New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen has started the mind games ahead of the British and Irish Lions tour by conceding that Warren Gatland’s side are expected to win when they take on the All Blacks in a three-Test series this summer.
Gatland selected his 41-man squad on Wednesday who will attempt to end the Lions’ 36-year wait for a second series victory against the All Blacks, with the enlarged squad due to the rigorous 10-match schedule.
The last time the Lions took on New Zealand, Sir Clive Woodward named a 44-man squad for the 2005 tour and suffered a humbling 3-0 defeat, conceding 107 points across the three Tests. Despite increasing his allocation of players from 37 to 41 – partly due to his injury fears over Sam Warburton, Alun Wyn Jones and Conor Murray – Gatland believes that the Lions can match the All Blacks across the park, and Hansen was keen to talk up the strength of the opposition.
Giving his immediate reaction to the squad announcement, the Rugby World Cup-winning head coach not only acknowledged the Lions’ strength in depth, but also admitted that they are expected to win the series despite not doing so since 1971.
“I think this is the best British and Irish Lions team that we’ve seen come here for a long, long time,” Hansen said on Thursday. “There’s depth all the way through. That’s why people like [Dylan] Hartley and some of the Scottish boys have missed out because there’s so much depth.
“They’ve got a lot of depth right through all the positions. The locks are the same, the loosies are the same. It’s going to be a very good side and they’ll come with a lot of expectation which I think is going to be interesting to see how they cope with that…a lot more expectation than they’ve been used to, because people expect them to win.”
Hansen already has a good idea about how compatriot Gatland will set out his team, with a powerful, fast and direct game expected from the Wales national team head coach.
“It’s pretty much what you’d expect from Warren,” added Hansen. “He likes his big ball carriers in the middle of the park and his big, grunty forwards so that’s what he’s picked and I’d expect that we are going to get a similar game style to what we’ve always got whenever we’ve played a Warren Gatland team.”
But there was one aspect of Gatland’s selection that did leave Hansen a little puzzled. The absence of the England captain, Dylan Hartley, raised a flag for the Kiwi boss, who believes that his omission robs the Lions of an “asset” that they could’ve done with. Hartley has proven a fantastic leader since being named skipper by Eddie Jones in 2016, guiding England to consecutive Six Nations titles, but his form this year has seen him miss out on a place with Rory Best, Ken Owens and England understudy Jamie George selected instead.
“There’s always going to be surprises with some people being selected and some people not being selected and that comes down to people’s opinions, doesn’t it?” said Hansen. “The guy that has the last say is the guy that’s usually coaching them so…I think he would’ve been an asset but I’m not picking the team.”
Harltey was selected on Thursday by Jones to lead the England side on their tour of Argentina this summer, though Gatland would not confirm if the hooker is on his emergency reserves list should anything happen to Best, Owens or George during the next three months.