All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen has named the squad he believes can secure a fifth straight series win over the British and Irish Lions. And he poured scorn on Warren Gatland’s assertion that there would be little difference between New Zealand’s Super Rugby sides and the world champions.
The war of words between the opposing coaches has been threatening to erupt since Hansen said he did not expect anything new from Gatland’s style of play in the upcoming three-Test series. That stoked the New Zealand media to talk about ‘Warrenball’, a fairly one-dimensional gameplan of using power and pace to get over the gainline. That has exasperated the Lions boss this week.
After a press conference in Auckland, on Monday, Gatland made an off-the-record comment that contained a four-letter word. It was picked up by a journalist’s recording device and was printed in an English tabloid.
Yesterday, it was Hansen’s turn to respond to a claim Gatland made after the Lions’ first defeat of the tour, on Wednesday, 16-22 to the Blues, at Eden Park, in Auckland.
He said that all five Super Rugby teams the Lions will face will have played together for seven months, but that the All Blacks will come together for the first time next week, for a warm-up Test against Samoa, on Friday, June 16.
The Lions next play the Crusaders, tomorrow, in Christchurch. By the time of the first Test, back in Auckland, on June 24, the Lions will have played six times on tour.
Yesterday, Hansen and his selectors surprisingly omitted centre, Malakai Fekitoa, and wing, Nehe Milner-Skudder, as well as Blues No. 8, Steven Luatua, from the 33-man squad that will face the Lions.
They did include uncapped backs, Jordie Barrett and Ngani Laumape, and injured All Blacks quartet, Dane Coles, Brodie Retallick, captain, Kieran Read, and centre, Ryan Crotty, but also named five additional players as injury cover.
He dismissed Gatland’s claim regarding Super Rugby teams and the All Blacks, taking a swipe at his fellow New Zealander by referring to Monday’s ‘Warrenball’ aside.
“I just think he was trying a bit of humour, after struggling a wee bit with his press conference before,” Hansen said. “I don’t think there’s any comparison between Super Rugby and Test rugby. I don’t know what his thinking is.”
Hansen expanded on the subject, adding: “What causes me to say it is the experience of guys that come from (Super Rugby) and into us and they’ll tell you: This is different.”
Hansen also took exception to the implication that his team was coming in cold, adding: “That’s why we are playing Samoa.”
Hansen also suggested the Lions were paying the price for playing tour games so soon after their arrival in New Zealand. They kicked their tour off last Saturday, just three days after landing in Auckland, and by this Saturday will have played three times in eleven days. Hansen said he believed that was also a root cause of Wednesday’s loss to the Blues.
“I’ve always said this, and I still believe it: This is the best Lions side to come here. To be arriving on the Wednesday, and playing on the Saturday, is just too tough. We wouldn’t do it. You can look at the first performance and let it go, and last night there were still guys out there trying to find out who their mate is.
“They’re in the infancy of this tour. They’ll only get better, and they’ll be a good side when the Tests come round.
“It’s well-documented they only want to win the Test matches and Gatland has made that very, very clear. The first Test is all he has his eyes on and I don’t think he’s too bothered about what happens between now and then. We won’t be foolish enough to rock up and think we can just expect a soft game.”
There is little to dispute that Hansen has all the experience he could wish for in dealing with whatever the Lions bring. His squad has a total of 1,1164 Test caps.
And in selecting Jordie, Beauden, and Scott Barrett, he has the first sibling trio to be named in the same All Blacks squad. The Barretts could also become the fourth set of three brothers to play for the All Blacks, following the Brownlie and Nicholls brothers, in the 1920s, and the Whitelocks, in recent years.
The New Zealand Rugby Union also named the Maori All Blacks squad to face the Lions a week out from the first Test and it featured Blues fly-half, Ihaia West, the playmaker brought off the bench on Wednesday to score the winning try. Leinster-bound wing, James Lowe, also features for the June 17 game in Rotorua, as do a number of All Blacks, including Liam Messam, Akira Ioane, and Nehe Milner-Skudder. Blues head coach, Tana Umaga, will assist Maori head coach, Colin Cooper, in the attempt to repeat the 2005 victory over the Lions.
squad to face Samoa and B&I Lions (*denotes uncapped)
D Coles (Hurricanes), C Taylor (Crusaders), N Harris (Chiefs); W Crockett (Crusaders), C Faumuina (Blues), O Franks (Crusaders), J Moody (Crusaders), O Tu’ungafasi (Blues); S Barrett (Crusaders), B Retallick (Chiefs), L Romano (Crusaders), S Whitelock (Crusaders); S Cane (Chiefs), J Kaino (Blues), K Read (Crusaders) – captain, A Savea (Hurricanes), L Squire (Highlanders).
T Kerr-Barlow (Chiefs), TJ Perenara (Hurricanes), A Smith (Highlanders); B Barrett (Hurricanes), A Cruden (Chiefs), L Sopoaga (Highlanders); R Crotty (Crusaders), N Laumape* (Hurricanes), A Lienert-Brown (Chiefs), SB Williams (Blues); J Barrett* (Hurricanes), I Dagg (Crusaders), R Ioane (Blues), W Naholo (Highlanders), J Savea (Hurricanes), B Smith (Highlanders).
Centre: Jack Goodhue (Crusaders), Hooker: Liam Coltman (Highlanders), Back row: Matt Todd (Crusaders), Vaea Fifita (Hurricanes) and Akira Ioane (Blues).
MAORI ALL BLACKS
squad v Lions game (Rotorua, June 17)
C Eves (Hurricanes), K Hames (Chiefs), M Kainga (Hurricanes), B May (Hurricanes) M Renata (Auckland); A Dixon (Highlanders) – captain, H Elliot (Chiefs); T Franklin (Highlanders), L Price (Blues), J Wheeler (Highlanders); E Dixon (Highlanders), A Ioane (Blues), L Messam (Chiefs), R Prinsep (Hurricanes), K Pryor (Blues)
B Hall (Crusaders), TT Tahuriorangi (Hurricanes); O Black (Hurricanes), I West (Blues); T Bateman (Crusaders), C Ngatai (Chiefs), M Proctor (Hurricanes), R Thompson (Highlanders), J Lowe (Chiefs); D McKenzie (Chiefs), N Milner-Skudder (Hurricanes), D O’Donnell (Blues).
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