Down there, in the rugby madlands of New Zealand, the appetite for the summer tourists is surging. Warren Gatland knows antipodean expectancy better than most.
“Look, New Zealanders are incredibly excited about the Lions. We’ve got to a little bit of PR (to repair) from 2005 because people keep asking me if Alistair Campbell is coming, or if we are bringing two teams and two coaching set-ups. (But) that apart, they are really excited, they see it as a big challenge the way the northern hemisphere teams played in the autumn.”
Though he says preparation is “full-on” after a recent reconnaissance trip to the home of the All Blacks, the British and Irish Lions head coach knows that, 100-odd days out from the June 3 tour opener, the water’s only around his ankles now. By the first test in Auckland on June 24, he’ll be knee deep in something.
Last month’s 12-hours-a-day recce ticked the boxes that needed ticking — training grounds, gyms, hotels, team room facilities, and a full scope of the grounds.
“It was worthwhile,” said Gatland. Much like his pre-Six Nations lunch with and brain-picking of Joe Schmidt and his Irish management team, that includes Andy Farrell.
“Ireland run things a little bit differently to the way England and Wales do, so it was just getting a bit of understanding on that, so when we bring the (Lions) squad together we can make it as seamless as possible,” Gatland explained in an interview.
“Ireland tend to run their sessions one-a-day, whereas England and Wales tend to have two sessions a day — in the morning and the afternoon.”
Gatland uses these drop-ins to challenge his own perceptions as much as confirm them. He knows the Irish candidates for New Zealand, but there’s always comfort for a coach hearing them validated elsewhere.
“The big thing that came out of the conversation with (Joe) was what a good bunch of guys they were: Good players, pretty humble, work hard, and good professionals. When you come to a bigger squad sometimes you are trying to finalise the last few players and you are looking at player personalities, characteristics, and making sure that you pick the right guys in terms of fitting in.
“My experience in the past with the Lions is that if you can get things right off the field, you have a chance of getting it right on it. You’re not going to keep everybody happy. That’s part of it. People are going to be disappointed and a couple disenfranchised but if you get it right off the field and create that harmony of players all going right off the field then you have a chance of getting that performance on it.”
The dynamic with every player is different — the Lions may take a squad of 38 to New Zealand — and Ireland’s potential at half-back for the summer is a case in point. With Johnny Sexton, it’s about getting him primed now for a gruelling tour with some meaningful game time in the Six Nations and Champions Cup. Conor Murray’s durability isn’t in doubt, but that doesn’t mean he won’t share top billing with Sexton when it comes to Steve Hansen’s list of legitimate targets.
“Johnny is obviously a really quality player but that’s the thing as well: There is going to be some real attrition in New Zealand and you are going to need players able to handle what is going to be an incredibly tough and physical tour with the ten matches,” he mused on his Dublin visit.
“The next few months are important for him, aren’t they? It’s not just Johnny. There are a number of players from the four nations that have had injuries (Greig Laidlaw of Scotland the latest). Johnny has been unfortunate in the last couple of seasons in that he has picked up a few injuries, a couple of knocks to the head as well. We all know how good he is and that was a conversation I had with Joe. He is a big part of driving that Irish team and a big part in their success. Not just for the way he controls the game but in what he brings to the team and the best he brings out of the players around him.”
Murray? If only they could wrap him in cotton wool… “When you get someone who is playing as well as Conor — his speed to the breakdown, his lines of running, his experience, a great kicking game — you can’t hide the fact that there are certain players in teams that make a difference,” said Gatland.
“He was absolutely outstanding in Chicago (against New Zealand), one of the best players on the pitch. I think that quality players revel in those sort of challenges.
“If they are playing well, an opposition coach will target certain players to limit their impact on the game. Conor is going to come under some scrutiny from opposition teams, because they are aware how he controls the game and leads the Irish team around the park. I think it is a positive if he responds to that sort of pressure and from a coaching point of view that is what I am looking forward to.
“That is what you want, your best quality players to be able to respond to those pressures. In any type of sport, your best players get targeted. It’s not just going to be him.”
The Munster nine has already left a lasting impression on the Lions head coach from the last tour in 2013 to Australia. Travelling as third-choice scrum-half, he’d have been the starting nine had there been a fourth test with the Wallabies.
“Some players in a Lions set-up really take their opportunities to grow and he took it with both hands. Conor grew and matured and developed on that tour. He was outstanding. Conor was definitely a real success story for us from 2013 and people are aware how important it is that he is fit. He brings a physicality to the game, that experience, those lines of running, that he gets to the breakdown and gets the ball away is definitely a key.”
The Lions management has a selection dilemma of a different scale when it comes to trimming down the plethora of back rows. “Try and pick seven loose forwards for me because that is going to absolute nightmare,” said Gatland. “And that’s even if we are picking seven, we haven’t finalised the number but there are quite a few contenders in that position. We are in a healthy position in terms of choice, we’re a lot stronger than we were in 2007.”
At the moment, that is. There are still three rounds of the Six Nations to play, and the last eight in Europe for clubs. There will be bolters and breakdowns, injuries, and inspiring runs of form.
“Some of our thinking will change over the Six Nations, or someone will come out of the blue and put their hand up. Then you’re looking at players who have had a good last six, twelve months and are performing under that expectation in the Six Nations. And you want them to come under pressure, because we are all aware how tough it is going to be during the series in NZ. We’re going to come under some huge scrutiny and some huge pressure not just in the tests, but from the Super Rugby sides and the Maoris. Players who respond to that sort of pressure — they are the sort you are looking for. Their backs are to the wall and they are still able to dig deep and get a performance.”
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