The British and Irish Lions will face a major reality check and a test of their tenacity and philosophy when they play the unbeaten Crusaders in the third match of their New Zealand tour today.
That philosophy is most often expressed by coach Warren Gatland, and two of its main tenets are that it doesn’t matter how many provincial matches the Lions lose as long as they win the Test matches and that Super Rugby teams are of similar strength to the All Blacks.
Both statements raised eyebrows in Gatland’s native New Zealand. It seems possible that Gatland believes the first as an article of faith, but even All Blacks coach Steve Hansen doubts he believes the second.
After naming a powerful squad for the three-Test series, Hansen said that in comparing Super Rugby franchises with the All Blacks, Gatland might be kidding.
Gatland, pictured right, had told reporters, “I don’t think there will be a lot of difference between some Super Rugby sides and the All Blacks. These guys have been together seven months and the All Blacks are coming together cold.”
Hansen responded by saying “I just think he’s probably trying to take a bit of humour after struggling a bit with his press conference before that”.
The Crusaders line-up the Lions will face in Christchurch will certainly be formidable, possibly the toughest opponent the tourists will face outside the Tests. But the Crusaders’ match 23 contains only nine All Blacks, among them locks Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano, front-rowers Owen Franks, Codie Taylor and Joe Moody and full-back Israel Dagg. They may be unbeaten in 14 Super Rugby matches this season but any comparison with the world champion All Blacks is overstated.
The fact that Super Rugby teams are strong enough to beat the tourists was evident when the Auckland Blues – the lowest-ranked of New Zealand’s five franchises – beat the Lions 22-16 this week. The Crusaders will be tougher and will provide a measure of the Lions’ development in their third of six matches ahead of the first Test.
The match in Christchurch will test a third element of Gatland’s rugby philosophy and one that has already become contentious; the style of play he has asked the Lions to adopt in a bid to carry them to only their second Test series victory in New Zealand in 13 attempts.
That philosophy, which wasn’t entirely discernible in the Lions’ opening 13-7 win over the Provincial Barbarians, was more evident in the improved performance against the Blues. But there were also worrying aspects for Gatland.
Despite more than 70 per cent possession and an overwhelming territorial advantage at Eden Park, the Lions managed only one try – and that was from a rolling maul.
The Blues had fragments of possession and scored three tries, including the match-winner in the 74th minute which underscored the counter-attacking and off-loading threat posed by New Zealand teams. The Lions’ gameplan was based on retaining possession through long series of phases and grinding their way incrementally toward their opponents’ line; the epitome of the “Warrenball” style.
No team can do so little with so much possession in New Zealand and expect to win against teams which can do so much with so little.
The Lions will need to show against the Crusaders that they have more in reserve, and Gatland is insistent that they do.
“Behind closed doors we are trying to keep a few things back to prepare for and ensure we are right for the Tests,” Gatland said.
The Lions cannot easily afford another loss. While Gatland says the Tests are the only results that matter, a losing run could put strain on the confidence of the squad.