Warren Gatland answered a number of questions with the unveiling of his British and Irish Lions squad to tour New Zealand, but he now faces a much simpler one: can his side beat the All Blacks?
“That's kind of the challenge, isn't it? As coaches, you're trying to deliver that message sometimes when you're playing the All Blacks about confidence and self-belief,” Gatland said after announcing a 41-man squad to take on the world champions. “You're not too sure when you get that glazed look from the players if they honestly believe that.”
But at least he knows that when he speaks to his players when they first meet up next month, he will be addressing 16 players who know what it takes to win on a Lions tour, having been part of his successful 2013 squad. What he will want to see from the other 25 that he has selected is not “that glazed look”, but one that knows they can defeat the best national team on the planet.
“One of the disappointments of 2013 is that there were two or three players who were just happy to be on tour and who didn't compete,” adds Gatland. “But looking at this squad, everyone will be thinking they're good enough and they have a good chance of starting as number one in the Test matches.”
And so to the squad. Is it good enough to defeat the All Blacks? Six of The Independent’s starting Lions XV have never toured with the Lions before, while a further two players are yet to win a Test cap for the side. But there’s no doubting that the talent in the squad can rival New Zealand – who actually lost to a number of these players in the 40-29 defeat by Ireland in Chicago last October.
Gatland has some of the world’s best second-row operators at his disposal, while the back-row looks none too shabby either, while behind the pack, the talents of Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell, should they be deployed together, could unlock the potential in wide men such as Anthony Watson, George North and Stuart Hogg.
But the head coach was keen to pick two key areas that suggest the Lions genuinely can beat the All Blacks for the first time since the famous 1971 tour. 10 other Lions sides have tried to conquer New Zealand and all 10 have fallen by the wayside.
“Looking at the squad, the point of difference is maybe our goalkicking, I think we’ve got four or five of the world’s best goal kickers going with us and if we’re going to have an edge somewhere it could be in that area,” Gatland said.
Sexton and Farrell were among the two most consistent goalkickers in the recent Six Nations championship, while Leigh Halfpenny’s reliability goes before him. Wales fly-half Dan Biggar is no slouch from the tee either, and if there is an area where the Lions could put the boot in, it looks like it will be whenever the All Blacks fall foul of the referee.
“Beauden Barrett is not kicking at the moment, his brother is for the Hurricanes and it may be the difference,” adds Gatland. The second may not be an advantage, but he believes that his front-row and second-row options can rival their opposite numbers in black, and not just when it comes to the set-piece.
“You’re trying to find areas where you’re going to have an advantage and New Zealand always feel that their difference between the rest of the world is their tight five and their ability of the tight five in terms of ball handling.
“We feel we’ve got a tight five that can match them, we feel we’ve got a tight five who are going to be excellent at the set-piece in terms of scrums and lineouts, but also have got the ability to get around the park and have got some good hands and strong ball carrying ability as well and the other thing is the ability to match them off the bench, and sometimes the Celtic nations can’t do that and struggle in that area and we feel we’ve got the players who can come off the bench and have a massive impact too.”
Which brings us back to the original question: can the Lions beat the All Blacks? Yes, as this is sport and Ireland have already proven that anything can happen when two sets of supremely talented players step onto the pitch, along with the fact that they managed to beat two sides who were making history. But it will be tough, as the Lions’ record in New Zealand proves, and they will need every part of their game to click, from the tight five, to kicking at goal, to being lucky with the inevitable injuries, to conquer the All Blacks.