By Thomas Branston
England Rugby legend Jason Leonard believes the British and Irish Lions have the potential to beat New Zealand over three tests to win the series this summer.
The Lions last toured New Zealand in 2005, which ended in bittersweet fashion. Clive Woodward’s side beating all seven provincial teams but fell to three heavy defeats against the All Blacks including a narrow defeat to the New Zealand Maori side.
Former Harlequins prop Leonard knows just how good New Zealand are but holds belief that if the Lions squad merge well then they can overcome the All Blacks.
He said: “New Zealand know how to play rugby, there’s not doubt about that and their game management is very good.
“They have got a couple of injury problems, but that wont hamper them they’ve still got a lot of very good players in their system so it wont have that much of an impact.
“The whole thing about the Lions playing anyone is that they’ve got to come together quickly.
“It’s about hitting the ground running and that is the biggest challenge but if they do that then they are in with a shout.”
The 48-year-old praised Warren Gatland’s squad selections and spoke at those that weren’t included.
He said: “It wasn’t a surprise for me. There’s a lot of heartbreak when it comes to selection and it happens every four years when the Lion’s tour comes around.
“Joe Launchbury and Dylan Hartley both have a valid case to be selected but ultimately it’s down to the choices of the coaches and Warren Gatland.
“There are a couple of other players I thought were unfortunate to miss out, the Gray brothers were close calls as well.
“You look at the Lions squad they have picked and it’s a pretty good side anyway and the one thing about these tours and it always happens, there’s always injuries.
“Its such a brutal tour and they are going to the hardest place in the world to play rugby.
“There will be injuries so it leaves a door open for those not selected. Players are likely to fly over late on, whether it be from England, Ireland Scotland or Wales and hopefully they might get a late call up so you never know.”
Nicknamed ‘The Fun Bus’ back in his playing days, Leonard was a well renowned, physical forward and the former prop admits the selection of Kyle Sinckler was a surprise to him but paid tribute to the young Lion.
He said: “I think most of the players were pretty much justified in their games to be selected.
“A surprise selection was Kyle Sinckler to a certain degree, we’ve seen him come off the bench for England, he’s a talented young man and very dynamic.
“He needs to work on his set piece more to become a consistent player but he’s the sort of kid who never stops grafting so he might be a surprise selection for the tests.
“Other players that New Zealand know about are your Farrell’s and your Sexton’s, they are all great players and they know about each other but stopping them is a completely different thing.”
Capped 114 times with England and five times with the British and Irish Lions, Leonard admits there is a difference in representing your country and the red jersey of the Lions.
He continued: “It’s a huge thing. With England when you put on that white jersey and you think about your friends, your family, coaches and teachers who have all made sacrifices, not only the ones you have made but also the sacrifices they have made for you along the way.
“With the Lions its slightly different because you are already an international player.
“When you put on that red jersey for the Lions you want to do the jersey proud because you’re thinking about the players who have previously worn it and you are talking about some real rugby legends.
“You want to make sure you do the jersey justice, you want to make sure you do the players that have worn that jersey before you proud and live up to that legend.”
Despite the odds against the British and Irish Lions in New Zealand, Leonard knows how hard the tour will be but remains upbeat about their chances of gaining a series win.
He added: “It’s no secret, out of the 100 odd years that the Lions have been running, they have only won a handful of tests so it shows you how tough it will be.
“It will be close, I’m not actually going down to New Zealand, but I’ve already told the wife if its one all going into the third test then I’m jumping on the plane.
“Hopefully those lads can get down there and do us proud.“