The British and Irish Lions are preparing to receive an influx of reinforcements ahead of the business end of their New Zealand tour amid accusations from the home media that there are already splits in their squad.
Head coach Warren Gatland has made no secret of the fact he was going to draft in additional players to his already 41-strong group ahead of the Test series with the All Blacks, which starts next Saturday at Eden Park in Auckland.
With midweek games against the Chiefs in Hamilton on Tuesday and the Hurricanes in Wellington on the Tuesday between the first and second Tests, the Lions feel they can better manage their playing resources with extra personnel, thereby protecting the matchday 23 for the first Test from bench detail either side of their date with destiny.
Last September, when Gatland was reappointed as the 2017 Lions coach following his 2013 series victory over Australia, he said: “One thing that I spoke about in the interview process, the hardest game is the Chiefs game before the first Test. How do you protect that Test match 23? I know Wales are in the Islands, Scotland are in Australia, England-Argentina and Ireland-Japan – so there is potentially an opportunity to maybe bring in four or five to maybe sit on the bench. That is my thought process at the moment. You want to protect that Test 23. It made a massive difference in 2013, we had players on the bench, but not exposing the 15 to having to be involved. It’s getting the balance right - you don’t want the squad to be too big and unwieldy, so you are not carrying two or three just for the sake of it.”
There may be more than four or five arrivals before Tuesday with as many as eight new players being suggested but despite Gatland airing his thoughts nine months ago, the Lions have found themselves on the back foot and playing catch up in the Public Relations battle in New Zealand following All Blacks coach Steve Hansen comments that the tourists had five players on their way to link up with the original 41.
That was followed by a piece in a New Zealand newspaper renowned for toeing the All Blacks party line and openly antagonistic towards the Lions, which compared Gatland’s squad to its 2005 predecessors which were whitewashed 3-0 under Clive Woodward’s watch.
“Just as happened 12 years ago, the tour is starting to flirt with disaster,” the New Zealand Herald comment piece said, before suggesting the Lions players were splitting in two, a Test squad and a midweek “crew”.
Lions forwards coach Steve Borthwick refused to confirm there would be call-ups when he spoke to the media in Rotorua in advance of this morning’s game against the Maori All Blacks and would not get drawn into Hansen’s apparently inside track on Gatland’s thinking.
“I’m not giving what anyone else is saying a second thought,” Borthwick said. “I’m concentrating on our team.”
Privately the Lions are fuming at the slanted media coverage, which also referred to last Tuesday’s team beaten by the Highlanders as a “mob”. The likelihood is that there would be a strong Welsh presence among the reinforcements given that Wales played in Auckland yesterday, beating Tonga 24-6 at Eden Park as the first part of a double-header capped by the All Blacks hammering Samoa by 12 tries to nil, 78-0. Scotland double-header capped by the All Blacks hammering Samoa by 12 tries to nil, 78-0. Scotland are playing Australia today with Ireland facing Japan in Shizuoka, while England are touring Argentina.
Ultimately it will be a numbers game for Gatland. If he wants to avoid his Test 23 being involved at Waikato Stadium on Tuesday, then he will need at least five additional players to his 41 in order to field a different 23 against the Chiefs and again against the Hurricanes.
“We did that a bit in 2013,” Gatland said in September. “Shane Williams. Bring your boots guys. There’s a chance. Look, those are thoughts at the moment. You try you protect the starting XV, if you are taking up to 40 players, how many do you have available for the Chiefs game – those are things I’ve discussed with the board and they’ll fall into place in the next six months.”
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