Touring New Zealand is rugby union’s equivalent of climbing Everest. As the Lions start to prepare for their latest assault, having barely got beyond base camp on their last visit 12 years ago, the scale of the ascent can be measured in two statistics: one series won out of 11 and six victories in 38 Tests.
On the 2005 tour, which was planned with military precision, the Lions faced provincial teams in the buildup to the Test series, but this summer they face all five of New Zealand’s Super Rugby franchises, along with the Maori All Blacks, in an itinerary the former New Zealand head coach Graham Henry, who spearheaded the Lions’ trip to Australia in 2001 and four years later was in charge of the All Blacks, has described as suicidal.
On their last two tours the Lions were infrequently stretched in the buildup and a reason why they have opted for four more players in the squad this year is not so much the desire for bodies on the ground with the attrition rate likely to be high but to ensure they have numbers in training to allow opposed sessions where they will try out combinations and tactics away from New Zealand eyes.
The Lions are taking 41 players but more are likely to return home, with the tourists set to call on players from the four home unions once their tours have finished: England play their second and final Test in Argentina one week before the Lions start their series on a day when Wales, Scotland and Ireland finish in Samoa, Fiji and Japan respectively. The likes of Dylan Hartley, Joe Launchbury, Chris Robshaw, James Haskell, George Ford, Scott Williams, Garry Ringrose, Simon Zebo and the Gray brothers may not have been the names read out last Wednesday but the Lions are keen that the 23 players earmarked for the first and second Tests are able to have a full week’s training and not be involved in the midweek matches against the Chiefs and the Hurricanes.
“When you look at the schedule, it determined how many players we picked because we wanted to have numbers in training,” said the Lions’ attack coach, Rob Howley. “There are always injuries on a Lions tour – seven last time – and we need numbers to train against each other to find out about combinations without showing anything to New Zealand. Training will be key. With 19 backs, we can have two sets against each other in training and look at the permutations in private. That will be really important because there is so much versatility in the squad.”
The Lions are not naming a standby list because all the players who would be on it will be touring with their countries. Wales are in New Zealand the week before the first Test when they play Tonga in a warm-up to the match between New Zealand and Samoa that has been hastily arranged to give the All Blacks match practice against a side that will go into the series battle-hardened. In recent years they have started from cold in series against Wales, England and France.
The New Zealand head coach, Steve Hansen, disagreed with the notion of Henry, his former boss, that the Lions were on a suicide mission. “We have got good rugby teams and I am not sure why everyone’s so surprised it’s going to be a tough tour,” he said. “Warren Gatland would have approved that. If you are going to come to New Zealand, you are going to play against good rugby players.”
On their last two tours Australia and South Africa did not release their Test players for the warm-up matches, with the exception of the Springboks’ flanker Heinrich Brüssow, who played for Free State in 2009, but the first two Super Rugby teams the Lions face, the Blues and the Crusaders, may have some current All Blacks whose appearances in the tournament this year have been rationed because of the Test series. That could mean the involvement of Sonny Bill Williams, Jerome Kaino, Beauden Barrett, the New Zealand captain Kieran Read, Ryan Crotty and Israel Dagg, a call that will be down to Hansen. Gatland wants the warm-up opposition to be strong and as a player he was part of the Waikato team that thrashed the Lions’ midweek side in 1993, scoring a try at the end of the rout.
“I am delighted at how tough the schedule is,” said Gatland. “It will be interesting afterwards to see just how tough these games were but I know in 2009 [in South Africa] we were underdone before the first Test and went into it thinking we were going better than we were. We had not been tested enough and a few of the games in Australia four years ago were too easy. My hope this time is that the quality of the opposition will prepare us for the first Test, a game you have to win if you are going to succeed in New Zealand. It will mean protecting as many of the 23 [for that game] as we can and give them a good week’s preparation and we may look at bringing in one or two players who are on tour with their national teams for the midweek game then against the Chiefs.”
The Lions play their first match three days after arriving in New Zealand, one week after the Premiership and Pro 12 finals. “That is a massive challenge for us,” said Gatland. “It was not until I left New Zealand that I realised how tough a country it is to tour and play them in their own backyard. We have to be prepared.”
The Lions have two training camps in Cardiff and Dublin before they leave for New Zealand but, with club competitions at the play-off stage, they will not be fully attended, leaving Gatland and his coaches with little time to work on their game plan. “It’s very much a Gats-type team, using the big ball carriers up front and the midfielders to carry,” said Hansen. “The selections reflect that.”
Warrenball did for Australia four years ago but it will be the third generation version this summer. “We will create our own style and it has to be a balance between power and pace,” said Howley. “We are not going to win by being defensive: we have to go out and attack because we will need to score tries to win the series. It will be a northern hemisphere style and we cannot allow New Zealand to dictate the landscape. We will need to be able to play in different ways and change up our game and, when you look at the quality and experience we have in the squad, the options are mouthwatering.”