Gatland wants underdogs to rewrite history

10:00 PM BST

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Flying under the radar is suiting the British & Irish Lions, but Warren Gatland hopes his class of 2017 will have their names written in New Zealand history by the end of the tour.

Thursday’s press conference was the first time we saw Gatland bristle at a question. It was suggested that a local poll here in New Zealand said 78 percent of the locals did not know a single Lions player.

Though he straight-batted the statistic, he answered a little more quickly and directly than before. But this underdog mentality and being an unknown quantity in the land of rugby lovers suits Gatland.

“I know everyone has written us off and that’s a nice position to be in,” Gatland said. “If we leave the tour and they’ve made an impression that would be pretty positive.

“If we can go and play some good rugby and make people stand up and take a little bit of notice it’s going to create even more interest. Maybe when the 30,000 Lions supporters arrive and they do the poll again the number might go up.”

For those supposed 78 percent who are unaware of who makes up the 41-man squad, Gatland hopes they will know sooner rather than later just what these 2017 Lions are made of.

Saturday is the Lions’ opener when they tackle the NZ Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei. He previously said that each of his 41 players will get a start in their first three matches with the games giving him a chance to weigh up potential Test combinations.

“I think we’ve got some players at the moment who aren’t known here, but they’ve got some X-factor and hopefully they can cause some surprises if we get some hard surfaces,” Gatland said. We’ve got some pace, we’ve got footwork and we’ve got the ability in some positions to cause some surprises.”

Saturday’s game should be straight-forward for the Lions, with sterner tasks awaiting them next week with the Blues up on Wednesday and the Crusaders on Saturday but each are of huge importance when taking in the bigger picture of the three Test matches on the horizon.

He has earmarked the Maori match as the moment this tour heads into its second phase, when the squad becomes split between those who will feature in the Test side and those who have to push to change his mind.

“To get off to a good start I want the players to put us coaches under pressure and make the job difficult for us in terms of selection and who we are going to pick when it comes to the first Test. The hardest thing on this tour will sometimes be finalising the top combinations for some of the games and leaving out some real quality players.

“I’m sure, in this room, a lot of us are going to disagree over who should be picked and who should be starting in certain positions because hopefully we do have a lot of choice, because a lot of players have been putting their hands up.”

Though there is the looming challenge of Test selection for the coaches, results are still paramount if the tourists are to get off on the right note in New Zealand. The Lions will be introspective, but equally, they are keen to make a splash in the land where rugby is king.

“It’s about us concentrating on ourselves and setting down a marker for us to build on for Wednesday and through to the Crusaders. It is important week this first one.

“To be honest we have to go out there and win on Saturday. We need to get this tour off to a good start, and we need a good performance on Saturday. There’s no hiding from that fact. I think the players are well aware of that.

“I want them to express themselves, starting straight away, in this game. You have to give them that confidence that they can go and do that and maybe create something special.”

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