Lions racing against time to beat the All Blacks
As daunting the prospect of facing the world’s best side on their own patch, the most formidable challenge facing the British & Irish Lions this summer is arguably not the All Blacks but the precious little time they have to ready themselves for an eagerly-awaited Test series.
The Lions staged their first training session this week but frustratingly only 14 members of the 41-man squad were present at the Vale of Glamorgan with many of Warren Gatland’s leading lights still on domestic duty due to the demands of the club campaign.
Unfortunately – and a little worryingly – for the Lions, the Premiership and PRO12 title-deciders at Twickenham and the Aviva Stadium respectively take place just one week before the tour opener against New Zealand Barbarians that of course will be staged on the other side of the world.
Those players chasing domestic glory will sit out the relatively easy clash in Whangerai and be given the chance to recuperate and shake off the jet lag but mentally there will be no rest and they will be tasked with preparing for the more significant challenges that come thick and fast from that point on.
Four fearsome Super Rugby franchises and the international-standard New Zealand Maori stand between the Lions and the pivotal 1st Test in Auckland in the space of just three weeks – leaving the elite tourists next to no time to draw breath let alone analyse their opponents and experiment with their own options.
The doomsayers and the bookies would have you believe that the Lions are heading for another disastrous visit to New Zealand following their vexing visit in 2005 but they are blessed with too much quality to come away empty-handed.
Perhaps painfully aware of the mind-blowing and bone-crunching schedule his squad face, Gatland has hinted he is prepared to accept the inevitability of a defeat or two before the Test series.
“Winning is incredibly important for morale, but it’s not the most essential thing,” he told the New Zealand media last month before citing a case in point from the 2013 tour that ended with a 2-1 Test series victory over Australia.
“It’s all about the Test series. I learnt that in 2013. We could have put a stronger side out on the Tuesday against the Brumbies, but we protected as many of the Test side as we could.”
“We ended up losing that game 14-12, but if we had put out a slightly stronger team there was a good chance we might have lost the first Test and it’s all about winning a Test series and preparing for that.”
That’s true but such a stance is a gamble given the importance of momentum and morale heading into the 1st Test that will be staged at Eden Park where the hosts are unbeaten since 1994.
It should be noted the Lions had a similarly constrained preparation window four years ago and ultimately tasted success although with all due respect to Australian rugby, this tour represents a step up in terms of the quality of the opposition.
But Gatland would not have it any other way having counted the cost of playing inferior opposition on the 2009 tour of South Africa when he served as an assistant to Sir Ian McGeechan.
“We were underdone because we’d won the games too easily leading into the first Test,” he said of a tour that ended with a narrow 2-1 series defeat to the Springboks.
Unsurprisingly given the limited preparation time, Gatland has already hinted that he may rely on familiar personnel and tried and tested combinations when it comes to selection.
That may well explain the 11 members of the current Wales squad selected for the Lions despite just two victories and fifth place finish in this year’s Six Nations.
The presence of 15 England players, following the withdrawal of scrum-half Ben Youngs for personal reasons, is less surprising given their dominance of the European stage for the last two years.
It looks as if Gatland will also attempt to tap into Ireland’s recent headline-grabbing success against the All Blacks in Chicago with 11 of Joe Schmidt’s squad heading to New Zealand.
But Gatland will have to look beyond the in-form and obvious with a gruelling and no doubt bruising tour and stricter concussion protocols sure to take their toll on availability and therefore selection.
While the playing squad face a battle to bond in a few short weeks, the coaching team must also combat similar pressures to fuse and perform.
Unsurprisingly given their success in 2013 against Australia and his familiarity with their respective skill sets, Gatland has once again called on the services of Wales assistant coach Rob Howley and skills coach Neil Jenkins.
Importantly, those two have a clear understanding of not only how Gatland likes to work but also what works for the Lions having toured a total of seven times as either players or coaches.
Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell and Harlequins forwards coach Graham Rowntree also return having helped down the Wallabies but, perhaps crucially, they have not worked alongside Gatland since that memorable tour.
Bringing completely fresh impetus and a widely-acknowledged attention to detail is England forwards coach Steve Borthwick who has wasted little time in making an impact as a coach since hanging up his boots in 2014.
The quest to hit the ground running will also be boosted by Gatland’s decision to draft in two other familiar faces from Wales’ backroom team – head of strength and conditioning Paul Stridgeon and head analyst Rhodri Brown.
Crucially for Gatland and the Lions, little time will be wasted in finding common ground and understanding each coach’s approach. They will be able to build on their existing relationships and leverage their coaching shorthand to maximise their limited preparation time.
Gatland’s own contribution cannot be underestimated and as an accomplished coach and motivator he deserves a great deal of credit for the Lions’ recent success. But he also owes a debt of thanks to the club and national coaches that have invested so much in these players and laid the foundation for success.
Most notably perhaps Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall and his coaching team who will provide six tourists – Owen Farrell, Mako Vunipola, Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje, George Kruis and Jamie George – who recently helped the Premiership club secure back-to-back Champions Cup titles and who offer a formidable threat both individually and collectively.
The lack of time to forge new relationships or rekindle former ones no doubt also played a part in Sam Warburton’s reappointment as captain with the Wales back-row forward having led the Lions to Australia four years ago before injury ruled him out of the series decider.
His outstanding form of late, notably since being relieved of the Wales captaincy, will clearly have also been a factor alongside the mutual respect he enjoys with Gatland – but it is his leadership and ability to rally his troops in adversity – that he accepts will come – that will define how successful he is in the role this time around.
“To beat New Zealand, who are the best team in the world, means that we have to become potentially the best team in the world to be able to beat them, so that’s the challenge, doing that in the next short time period,” Warburton recently told the BBC.
“It’s going to be very difficult, four years ago there were chances for the guys to have a little social together, we might have been able to go out and have a couple of beers, which is quite a good way to get to know players but the games are going to come so thick and fast that there is not going to be any time for stuff like that but I think going through things like difficult training and games is what bonds players."
“If I was playing a warm-up game and saw another player absolutely working his socks off trying to help me out at a breakdown situation, and I did vice versa, that’s how you build up trust in your team…nothing beats that from a team perspective, wins or losses, I feel that will bring us closer and closer together as a squad.”
Don’t be fooled. Rest assured man-management expert Gatland will insist his squad do bond over a beer or two, the question is whether they can do so sufficiently before the All Blacks call time.