AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Steve Hansen is paying little heed to the British & Irish Lions early-tour form but warned Warren Gatland’s side must improve soon at the risk of doubt creeping in before the Test series.
Hansen’s All Blacks are introspective at the moment, having confirmed their 33-man squad for the match against Samoa and their three Tests with the Lions.
The British & Irish Lions face a gruelling 10-game tour of New Zealand, including three Tests against the All Blacks. ESPN will be there with full, up-to-date coverage every step of the way.
They plan to stick to their guns of a “physical, high-intensity, high-skill game” but the coaches will be seeing how the Lions fare over the next fortnight and whether their gameplan changes as interest continues to build ahead of the first Test on June 24.
The All Blacks coach feels the Lions faced an “impossible task” against the NZ Barbarians in their opener and is drawing little from their defeat to the Blues on Wednesday night, saying the team are still in their infancy. But he did question why the Lions arrived just four days before their opener, asking whether “commercialism took over from high performance”.
Despite their slow start, Hansen is expecting them to improve. Gatland has spoken about how they would be comfortable losing a couple of the warm-up matches with eyes on the bigger goal of the Test series, but Hansen says they must start building some form alongside an understanding.
“That’s the thing you’ve got to keep an eye on,” Hansen said. “At some point you’ve got to start winning or people are going to start saying, “This isn’t working”. Is it necessary right at the moment? Probably not. The most important thing — as someone outside looking in — is that they create a squad of 41 people who feel they are all in it together; hence he wants to give everyone a game.
“Once he has done that, he wants to create that feeling of, “Righto, here we go; this group is going to do the job and if they don’t do it well enough, we’ve got other guys who are ready to back it up”. That’s how I am reading it.”
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen address the media in Auckland. Phil Walter/Getty Images
Much has been made of the Lions’ gameplan, with some in New Zealand expecting them to revert to a game built on physicality and power, with few thrills. Hansen believes the Lions will bring an approach similar to Gatland sides of the past but has noticed some additional flourishes from their Test series against Wales last year.
“I can’t see Warren making big changes and nor should he if that’s what he believes is right for him,” Hansen said. “He’s had enough success to say it works. He loves big physical forwards, he loves big physical backs and he likes playing a style to allow those people to dominate, win the collisions and then go to the space. That’s the simplest way of looking at it.
“Does he want to add to that? I’m sure they do. In the Wales series they started to counter a bit more than we’ve seen in the past. Is he playing around with his kicking game? I’m sure he is. He’s got a different defensive coach than he does with Wales, so he’ll probably defend a little different so their game will be different, I’ve no doubt about that.”
The Super Rugby teams are being left to their own devices by Hansen and he has allowed the Highlanders to pick three players named in Thursday’s 33-man squad. He will use their matches as a chance to weigh up the Lions’ strengths and weaknesses and expects the Lions to show their Test hand when they face the Maori All Blacks on June 17.
But first up are the Crusaders — a team that features eight All Blacks in their run on side — and Hansen will be a face in the crowd at the AMI Stadium on Saturday.
“I think it’s going to be a good contest, but you would expect an international team to beat a franchise team, particularly one that is made up of the four home nations, with their pick of the best players,” Hansen said. “But the Crusaders are full of confidence at the moment and they are full of All Blacks, particularly up front.
“They really are on a roll. Confidence is a big thing in sport; if you’ve got plenty of that you can do anything. As much as the Lions probably don’t have as much, if they win the game they will get a lot out of it. There’s a fair bit on the line for both teams.”
www.espn.co.uk – RUGBY