It did not take long for the mind games to begin. Less than 24 hours after Lions head coach Warren Gatland spoke of taking confidence from Ireland’s 40-29 victory against New Zealand in Chicago last November than the riposte arrived from counterpart Steve Hansen.
“I’m pretty happy that our guys got some confidence beating Ireland in Ireland,” Hansen said in reference to the 21-9 victory New Zealand secured in Dublin two weeks later. “You’re clutching at straws if that’s how you are selecting teams.”
Although generally complimentary about a Lions squad that he deems the best to come to New Zealand for a “long, long time”, the All Blacks’ coach could not resist throwing a few more barbs in Gatland’s direction. Even if Jamie Roberts was not selected, Hansen says he fully expects some form of “Warrenball” to be employed by the Lions while he also questioned the absence of England captain Dylan Hartley in the 41-man squad.
“There are always going to be surprises, with some people being selected and some people not being selected,” he said. “And that comes down to people’s opinions, doesn’t it? I think Hartley would have been an asset but I’m not picking the team.”
Yet the idea that the Lions coaching staff are pinning their hopes on reprising the Chicago formula was given short shrift by one of its principal architects, Andy Farrell. The Ireland and now Lions defence coach instead preferred to focus on the belief that should be garnered from the squad’s collective quality rather than past achievements.
“I think you can overplay that importance [of Chicago],” Farrell said. “I think it is about the belief as a squad, belief in your team-mate at the side of you and belief in yourself when you go out there. I think that galvanises over the first three or four weeks, and that will be the focus. If you are picked in a squad like this, and you are part of the 41, I don’t think any of them will have fear.
“It doesn’t make you have any super power that you have been involved in a side that has beaten the All Blacks because we all know on any given day, any game is different and takes its own flow.”
If any man does have knowledge of the All Blacks’ kryptonite then it is Farrell, who is the only active international coach to have recorded two victories over the world champions following on from England’s 38-21 victory in 2012. Those victories ended the All Blacks’ unbeaten runs of 18 and 20 games respectively.
On each occasion, New Zealand threatened to overturn an early deficit. At Twickenham, they rallied from 15-0 to make it 15-14. With 16 minutes to go in Chicago, they closed to 33-29. Dealing with that resurgence, when so many teams melt away, will be crucial for the Lions’ hopes of securing a first series victory since 1971.
“The common denominator I’ve seen in the couple of games we’ve been successful against the All Blacks in is having players who can deal with the flow of the game as it is unfolding in front of your face,” Farrell said. “The game will take its own shape, and they [the All Blacks] certainly will have their purple patch in all their games. It’s how we can stay on track or get back on track and get back at them.”
It is easy to be overawed by the very prospect of facing New Zealand. Those two defeats rank among four since they won the 2011 World Cup. Their record on home soil is even more formidable. Their last defeat in New Zealand came eight years ago, a run stretching back 45 games. At Eden Park, where two of the three Tests will be staged, New Zealand have not lost since 1994.
Then there is their bewitching, beguiling style that is imitated by many but mastered only by the men in black shirts. Farrell insists they will not fall into the trap of trying to match New Zealand in that department no matter how many boring jibes come their way.
“You have got to play our game. Everyone is aware of the All Blacks’ way of playing – it’s another thing stopping it,” Farrell said. “You can get obsessed with what the All Blacks are about, and everyone has been for a long period of time. You have got to play your game and understand what you are good at and how you are going to attack them with, or without, the ball.”