There have been 480 minutes of rugby played on the British and Irish Lions tour so far, which pales in comparison to the countless broadcast hours and oceans of newsprint expended upon speculation about what might unfold in Auckland this morning.
At 8.35am British time the talking will stop and the proper business gets under way as a combination of English, Welsh and Irish players – no Scots sadly – attempt to do something that hasn’t been achieved in 23 years and beat the back-to-back world champions New Zealand at their iconic Eden Park.
It goes without saying that the first Test of a series carries an extra tone-setting importance and there is a widespread feeling that the outcome of the whole tour will hinge on what happens today.
The All Blacks players have had run-outs in the provincial games and they also enjoyed a 78-0 warm-up hit-out against Samoa, so they are not exactly rusty but it is only logical to presume that today is when they will be at their most vulnerable.
Amid the inevitable trash talk, there have been flattering noises from the hosts about the unprecedented quality of this touring squad, while back home there has been a nagging sense this has 3-0 to the All Blacks written all over it. The Lions, who are aiming to beat the Kiwis for the first time since their solitary success in 1971, have only ever once bounced back from an opening Test defeat to win a series before – the Finlay Calder-led class of 1989 in Australia.
Lose today and it is hard to see any way back for Warren Gatland’s men as the All Blacks are sure to only get better in subsequent Tests.
The central topic of those hours of hot air and thousands of newspaper articles has been what the Lions need to do to beat New Zealand on their own patch.
The gameplan will only truly become clear when the action gets under way but Gatland has been hinting at a surprise departure from his “Warrenball” strategy. The Kiwi, who is on a second sabbatical from his Wales day job after leading the Lions to success in Australia four years ago, is often niggled by that phrase, which describes an attritional philosophy of blitz defence and bash up the middle, crash-ball centre play to bludgeon opposition with brute force rather than flair.
Gatland has been singing from a different hymn sheet in the build-up to this opening Test, although it remains to be seen if that is not a herring as red as the jerseys his players will don today.
The coach has chosen the pacy England winger Elliot Daly ahead of the more powerful George North and Liam Williams ahead of Leigh Halfpenny at full-back, which may point to a desire to play a more adventurous style. That is if the Lions’ fulcrum of Owen Farrell, Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies can best a daunting opposition trio containing Beauden Barrett, Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty and unleash the pace out wide in the first place.
“Now it’s about bringing other parts of our game, which is about playing with some flair and taking some risks and being courageous and bold,” Gatland said. “That’s the way to beat the All Blacks.”
The success of the game plan the Lions have developed on tour was shown in their wins over the Crusaders and New Zealand Maori, and Gatland admitted that remained the blueprint for the tests. But he also suggested the Lions may have to do a bit more.
“We squeezed the life out of those two teams,” he said. “We won’t stop being aggressive defensively and to play against the All Blacks you’ve got to have a strong set-piece because they’re traditionally very dominant in those areas.
“We’ve created opportunities and early on in the tour we weren’t finishing off the line breaks but it was pleasing to see on Tuesday [against Chiefs] we were starting to do that. The message to the players will be to go out and do that on Saturday night.”
Gatland said there’d been a lot of speculation about the contrasting styles “but I think we’ve played some lovely rugby”.
“We struggled at the start of the tour but I think we’ve scored nine tries to three in the last four games so we’re starting to score tries,” he added.
Brian O’Driscoll presented the Lions players – including his compatriot Peter O’Mahony who will lead the side out as tour skipper (Sam Warburton starts on the bench) – with their first Test shirts yesterday, 12 years after being spear-tackled out of action against New Zealand as the tourists slipped to defeat in the first 2005 Test in Christchurch.