.
Game 2 is against Crusaders and holy balls they are good, like REALLY good. They’re 14-0 in the Super Rugby season, are probably the best club team in the world at the moment and basically make up the entire All Blacks forward group. They dominate scrums, are the best tackling team and grind opponents down with long, sustained possessions.
Game 3 sees the tourists play Highlanders, a team that was 3 minutes away from ending the Crusaders perfect season last week. They play a direct, long ball, kick and chase style of play that requires perfect concentration and focus to defend against. The attacking system is built around superstars Ben Smith and Ash Dixon. Prior to their heartbreaker against Crusaders on Friday night, they had won 10 matches in a row.
The 4th club game follows the Maori All Blacks match and sees the Lions face off against Chiefs. Chiefs started the season hot but have faded recently only winning one of their last three and that win was an unconvincing grind against the bottom feeding Warratahs. Chiefs are the most balanced team the Lions will play with plenty of star power but a tendency to be undisciplined.
The final club game is against defending league champions, Hurricanes. Hurricanes are as flashy and fun as a team can get, they have a back line stacked with All Blacks and the record for most tries scored in a single Super Rugby season and there are still two games left. They are also on pace to break the record for highest point differential in a single season. This will be the most difficult challenge for the Lions defense.
Then it comes down to the big ones, the three matches against the All Blacks themselves. They are truly as good as advertised and are basically the rugby equivalent to the USA Olympic basketball team. They will have the better players at every position and it’s possible that the Lions focus is simply avoiding a 2nd consecutive sweep.
All of the matches of the 2017 Lions Tour of New Zealand will be streamed live and on-demand on ESPN3 and the Watch ESPN mobile service.