Murray Kinsella reports from Auckland
1971 WAS AN influential year for both Warren Gatland and Steve Hansen.
Gatland was almost eight at the time, a whippersnapper from Hamilton who thought the All Blacks were unbeatable. Hansen was a 12-year-old from Otago, destined for greater things with Canterbury as a player and then the All Blacks as a coach.
Both of them remember the Lions’ visit to New Zealand that year on what remains the only successful tour of their 11 trips to this part of the world.
“The first Test I ever saw was in Carisbrook in ’71,” says Hansen. “I was only a little kid – if you can imagine me being little – and it was awesome.
“I was right up the front by the fence and I overhead Sandy Carmichael saying to Colin Meads, ‘How do you like that scrummaging, boyo?’
“Meads said, ‘Yeah, not too bad, but we just scored a try’. I enjoyed that. Those are things that you keep with you.”
81-year-old Meads, or ‘Pinetree’ as he is known in New Zealand, had a statue in his honour unveiled this week in his hometown of Te Kuiti and 1971 was at the tail end of his extraordinary career with the All Blacks.
But he was on the losing side in that famous Test series, as the likes of JPR Williams, Gareth Edwards, Mike Gibson, Willie John McBride, Fergus Slattery and Barry John left their mark on New Zealand, and on a young Gatland.
“I thought rugby was invented in New Zealand growing up,” says the Lions boss. “I didn’t think the All Blacks could ever be beaten.
“It did have a big impact on me, it was the first time I realised the game was played in other parts of the world.”
And it sparked in Gatland an awe for what the Lions were all about, a love for the tourists that still exists today as he leads them on their latest quest to repeat the feats of 1971.
“I am incredibly passionate about the Lions,” says Gatland. “I think it’s something we need to protect for the future.”
Hansen is in total agreement. As well as that first Test in 1971, the All Blacks head coach recalls meeting the 1977 Lions when Fran Cotton, Phil Bennett and the rest of the squad visited his school, Christchurch Boys High.
“Those things don’t normally happen,” says Hansen. “It would be a real shame if we ever lose the Lions.”
One thing that will help seal the future of the Lions is a brilliant Test series over the next three weekends, and everything is shaping up to ensure that we see exactly that.
With both coaches having named their match day 23s for the first Test, the anticipation has only risen, particularly with surprises coming in both selections.
Ryan Crotty returns in the All Blacks’ midfield at the expense of Anton Lienert-Brown and Hansen has opted to give 20-year-old Rieko Ioane his first start on the left wing, with the incredibly prolific Julian Savea dropped from the squad altogether.
Ioane has undeniable attacking quality, as he showed for the Blues against the Lions, but he looked naive at times for the Māori All Blacks last weekend in Rotorua.
“We were surprised by Crotty being selected at 13 and Savea, who has been a constant for them, being replaced,” says Gatland. “I know how good Ioane is, but this is a big game for everyone.”
Gatland also says he is “not sure looking at their bench that it is as strong as it has been in the past,” although the likes of TJ Perenara, Ardie Savea, Aaron Cruden, Scott Barrett and Lienert-Brown will be keen to show him otherwise.
As for the Lions’ team – their selection meeting on Wednesday lasted close to an hour and a half – Liam Williams is a surprise pick at fullback, while Elliot Daly gets the nod on the left wing in place of George North, but it’s the exclusion of Maro Itoje in the second row that has caused the only sustained negative reaction from Lions fans.
Alun Wyn Jones is the man to benefit and Gatland is putting some pressure on the Wales lock to reward his faith.
“He knows himself it was a big call between him and Maro – it was a toss of a coin – and he knows he is under pressure,” says the Lions head coach. “He knows he has to go out and perform and give a big performance personally.”
Gatland is certain that his bench can give the kind of impact the Lions will need, with the “explosive” Itoje sure to be a major part of that.
Leigh Halfpenny is a questionable choice as the 23rd man – Gatland says the fullback hasn’t trained a huge amount this week due to a groin issue and his return-to-play protocols for a head injury – but again there is faith in the player.
“We have spoken about being bold and playing rugby here, but Leigh has the qualities where he doesn’t really make a mistake.”
Sean O’Brien gets the nod at openside as expected, with Gatland citing the Irishman’s ability over the breakdown and his ball-carrying as important, while he lauded inside centre Ben Te’o's ability to beat defenders as one of the reasons he starts “on merit.”
But it is Williams and Daly in the back three that tell us most about Gatland’s intent to genuinely ask his players to be “courageous” in attack against the All Blacks this weekend.
The Welshman was excellent on kick return versus the Chiefs on Tuesday, and he adds vastly to the attacking repertoire the Lions bring into the first Test.
“We saw last year that he caused the All Blacks problems with his running and attacking game [on Wales' tour] and when we sat down on Wednesday, we asked whether we need to look at our back three, and have players who have some footwork and to play some rugby,” says Gatland.
As for Daly, the Lions coach lauded him as an intelligent player who learns quickly and who showed on Tuesday in Hamilton that he could be a point of difference.
“That run down the sideline where he threw the inside pass [before Jack Nowell's second try], there aren’t many who can do that. He just put the gas on and passed inside. I’m not sure every player in the squad has the ability to do that.”
And so, Gatland is content that the Lions have settled on a team that not only provides the set-piece strength and kicking quality that we knew would be important in New Zealand, but also attacking flair.
Now the Lions boss expects to see what is a happy group of players unleash everything on the All Blacks at fortress Eden Park, where the Kiwis haven’t lost since 1994.
And already, the Lions are thinking about a second Test.
“We even spoke as coaches too that if we win on Saturday night, then you get a different animal of All Black nature arriving next week and we will be then be looking to potentially make a few changes for week two.
“Just because a team wins on Saturday doesn’t mean it automatically gets selected for the following week and that could be changes up front because you saw what happened from Chicago to Dublin the following week.”
Gatland is keeping everyone on their toes and it bodes well for a ferocious Lions challenge.
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