By Jake Beleski
There is a sense of anticipation building around the British and Irish Lions’ tour to New Zealand next year, but I expect nothing less than an All Blacks’ whitewash.
England are riding a wave of Eddie Jones-inspired confidence after seeing off a dreadful South African side and an Australian side that Graham Henry has labelled the “worst ever”.
Encouraging results from the other home nations have also heightened expectations that the Lions can pull off a series victory next year.
If nothing else, it is a smokescreen to instil some sort of optimism in the players’ minds before they embark on the trip to New Zealand.
The fact that Ireland knocked the All Blacks over in Chicago last month for the first time ever is significant, but they have gone close enough in recent years that the result in itself should not be that surprising.
England are playing their best rugby for some time, but accumulating a 14-match winning streak without playing the All Blacks, and while the other Southern Hemisphere teams are playing so poorly, is no great achievement.
Much like when the teams from the north venture to our shores in June, the Rugby Championship sides are spent by the time they go on their November tours.
The All Blacks scraped through their tour with three wins from four matches, but it was easy to see they were a tired bunch and far from the scintillating attacking force that annihilated every opponent earlier in the year.
In the June internationals, it is reversed — Wales showed no matter how much hope is generated leading into a tour, the reality is it comes at the end of a long season for them and they struggle to compete.
England bucked the trend this year with their 3-0 sweep over Australia, but that was quickly put into context when the All Blacks dished out consecutive hidings to the Aussies at the start of the championship.
It seemed Steve Hansen was reluctant to unleash too many attacking tricks on this tour, much like he was throughout the pool stage of last year’s World Cup.
But when the Lions arrive, there will be nothing held back from the All Blacks’ attacking armoury.
England have found a balance to their attack with the inside back combination of George Ford and Owen Farrell, and the Lions would be wise to persevere with those two.
Farrell is the most accurate goal kicker in world rugby, and that is one area the Lions seem destined to have the advantage heading into the series.
But the All Blacks will be primed and ready to produce their attacking best when June rolls around, and that will be too much for these Lions to handle.