BRITISH & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland has admitted that the strength of opponents in the build-up to the first Test against Australia is a cause for concern after crushing Western Force 69-17 yesterday.
The Lions were also comfortable winners in the tour opener against the Barbarians in Hong Kong and Gatland is considering beefing up training sessions to replicate the intensity that the Lions will face when they tackle the Wallabies in Brisbane on 22 June.
“You always want to play against stronger sides,” explained Gatland. “That is a concern for us at the moment. You need the intensity. If we are not getting it from games like tonight then we’ll have to look at doing it ourselves – playing with a bit more intensity in training.”
Western Force coach Michael Foley, with one eye on Sunday’s clash with the New South Wales Waratahs, selected seven players in the Perth-based Super Rugby side who have not yet played in the southern hemisphere competition.
“The Force were thinking of their Super Rugby game on the weekend, making a few changes. That’s their prerogative,” Gatland added. “Ideally, I would have liked to have played against a stronger team but we just made the focus about ourselves and I’m sure the [Queensland] Reds will be lot tougher in Brisbane on Saturday.”
The Force are bottom of the Australian conference in Super Rugby with three wins from their 14 matches, but they did run in two tries against the Lions as well as di rupting a couple of lineout throws by Rory Best in the first half.
Gatland, an assistant coach during the Lions’ 2009 tour of South Africa, said weakened opposition there had led to a dismal display in the first half of the first Test against the Springboks when they were blown off the ball by the home side’s physicality.
“Something we learned from 2009 was, when we arrived for that first Test, we thought we were in pretty good nick and then there was a big step up, but I don’t think we are going to get caught this time,” the Wales coach said.
“We have just got to be aware of the opposition we are playing and, if we do get victories like tonight, we don’t get too carried away.”
Foley said he was immensely proud of his team and hit back at criticism from England’s World Cup-winning coach Clive Woodward, who said the Lions had been treated with contempt because of the selection of a weakened team.
“Clive is entitled to his opinion. I think there is some hypocrisy in that,” he said, pointing to the time Leicester fielded a weakened team to play the Wallabies in a tour match in England. “There’ll be some guys in the side tonight that will go on to play for the Force in the future. It is always good to view things from one perspective but you have got to be a bit more balanced.”
Foley’s hands were also tied by Australia coach Robbie Deans, who is holding back all of his 25-man squad from playing in the warm-up matches against the Lions, something that the tourists also encountered in South Africa four years ago.
Foley said Gatland should not be concerned about the strength of opposition in their five remaining warm-up games before that first Test in Brisbane.
“Every side that plays the Lions are going to go hard. There are a number of sides that are going to come up against them without their international players and that is just the way it is,” the former Wallaby hooker said.
“Every team that plays the Lions wants to be in a position where they can select freely, or more freely, without a scheduling issue. Every side will challenge the Lions and every side will go as hard as they can and I think, by the time the Lions get to the Tests, they will be very hardened.”
Worries over the strength of opposition apart, Gatland was satisfied with the Lions’ first challenge on Australian soil.
“It was a good workout, especially for those just starting the tour,” he said. “The test for us tonight was about being ruthless and playing for the full 80 minutes. It would have been easy to fall off the intensity and cruise home. But Geoff Parling, Tom Youngs and Ben Youngs gave us momentum coming off the bench. Overall we’re pretty happy. We are getting used to the interpretation of southern hemisphere referees.
“We talked about keeping our patience and, at half-time, we talked about being ruthless and finishing them off. There were one or two errors around fringes and we’ll work on them.
“The challenge for us coaches is who the hell are we going to pick for that first Test? At the moment there is so much competition for places and that’s good for us.”