Head coach Warren Gatland was confident that the Lions would acquit themselves well, he hasn’t thought about his back-up team except to say it would be one stronger that last time out and, after three miserable tours with scant Scottish participation, he hinted that a few of Vern Cotter’s squad were in the frame.
“I know there was a lot of debate last time about picking Scottish players but the pleasing thing for me is that there is a number of Scottish players who have put their hands up and are in genuine contention to be selected,” said the Lions boss.
Gatland, pictured above, went on to suggest a couple of things; firstly that he might look beyond the four international squads for players (come on down Steffon Armitage) and he also suggested that the Lions may cherry pick a few players from national squads that are touring in the vicinity. Scotland travel to Australia and Fiji next June, for one or two specific matches.
“To have a chance of winning in New Zealand, the first Test is key,” said the former hooker who played 17 times for the All Blacks without winning a single Test cap. “Protecting players, your starting XV, maybe your 23, for the first Test, so the Tuesday before the first Test is against the Chiefs after the Maoris on the Saturday.
“So there is a possibility, a number of the home nations will be touring at the same time, so do we bring in a few players just to sit on the bench and be involved in that game against the Chiefs and not to be part of the whole tour? We did that with Shane Williams last time. It made all the difference to how we performed in the first Test. It’s just a consideration because I do know how important that first Test is.”
The question remains... which Test is the first one? Former All Black great Zinzan Brooke suggested that the itinerary packed with Super Rugby sides, a Provincial XV and the team of Maoris meant that the tour would effectively be playing ten Tests.
What Brooke doesn’t highlight is that two of the three official Tests are in Auckland’s Eden Park. This is partly because it is the biggest available venue with a capacity of 60,000. But Eden Park gets two Tests because the All Blacks boast an almost unassailable record at their spiritual home.
New Zealand are unbeaten on home soil since 2009, when the Springoks won in Hamilton, but the world number ones are unbeaten at Eden Park since 1994 when France turned them over.
Ignore rugby records, these All Blacks have an unassailable grip on greatness that transcends the sporting world... not that Gatland appears unduly concerned.
When asked about the last Lions tour to New Zealand in 2005 when a humiliating 3~0 blackwash almost brought the Lions to their knees, Gatland was keen to put some distance between next year’s efforts and that low watermark.
“If Clive (Woodward) looks back on that there are probably a lot of things that he would change,” said the Kiwi. “Things like taking Alastair Campbell. That kind of rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way in New Zealand.
“I think this will be very different, the way we prepare and the way we plan and possibly in the strength and the ability of the squad. We can go there with a squad that has got the ability to beat the All Blacks in their own back yard.
“2005 wasn’t the greatest experience but I know from my involvement with the Lions the paramount thing for us in 2009 in South Africa was putting some pride back into that Lions jersey.
“There was a lot of debate after 2005, that the Lions as a concept was dead, was it worth going on tours? I think as an entity it’s fantastic, it’s iconic, a tour once every four years, it’s a dream for players, it’s something to look forward to.”
While Woodward selected a core of England’s World Cup winning forward pack in an attempt to bully the Blacks into submission, Gatland promises a different approach on the field as well as off it.
“You have to go and be positive about the way you play,” he insisted. “The Lions could potentially field a pretty physical, big team but it’s not the way you play.
“In 2013 we played some pretty good rugby but you still work on your set piece stuff, lineout, scrum, breakdown... it’s easier to come from outside and come in and tighten up a little if you have to, it’s almost impossible to go the other way, play a forward-oriented, physical game and then go wide. I think that’s the message for us. As we did in Australia, you have go out there and play positively and be prepared to take New Zealand on at their own game.”
The Pumas did just that for fifty minutes yesterday and still lost by a whopping 35 points, so is there a chance that Gatland’s class of 2017 will fare no better than the 2005 squad?
“I honestly can’t see that happening,” says Gatland, “I can’t see us going to New Zealand and not performing well.”
Might Clive Woodward have said something similar ahead of that disastrous 2005 tour?
“I am not Clive,” Gatland shoots back. It is one of the few things the Kiwi coach has going for him.