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'They'll be under big pressure to live up to what happened 12 years ago'

There’s a game to come on Tuesday in Hamilton but this is very much Test week for the Lions.

Murray Kinsella reports from Hamilton

THE PLAYERS INVOLVED on Tuesday against the Chiefs will front up and they certainly have something to play for, with injuries likely in the coming weeks, but there is little doubt that things now move into Test mode in New Zealand.

The Lions’ first clash with the All Blacks is just six days away and after all the nervous build-up, it looks like we will have a competitive series on our hands.

Warren Gatland Gatland struck back at Steve Hansen last night. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Steve Hansen’s Kiwis remain the favourites on home soil, particularly with two Test in fortress Eden Park, but the Lions feel they sent out a message on Saturday night in Rotorua as they dismantled the Māori All Blacks.

Warren Gatland’s side were superb up front, utterly dominating the lineout, scrum and maul, while their kicking game and ability to build pressure on the Māori were highly impressive in the rain at Rotorua International Stadium.

Hansen’s All Blacks had shown their class on Friday by scoring 12 tries in a 78-0 win over Samoa on Monday, when they underlined that the Lions simply cannot turn over possession cheaply or stutter in their kick chase. The Kiwis are ruthless in those transitions.

And so it is that we will have a beautiful clash of styles, with the Lions’ muscular strengths looking to bring down the All Blacks’ catch-pass and basic skill brilliance. That is a simplistic view, of course, but there is fascination in the contrasts.

Having underlined that they have the quality to at least compete, the Lions felt they had challenged the narrative of a dominant All Blacks series success, with out-half Johnny Sexton stating that Hansen’s side will now be feeling the pressure.

“This is the biggest challenge in rugby to take the All Blacks on in Eden Park. They haven’t lost there in however many years and it’s something you have to get excited about,” said the Ireland out-half, who was superb in Rotorua.

“It’s a huge opportunity that doesn’t come by very often, there’s been legends of New Zealand who have never played the Lions and they’ll be well aware of that.

“I’m sure they’ll be under big pressure with the expectation of trying to live up to what happened 12 years ago and it’s a rugby-mad country, so the pressure is on.”

Jonathan Sexton after the game Sexton was superb in Rotorua. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It has been positive to hear the Lions firing off a few shots of their own, and Gatland certainly came out swinging after his side’s 32-10 win over the Māori, suggesting that Hansen has only been sniping at him because he’s worried about the Lions.

Watch this space, because the head-to-head between the coaches is likely to continue throughout the week. It all adds to the fun of the build-up, so what harm?

For most of the Lions players, staying out of the 23 for Tuesday’s clash with the Chiefs was a goal, given that it would vastly reduce their prospects of featuring in the first Test.

Gatland has repeatedly stated his plan to protect his Test squad from this fixture in Hamilton, meaning that the Irish quintet of Rory Best, Iain Henderson, Robbie Henshaw, CJ Stander and Jared Payne must have felt some disappointment to have been named to start.

“I know it’s four days out from a Test game, so you have to look at it realistically,” said Henshaw. “There’s still an opportunity there for me hopefully down the line, but playing a game four days out from a Test it’s unlikely that I’ll be in the starting 15.

“Someone could go down in training during the week, so you always have to be on your toes. Certainly down the line, it’s an opportunity for players, including myself, to be in the mix come the second and third Test.”

Predicting the Lions’ Test 23 naturally got a whole lot easier with the naming of the side to face the Chiefs, although there are still a few starting positions to be decided.

“We’re still not confirmed in a number of the combinations and finalising what we want in the second row, back row, the back three and the midfield too,” said Gatland. “There’s a great opportunity for players to play for spots.”

Intriguingly, Gatland intimated that Owen Farrell is firmly in the mix despite his quad strain.

Owen Farrell Farrell may make it back for the first Test. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I was always confident about Owen being fit,” said Gatland. “I was never not confident.”

It opens up intriguing possibilities in the midfield, with Ben Te’o, Jonathan Davies and Jonathan Joseph all held back from involvement against the Chiefs, while Sexton is the other out-half option. Gatland has got options.

In the second row, Maro Itoje looks to have edged ahead of Alun Wyn Jones, although Gatland said the Wales lock may not even be used after he was named on the bench for the Chiefs clash.

Leigh Halfpenny is a slight doubt for Test one, having showed concussive symptoms after the Māori clash, but he did not fail a HIA and the Lions are positive about him completing all protocols this week.

All in all, the Lions are looking in fine health to give the All Blacks a good rattle. The controversy of the six new call-ups will continue as they come off the bench against the Chiefs, of course, but Gatland has already moved on.

Some of the Lions’ fans may have turned against him over that affair, but at least Gatland can call on home comforts in the next couple of days on his native Hamilton soil.

“If you cut me open I’d probably bleed red, yellow and black [the Waikato colours]. I’m proud of my roots and it’s a great place to have grown up, gone to school here and played for Waikato.

“What I love about the Waikato people is they are incredibly loyal. The amount of support that I’ve had personally has been amazing.”

With the first Test looming, it might be the last bit of Kiwi support Gatland gets.

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Murray Kinsella

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