Warren Gatland has promised his British & Irish Lions will not get sucked into playing Barbarians-style rugby by the All Blacks, writes Simon Lewis.
However, he has urged his players to be “courageous and bold” when they meet the world champions in Saturday's first Test.
The Lions meet New Zealand this weekend for the first of three Tests at Auckland's Eden Park, where the home side has not lost since 1994.
Yet the tourists led by head coach Gatland will go into the game in a good place after encouraging performances in wins over the Crusaders, Maori All Blacks and Chiefs that have boosted morale after a shaky start and defeats to the Blues and Highlanders.
Those early missteps were not unsurprising given the scratch nature of the Lions and their short time together ahead of this tour and Gatland has since overseen some spirited defensive displays which kept the Crusaders and Chiefs tryless and limited a potentially free-wheeling Maori side to a single, opportunist try last Saturday.
Last Tuesday's win over the Chiefs also marked a turning point in the Lions attacking play as they finally started converting the chances they had been creating, but Gatland will not abandon the strengths of northern hemisphere rugby to go toe-to-toe with the All Blacks at their own expansive game.
“We squeezed the life out of those two teams and and we won't stop being aggressive defensively,” Gatland said.
“To play against the All Blacks you've got to have a strong set-piece. You need a platform to be able to work off to start with.
“We've created opportunities, early on the tour we weren't finishing, but on Tuesday we started to do that. I think we've played some lovely rugby.
“We struggled at the start of the tour, but we've scored nine tries to three (against) in the last four games. I can't fault the players if we're getting some success by dominating up front.
“We're not going to be talked into playing Barbarian-type rugby when we've got certain weapons we can use to our advantage. And that's being smart about how you play.
“Hopefully we can be strong at set-piece and strong defensively at the weekend, and when the opportunities arise we can get in behind the All Blacks and finish the opportunities we create.”
Gatland acknowledged that aggressive defence was not going to be enough to topple the All Blacks in their own backyard and he said: “The message to the players before we came out to New Zealand was that to play the All Blacks you have to be bold and take risks.
“Yes we are playing to a structure as every team does, but we have been giving the confidence to the players to bring in an offloading game when it’s appropriate. We have seen some development and improvement on that and there were a couple of nice examples on Tuesday night of that coming together. We know we have got to be courageous coming here, we’ve got to be bold and play some positive rugby.
“We feel our set-piece is getting better from game to game and we’ve improved defensively. We just need to bring that other element into the game, which is playing with some flair, taking some risks and being courageous and bold.
“We’ve got to be alive for 80 minutes. We know there are periods in the game where they seem to almost lull and then they get one opportunity and they just ignite and that’s when they are most dangerous. So we’ve just got to stay alive for every moment. It will be a high-tempo game, with the offloading threats. But we are excited about Saturday night and looking forward to it.”
Gatland sprung a couple of surprises in the team he named on Thursday, selecting Liam Williams at full-back at the expense of Leigh Halfpenny, who was named on the bench and Elliot Daly on the left wing as George North failed to find a place in the Test squad.
“We are pretty happy with where we are at. Players have worked incredibly hard and their whole focus has been about improving from game to game and arriving at the first Test in pretty good shape. I think we are in a healthy state but we are under no illusion about how difficult the challenge is going to be on Saturday night against the best team in the world. With their record at home and particularly at Eden Park, where they are unbeaten since 1994.
“It’s going to be a step up from anything we have experienced, but we are pleased with our own progress and the development that has gone on in the last few weeks.”