AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Moments before the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians take to the Toll Stadium field on Saturday night, their coach, Clayton McMillan, will deliver his final message to the players after a breathless week. After cramming a game plan into just seven days, forging an understanding between his group of players over a handful of training sessions, the British & Irish Lions’ first opponents will take to the field looking to entertain.
“I’ll tell the boys they have to relax, and enjoy the occasion. These opportunities don’t come around too often,” McMillan told ESPN. “Most people are lucky to get one shot at the Lions.
“We want to do justice to the Barbarians jersey and play entertaining football. We won’t achieve that if we’re thinking play tight, so it’ll be around given the players scope to express themselves, and confidence and to go out and enjoy the occasion.”
Clayton McMillan Kerry Marshall/Getty Images
It will be a team of players on the verge of Super Rugby, but not with franchise contracts behind them. Prior to finalising the squad last Thursday, they lost a couple of players as they were needed for Super Rugby duty. Others were called in, from New Zealand’s 15 provinces.
The team has a proud history. Though this bunch has the added ‘Provincial’ in their name, the team’s roots originate from 1938 when New Zealand’s Barbarians played their first match. Throughout its history, the likes of Sean Fitzpatrick, Christian Cullen, Grant Fox, John Kirwan and Ben Smith have pulled on its red jersey. Even the man on the bench for the Lions, Jared Payne, has played for them.
But it will be a little different on Saturday. They have allowed the tourists to wear red, and this is a team focused on representing the whole country — “it has been part of our selection criteria,” the coach said — in a bid to give the provinces some representation as the Lions will play franchises this time around. It has been a truly remarkable effort from McMillan to draw the players together.
The 23-man squad met for the first time last Saturday, drawn from the length and breadth of the country. Their work over the past few days has been to find points of difference, trying to work out how they can break down the tourists’ monster pack, and seeking out any way they can throw some punches of their own.
Central to that will be Bryn Gatland, Warren’s son and the Barbarians’ fly-half; but this is not a selection based on sentiment.
“Part of the selection policy was that we wouldn’t select anyone who’s a fully contracted Super Rugby player,” McMillan said. “While we have depth in the country, Super Rugby teams will take the best 10 or so No. 10s in the country and Bryn had a great Mitre 10 Cup last year for North Harbour and was instrumental in getting them promoted to the Premiership.
“Some people think it was a selection based on romanticism or ticket sales, but it’s about our performance and he deserves the opportunity.”
McMillan knows the Lions well. He remembers almost every ball passed, dropped and kicked in anger from the 1993 tour. He remembers when Sir Clive Woodward’s team travelled here in hope back in 2005, and how the team he played for and currently coaches, Bay of Plenty, gave them a fright in their opening match.
This is where the Lions’ mystique helps him. The players know the significance of what is awaiting them on Saturday and why they must grasp this potentially once-in-a-career opportunity. That accelerates an understanding, but what runs across both sides is the unknown over what the opposition have planned.
Bryn Gatland will start at fly-half against his father Warren Gatland’s British & Irish Lions on Saturday in Whangarei.
Sam Warburton skippers the British & Irish Lions in their opening match of the 2017 tour against the NZ Barbarians in a team that features Johnny Sexton at fly-half and Alun Wyn Jones in the second-row.
British & Irish Lions boss Warren Gatland admits losing a mid-week game or two “isn’t the end of the world” as his Test selection focuses on claiming just their second Test series win over New Zealand.
McMillan has paid close attention to Steve Borthwick’s lineouts with England, and Andy Farrell’s Ireland defensive systems, and expects similar operations on Saturday — “there’s a little bit of crystal-ball gazing,” McMillan said — but their approach has been heavily weighted in introspection rather than speculating over what the Lions may throw at them.
But one thing the Lions will not be greeted with is a haka.
“We would have liked to have done that but with a week’s preparation and the enormity of the game, it would have been unfair on the players had we asked them to learn a haka that would have done justice to the occasion. Our time is probably better geared towards the 80 minutes on the field, not the two minutes before it.”
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They know they are up against it, but they aren’t aiming to match the Lions’ physicality. Instead, they will give a nod to the Barbarians’ roots, and plan to entertain.
“We know the Lions have a massively experienced and powerful side,” McMillan said. “Given the limited preparation time we have and other challenges we’ve faced, it would be ludicrous of us to fight fire with fire.
“We need to do justice to the way the Barbarians have played historically, which is to throw the ball around and chance our arm and play a little risk and reward. What we lack for in time, we’ll make up for in energy and enthusiasm.”
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