AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The Blues will throw everything they have at the British & Irish Lions, on and off the ball, on Wednesday as their high performance director Tony Hanks draws on all the knowledge he has gleaned from his spells in the northern hemisphere.
Hanks’ coaching path has intertwined with Warren Gatland’s for the past two decades after Hanks joined Wasps in 2002 as part of the Lions coach’s backroom staff. He then linked up again with Gatland at Waikato before returning to Wasps as director of rugby in 2009.
Blues and All Blacks midfielder Sonny Bill Williams says he’s yet to feel the strain from his observance of Ramadan as the hype surrounding the British & Irish Lions series increases in New Zealand.
When it was rugby league, he was Greg Inglis. When it was time to play rugby, Tana Umaga got the nod. But no matter the code, Rieko Ioane always did it tough against big brother Akira. That was until they starting teaming up.
The British & Irish Lions face a gruelling 10-game tour of New Zealand, including a three-Test series against the All Blacks. ESPN will be there with full, up-to-date coverage every step of the way.
He has hopped between hemispheres, picking up bits of coaching intelligence and applying it to his current role at the Blues, one he took on in 2014 having had other roles with Sale Sharks, London Welsh and Russia.
“When I first arrived at Wasps, I had preconceived ideas about how rugby is played, and that was how the Blues and Brumbies played in the early 2000s,” Hanks told ESPN. “It was very structured and multi-phased and I learned pretty quickly there are different ways to play.
“The scrummaging is different and everyone has a different style. Coaching older players, too, made us a better coach in terms of how we were challenged. At Wasps I was coaching players who had retired from international rugby, whereas here you’re coaching 18- or 19-year-olds who are two years out of school. So it’s different in terms of motivations and what they know.”
Hanks also points to what he learned from how the northern hemisphere sides used advanced analysis software at the turn of the millennium and what he learned on the strength and conditioning side of the sport from Craig White, the ex-Wasps performance coach who also went on the 2005 and 2009 Lions tours.
He also knows a thing or two about bringing through youth having overseen Elliot Daly, Joe Launchbury and Christian Wade’s development. On Wednesday evening 20-year-old fly-half Stephen Perofeta makes his first start against the Lions as the Blues mix the importance of their game against the tourists but also preparation for next year’s Super Rugby competition, where they are looking to force their way back into the playoffs.
Blues players, including All Black Charlie Faumuina, are put through their paces ahead of the date with the Lions. Phil Walter/Getty Images
Their last title was in 2003 but more alarmingly, their last appearance in the playoffs was in 2011. Hanks believes it is high time they put that right.
“It’s a fantastic time for the Blues, we’re gutted we’re not in the playoffs, [but] we’re playing the Lions for the first time and we have new [training] facilities. There’s a lot to be excited about, but don’t mistake that for a lack of ambition,” he said.
“We’re desperately disappointed we didn’t make the playoffs and next year it has got to happen. We’re close, we think we’ve got the right roster and the facilities and while it’s frustrating we didn’t make the playoffs, I know we’re going in the right direction.”
That “right direction” includes taking a match to Apia, Samoa, last week and continuing to develop younger talent from around the Auckland area. But for the past three or so days, they have been focused on making the most of their own slice of rugby history.
Wednesday’s match, in front of a bumper crowd, will be the first time one of New Zealand’s Super Rugby teams have had a shot at the Lions and the players are finding this week’s preparation different to others.
Young Blues fly-half Stephen Perofeta will make his first start for the franchise against the Lions. Phil Walter/Getty Images
Everything is a little different to normal, with the whole squad present at the naming announcement earlier in the week and there have been changes to ticket allocation for the players’ family and friends. There’s a feeling that Wednesday is a real occasion, and the players have been charged with leaving nothing out on the field.
“Hopefully the Lions can expect from us that we’ll throw everything at them, with and without the ball,” Hanks said. “I think people here are just starting to realise how big this us. We’ve got some guys in our team who were seven or eight the last time the Lions were here.
“New Zealand by nature is young, Super Rugby teams are young. When I was at Wasps, we had one forward under 30. That’s the difference. A lot of them probably didn’t know what the Lions were about and now you’re going to have 40,000 at Eden Park.
“The Lions are like playing the champions as everyone plays their best. This is a one-off game, we can throw everything at this.”
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Blues will draw on inside knowledge vs. Lions
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