With the first of a 10-game schedule taking place this morning at a sodden Toll Stadium in Whangarei, 160km north of Auckland, the Lions were set to open their tour against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians, widely expected to be the weakest of the teams they will face between now and the third Test against the All Blacks on July 8.
Yet with much stiffer opposition to come, starting with the Blues at Eden Park back in Auckland on Wednesday, Gatland was hoping his tourists were aiming to make a firm statement of intent with a convincing victory in Northland today.
Not only that but put in a performance that may show their hosts there is more to the Lions gameplan than the much-criticised, bash-em-up the middle “Warrenball” approach many here, including All Blacks boss Steve Hansen, were expecting.
While there is excitement the Lions have arrived for their first tour to New Zealand since 2005, there is little name recognition of the players who will be wearing the famous jersey first seen on these shores in 1888. The pride New Zealanders have in their world champion All Blacks can often mean a disregard of the abilities of those rugby players from beyond their islands that was evident when Gatland faced a question from a home journalist on Thursday that began with a statistic from a recent poll 78% of Kiwis could not name a single member of the Lions squad.
That came as no surprise to New Zealander Gatland but he is hoping the percentage falls somewhat over the duration of this tour for all the right reasons. “I think we’ve got some players at the moment who aren’t known here, but they’ve got some X-factor and hopefully they can cause some surprises if we get some hard surfaces,” the Lions head coach said on Thursday. “We’ve got some pace, we’ve got footwork and we’ve got the ability in some positions to cause some surprises.
“I feel we’ve got some players with some X-factor to match the All Blacks. If you look at them at times, it just comes down to one or two magical moments.
“That might just be an offload or someone does something special. We’ve got to give our players the confidence to do the same thing. We can have one player who does something special, so as coaches we have to give them the freedom to go out there and play what is in front of them and be able to express themselves.
“I said to the players this morning, ‘If we’ve got a four-on-two on our goal-line, then the decision to me is that you’ve got to move the ball and do something. I don’t want you to play by numbers, I want you to play what is in front of you’.
The downpours in Whangarei that began on Thursday night and did not relent for 24 hours may limit the Lions’ ability to put on a show against a Provincial Barbarians side comprising a mix of Super Rugby squad members and others drawn from the ITM Cup and Heartland competitions.
They feature Gatland’s son Bryn at fly-half along with a Leinster Senior Schools Cup-winning prop in Blackrock College old boy Oli Jager, a 21-year-old with Canterbury and the Crusaders.
Both sides were forced to make late changes to their outside back replacements.
Opposition coach Clayton McMillan lost the services of Southland back Junior Ngaluafe for personal reasons and called in New Zealand Sevens specialist Joe Webber to wear the number 23 jersey, while Ireland’s Jared Payne was forced to withdraw with a calf issue and was replaced by England’s Elliot Daly.
For Gatland, the change hardly diminished the power on his bench, the replacements already numbering four members of Saracens’ Champions Cup winning side, as well as tighthead Tadhg Furlong, back rower Justin Tipuric and half-backs Rhys Webb and Owen Farrell. It could be another way the Lions make a significant impact in the upcoming Test series, or so Gatland hopes.
“I think that’s often been the All Blacks’ strength, being able to have the ability and the impact coming off the bench,” Gatland said.
“Sometimes with the Celtic nations we don’t have that luxury and the thing that’s exciting about the Lions is you can have a real impact with players coming off the bench to make a difference and match, potentially, when the All Blacks make their changes.
“They tend to bring off their front rowers very early in the second-half and make changes either to change a game or have some continuity or maybe bring on a 10 and put (Beauden) Barrett back to full-back, as they have in the past, to bring a double kicking strategy.
“So we’ve got to have the ability to match that and if you look back at 2013, I think the most significant thing, certainly in that last Test, was the impact of the bench. They made a significant difference to the turnaround in that game.”
L Laulala (Counties Manukau); S Vaka (Counties Manukau), I Finau (Canterbury), D Sweeney (Waikato), S Reece (Waikato); B Gatland (North Harbour), J Stratton (Canterbury); A Ross (Bay of Plenty), S Anderson-Heather (Otago) – captain, O Jager (Canterbury); J Goodhue (Northland), K Mewett (Bay of Plenty); J Tucker (Waikato), L Boshier (Taranaki), M Dunshea (Canterbury).
Andrew Makalio (Tasman), T Fahamokioa (Wellington), M Renata (Auckland), M Matich (Northland), P Rowe (Wanganui), R Judd (Bay of Plenty), J Lowe (Hawke’s Bay), J Webber (Bay of Plenty/NZ Sevens).
S Hogg (Glasgow/Scotland); A Watson (Bath/England), J Joseph (Bath/England), B Te’o (Worcester/England), T Seymour (Glasgow/Scotland); J Sexton (Leinster/Ireland), G Laidlaw (Gloucester/ Scotland); J Marler (Harlequins/England), R Best (Ulster/Ireland), K Sinckler (Harlequins/England); A W Jones (Ospreys/Wales), I Henderson (Ulster/Ireland); R Moriarty (Gloucester/Wales), S Warburton (Cardiff/Wales) - captain, T Faletau (Bath/Wales).
J George (Saracens/England), M Vunipola (Saracens/England), T Furlong (Leinster/Ireland), G Kruis (Saracens/England), J Tipuric (Ospreys/ Wales), R Webb (Ospreys/ Wales), O Farrell (Saracens/England), E Daly (Waps/England).
Angus Gardner (Australia).