Alongside taking in — somewhat nervously with an eye on injuries — the domestic rugby over the next six weeks, the British & Irish Lions backroom staff have also been tasked with watching some New Zealand films as the tourists look to gain a cultural understanding of what is awaiting them.
The Lions’ head coach Warren Gatland, who played for New Zealand representative sides but missed out on an All Blacks cap, is hammering home the importance of preparation ahead of their 10-game tour. He wants nothing left to chance, and is emphasising how important cultural preparation is having seen a number of teams fall foul of that in the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
“The first Sunday, we’ve got a welcome in where we’ll accept some Maori challenges and get on to the Marae,” Gatland said. “They speak, they sing. So every speaker is followed by song, so we’ll reply as well. My hope at the moment is that we have [tour manager] John Spencer to speak, we’ll have to sing.
“Someone will speak in Irish and will sing, someone will speak in Welsh and will sing… so culturally, we’ll get some respect by doing that.
“And I’ve said it to the staff as well; go and watch ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’, with Sam Neill in it, or there’s a film called the ‘Whale Rider’ or another called ‘Boy’.
“It kind of gives you an understanding of New Zealand humour, New Zealand culture a little bit.
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
“If you do that, if we go there prepared and we understand our opposition, understand our enemy a bit better than that little bit of a percentage of what it’s going to be like to travel in New Zealand — hopefully we’re going to arrive there with a better understanding of the country, of the culture of the people that we’re going to.”
Anything and everything to give the Lions that little bit extra confidence or self-belief will be catered for but something Gatland cannot control is the brutal schedule, one Sir Graham Henry described to ESPN as “suicidal”.
This accounts for why Gatland has taken a larger squad than previously expected with 41 players travelling instead of the 37 he took in 2013. The opening match is a logistical minefield for Gatland as a number of players will be competing in the Guinness PRO12 and Aviva Premiership finals on May 27 and the Lions only arrive in Auckland on May 31 ahead of their opener against the NZ Barbarians on June 3.
Players may have to feature in both of their first two matches on the tour, whereas in an ideal world Gatland would have wanted to space out the personnel a little more.
“There’s no doubt this is the toughest tour the Lions have ever undertaken of how tough the mid-week games are,” was Gatland’s take but despite the odds being stacked against the tourists, he has a couple of aces up his sleeve.
He believes the sheer competition for places in the squad points towards this being one of the strongest ever assembled, with the final list only being drawn up on Tuesday afternoon.
One player Gatland did not want to leave out was Jonathan Joseph, the England centre, who was at one stage reportedly in danger of missing out on a spot in the squad. But the danger he caused Gatland’s sides in the past saw him make the cut, at the Lions’ coach’s request.
Lions captain Sam Warburton looks on as head coach Warren Gatland speaks during the British and Irish Lions tour squad announcement. Warren Little/Getty Images
Versatility is another one of the Lions’ aces, which Jared Payne and Iain Henderson personify, but Gatland hopes other aspects of the Lions’ arsenal will help them create history in New Zealand.
“Looking at the squad, the point of difference is maybe our goal kicking, I think we’ve got four or five of the world’s best goal kickers going with us and if we’re going to have an edge somewhere it could be in that area,” Gatland said. “Beauden Barrett is not kicking at the moment, his brother is for the Hurricanes and it may be the difference.
“You’re trying to find areas where you’re going to have an advantage and New Zealand always feel that their difference between the rest of the world is their tight five and their ability of the tight five in terms of ball handling.
“We feel we’ve got a tight-five that can match them, we feel we’ve got a tight five who are going to be excellent at the set-piece in terms of scrums and lineouts, but also have got the ability to get around the park and have got some good hands and strong ball carrying ability as well.
“The other thing is the ability to match them off the bench, and sometimes the Celtic nations can’t do that and struggle in that area and we feel we’ve got the players who can come off the bench and have a massive impact too.”
Add these factors together and then Gatland plans to have a team ready for the first Test on June 24 who have the structure and belief that they can beat the All Blacks.
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How the Lions plan to tackle the All Blacks
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