Warren Gatland’s Lions start fine-tuning for heist of the professional era | Robert Kitson

Twelve years in international rugby union is a sporting eternity. The last time the British & Irish Lions embarked on the ultimate tour of tours to New Zealand, Maro Itoje was a 10-year-old and Tony Blair had just won his third election. That whole expedition – Gavin Henson, Alastair Campbell, the ill-fated Power of Four anthem, the single rooms – seems like a distant relic from another age.

Small wonder New Zealanders appear uncertain about precisely what awaits them now. This country has also changed appreciably since 2005, with some opinion polls suggesting rugby no longer exerts the universal grip on a more cosmopolitan population that it once did. Better, perhaps, to revisit that startling theory in a few weeks’ time. The day the Kiwis are wholly indifferent to a Lions squad in their midst, the game really has gone.

It is even longer ago – 24 years, no less – since the Lions secured so much as one Test victory in New Zealand, never mind took the overall spoils. On each of their past three visits they have managed no more than three tries in the entire Test series. All this gloomy history inevitably hangs heavy, particularly when old-timers such as Sean Fitzpatrick talk about the unique pressure of playing for their nation. Two decades on, tellingly, Fitzpatrick has far clearer memories of the games he lost than those he won. When Steve Hansen suggested all the pressure was on the Lions to deliver, his tongue was deep enough in his cheek to require a fracking licence.

The reality is the same as ever: the Lions will have to shape their own destiny on the world’s toughest paddocks. If this squad were touring South Africa or Australia, they would be clear favourites to fly home victorious but different standards apply in the land of the long white (and frequently grey) cloud. The good news for Warren Gatland is that his 41-strong party, injuries permitting, is more talented than several of its recent predecessors. To watch Owen Farrell, Johnny Sexton, Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny all practising together at North Harbour’s stadium on Thursday was to be convinced no touring team has ever boasted a more formidable array of goal-kickers.



Warren Gatland’s 41-strong Lions squad hopes to end a run of 24 years without a Test win in New Zealand. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

The trick, then, will be to turn off history’s gushing tap for six weeks and concentrate instead on creating fresh, modern memories. All of us love the sepia-tinted tales of 1971 but those glory days will count for little when the first kick-off of 2017 goes skywards. Willie John McBride will be 77 on Tuesday and Barry John hung up his boots 45 years ago. Farrell, Itoje, Conor Murray, Mako Vunipola et al need to rock the stadiums of New Zealand with their verve and originality, not just be a tribute act playing classic covers.

The argument in favour of a stunning Lions triumph goes something like this: the All Blacks have fitness doubts and Super Rugby is a tactically different business from its Test cousin, with its greater emphasis on heavy-duty set pieces and extreme commitment. If Ireland can defeat New Zealand on their own, as they did in November, what price the four home nations united? Gatland also knows his quarry intimately; if the Lions can somehow steal the first Test against a slightly underdone home team, they will fancy having the mental strength to finish the job.

Not all of this supposed prima facie evidence is entirely watertight: the All Blacks had a hefty list of sponsors’ engagements in Chicago in the days leading up to that Irish defeat and did not have all their main men on the field. In Kieran Read, Beauden Barrett, Dane Coles and Ben Smith they have the most consistent players in their positions in the world. But what if two or three of them fail to make the starting line in Auckland on 24 June? No one is saying New Zealand will be underpowered but there could conceivably be the odd chink in the impenetrable black armour.

In that regard, the potential input of Gatland’s three English lieutenants, Andy Farrell, Steve Borthwick and Graham Rowntree, should not be underestimated. The first Test at Eden Park may be only three weeks away but the coaches’ brains have been whirring for months. It is less about ploughing a blinkered, one-dimensional forward-based furrow than applying deliberate pressure in as many areas of the field as feasibly possible.

Forcing New Zealand to concede kickable penalties also obscures the other vital half of the equation; as Exeter and the Scarlets showed in their domestic finals last Saturday, it is about having the courage of conviction to go for it. The surest method of rugby suicide against a counterattacking team as lethal as the All Blacks is to throw the ball around willy-nilly; the Lions need to concentrate more on making smart decisions, to not panic and to trust implicitly in those around them to do the same.

Selection-wise, the pivotal choices look to be at Nos 6, 10, 12 and 15; in the midfield much will hinge on how Sexton goes against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians XV in Whangarei and, almost certainly, the Crusaders in Christchurch a week on Saturday. It would not be a total surprise if Farrell starts the first Test at fly-half, with either Robbie Henshaw or Ben Te’o at inside-centre, unless there is clear evidence he and Sexton are a compatible double act. Could Jared Payne, who was withdrawn from the replacements’ bench as a precaution due to a calf strain, Iain Henderson, Tommy Seymour or Elliot Daly – who will take Payne’s place – emerge as left-field Test bolters?

New Zealanders, either way, will argue Gatland’s record against southern hemisphere opposition with Wales is ordinary and expect another 3-0 series win regardless of the touring side’s selection. But who says that inevitably has to be the outcome? Win the first three or four provincial games, swerve any more serious injuries, and then see off the Maori All Blacks on the weekend before the first Test and no one will be discussing the Lions’ limited preparation time. Respect the All Blacks, by all means, but do not allow fear to take a suffocating grip.

Instead just imagine the scenes if Gatland’s Lionhearts can pull off the heist of the professional era. If 71 was an auspicious year, why should 17 be an impossibility? There is enough quality in this squad to cause the hosts genuine problems and even in New Zealand, a rugby ball can bounce in mysterious ways.

NZ Provincial Barbarians L Laulala; S Vaka (both Counties Manukau), I Finau (Canterbury), D Sweeney, S Reece (both Waikato); B Gatland (North Harbour), J Stratton (Canterbury); A Ross (Bay of Plenty), S Anderson-Heather (Otago, capt), O Jager (Canterbury), J Goodhue (Northland), K Mewett (Bay of Plenty), J Tucker (Waikato), L Boshier (Taranaki), M Dunshea (Canterbury). Replacements A Makalio (Tasman), T Fahamokioa (Wellington), M Renata (Auckland), M Matich (Northland), P Rowe (Wanganui), R Judd (Bay of Plenty), J Lowe (Hawke’s Bay), J Ngaluafe (Southland).

British & Irish Lions S Hogg; A Watson, J Joseph, B Te’o, T Seymour; J Sexton, G Laidlaw; J Marler, R Best, K Sinckler, AW Jones, I Henderson, R Moriarty, S Warburton (capt), T Faletau. Replacements J George, M Vunipola, T Furlong, G Kruis, J Tipuric, R Webb, O Farrell, E Daly.

Referee: A Gardner (Aus).

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