All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen knows all about the benefits of taking a series lead from a first Test victory, but he is relishing a genuine three-game tussle with the British & Irish Lions over the coming weeks.
The series an entire nation has been waiting a dozen years for is finally on the brink of getting under way, with the opening rubber at Auckland’s Eden Park tomorrow (8.35am Irish time).
It was the same back in 2005, when Clive Woodward brought his squad to these shores but the mismatch between the sides was close to absolute, as the Lions, minus key players Lawrence Dallaglio (injured in the opening tour game) and captain Brian O’Driscoll (who did not last two minutes of the first Test) were rendered second-rate by an All Blacks at its physical and creative peak under Graham Henry.
The 3-0 sweep left a bitter taste, and not just in the four proud nations who have comprised the Lions since 1888. The Kiwi fans may have delighted in the series “blackwash”, but what they really craved was a decent contest and the 2005 Tests were never that.
This time around, things promise to be different.
The Lions have been put through the ringer in their short time together, facing four of New Zealand’s five Super Rugby sides and the Maori All Blacks in the 17 days since this tour kicked off with a shaky win over the Provincial Barbarians.
That game and the two defeats, to the Blues and Highlanders, brought some scorn the Lions’ way, but head coach Warren Gatland never promised an all-conquering tour, instead offering the promise his squad would get better with each game and would be suitably battle-hardened for the experience by the time the Tests came around.
Well that moment is almost here and, for all their trash-talking over the last three weeks, both Hansen and Gatland are savouring the challenge ahead.
The Lions boss believes his players are in a much better place heading into the first Test than were their predecessors at the same point in the 2009 and 2013 tours.
“The team that’s been playing on the Saturdays has two training days and the team playing on the Tuesdays only gets one training day, which is almost like a captain’s run, so that is tough, but in terms of the opposition, the preparation and the intensity of matches, it has been really beneficial,” said Gatland yesterday after he named his first Test matchday squad, with Munster and Ireland flanker Peter O’Mahony as its captain.
It is a starting team picked on form and designed to excite and pose serious questions of the world champions, but without compromising on the aggressive defence the Lions have been honing with great success since their arrival.
Gatland does not want his players sucked into Barbarians-style exhibition rugby against the All Blacks, but to play with freedom and creativity based on sound in-game decision-making.
That proved successful for Joe Schmidt’s Ireland in their epic 40-29 win over Hansen’s side in Chicago last November — New Zealand’s only defeat since their 2015 World Cup title defence — and Gatland wants to build on similarly strong foundations tomorrow at Eden Park, rather than rely wholly on them.
“When we were talking about playing the All Blacks, [it’s about] coming over here and playing some rugby, being positive and outscoring them. We’re happy with our set-pieces, but I don’t know if it’s going to be enough playing a set-piece orientated game to try and grind them into the ground. We’ve got to, when we get the opportunity, go and score some points and score some tries and that’s why that selection is the way it is.”
Against an All Blacks side with just one game, a one-sided drubbing of Samoa last Friday, under their belts in 2017 and notoriously slow starters during international windows, the first Test is an excellent chance to lay down a marker for the tourists and Hansen appreciates the impact to be made by getting off to a winning start.
“I think it’s pretty important for both of us,” said the All Blacks coach. “There’s nowhere to hide, is there? It’s advantage to the team that wins the first one, but there’s still two more to go after that and there’s been plenty of occasions in sport where people have come from behind to win.
"So, it’s not the end of the world but, as you say, it does give you momentum and, as long as you keep your feet on the floor and don’t get over excited about doing something once, you’re in the contest, aren’t you?”
As far as coaching challenges go, Hansen ranks this right up there.
“The World Cup’s a knockout tournament and the difference with the Lions is you get three goes. If you stuff the first one up you get another one. And it’s the same for both teams, isn’t it? It’s exciting and you can feel the enthusiasm and the real hunger in the hotel with the players. They’re really up for it.
“That doesn’t guarantee to win the thing, but it does guarantee that your attitude is right, and we know that if our attitude is right and we get our clarity right then we’re a good side.
"So then, it means the opposition have to be, too, and they’ve selected a side that’s capable of playing a different type of game than we play. And that in itself is intriguing and very interesting to see the result once it’s all been played out.”
The Lions are coming to win and do so in style and their cause may be helped by the All Blacks’ traditionally slow start to an international window if not one of the most impressive home records in sport, unbeaten at Eden Park since 1994.
Catching them cold is another entry point for the Lions to consider and Gatland added: “They must be feeling that way [about being ring-rusty], because they went and arranged the Samoa game [last Friday], because they feel potentially that they’re going to be a little bit underdone. How that helps their preparation, I’m not too sure, as they’ve been together the last couple of weeks.
“We need to go and play some rugby. We don’t want to play a set-piece orientated game, we’ve been able to keep the ball on phases of play and we’ve created chances. We know we haven’t finished all the opportunities that we’ve created, but we started to look pretty exciting and pretty dangerous on Tuesday night and, as I’ve said, it’s time together that’s made the difference.
"It’s like putting a club side together, it doesn’t happen overnight, though everyone wants it to happen. Some teams take two or three months before they begin to hit their straps and we’ve got to do that in three weeks. I think we’ll get better, but we’ve got to play better too.”
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