Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership

Become A Member
Dublin: 7°C Thursday 24 September 2020

Bring on the battles! Gatland's Lions set off for demanding New Zealand tour

The Lions squad left London this afternoon, with a gruelling 10-game tour ahead of them.

THE LIONS SET off from London at around 1.30pm today, but they’re not heading straight to New Zealand.

They have decided stop into Australia for a night along the way, meaning Warren Gatland’s men won’t actually land into New Zealand until Wednesday lunchtime, locally speaking.

Conor Murray and Jonathan Davies Conor Murray and Jonathan Davies set for take-off from London. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Their first game comes swiftly, with the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians awaiting them in Whangerai, the country’s northernmost city, on Saturday night. The Barbarians will provide the weakest opposition of this 10-game tour but even still it’s a tough ask.

From there, the games come thick and fast – Wednesday, Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday, Tuesday, the first Test, Tuesday, the second Test and then finally a week before the final Test in Auckland.

Don’t forget that the 41-man squad have to find time to train, analyse, and bond as a collective in between those game-day demands, while also shifting from Auckland to Whangerai to Auckland to Christchurch to Dunedin to Rotorua to Hamilton to Auckland to Wellington to Queensland to Auckland.

Even before leading, Gatland had already lost perhaps the one player he would have been most desperate to avoid losing in Billy Vunipola, while scrum-half Ben Youngs has also withdrawn.

The likes of Conor Murray, CJ Stander, Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams, Peter O’Mahony, Jack Nowell, James Haskell and Leigh Halfpenny only joined the squad yesterday morning, so their delayed Lions eduction is quite possibly continuing on their flight to Australia.

Did we mention that the All Blacks are the best team in the world and the New Zealand Super Rugby franchises are in scintillating form? That these Kiwi players have been looking forward to getting stuck into the Lions for years now?

So, lots of reasons to be pessimistic about the latest Lions tour, four years after Gatland guided them to success in Australia against what was a relatively weak Wallabies squad.

Assertions that this is the toughest Lions tour ever are hard to argue with.

Anthony Watson, George North, Ben T'eo, Elliot Daly, Jack Nowell and Stuart Hogg pose for a picture Stuart Hogg gets a quick selfie. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Why even bother heading to New Zealand? Well, a bonanza of money is one prime reason, of course, but the vast majority of players and coaches en route down under won’t be thinking about this trip in that way.

Gatland has brought an extremely talented squad of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh players to New Zealand with him and the sheer quality of the players – even if New Zealand can say the same – is one reason to be optimistic.

Be part
of the team

Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership.

Become a Member

From Maro Itoje’s sensational athleticism and competitiveness, Tadhg Furlong’s eye-opening skillset and mobility, Owen Farrell’s controlling intelligence, and Sam Warburton’s robust breakdown skills to Conor Murray’s composure and physicality, Robbie Henshaw’s dynamism and work rate, and Stuart Hogg’s footwork and flair, this squad is littered with brilliant individuals.

The predicted strengths of the Lions – defensive intelligence, kicking and chasing class, maul power, lineout decision-making, scrum aggression, and bloody-minded determination – should balance out some of New Zealand’s strengths.

Ireland showed that the Kiwis are not unbeatable in Chicago last year, particularly when missing key players. Although Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock are now fit, the likes of Dane Coles, Kieran Read, Jerome Kaino and Beauden Barrett have had or are having injury issues at present.

Perhaps the biggest concern for the Lions on the pitch is how brilliant New Zealand are in the transitions between defence and attack, but Northern Hemisphere teams like Saracens and England have shown that they are increasingly comfortable in managing those situations in recent times.

Gatland and his coaches, particularly Andy Farrell, will surely have been spending huge amounts of time on that area. In attack, the Scarlets have shown in recent weeks that Northern Hemisphere teams can also end games in a flash with that kind of rapid attacking incision.

Stuart Hogg and Jonathan Sexton Stuart Hogg and Johnny Sexton get ready for the flight this afternoon. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Head coach Gatland seems to be agitate many rugby supporters, but his record is that of a winner.

Perhaps of most relevance for this tour is the fact that Gatland understands the importance of bringing a group of players together in a genuine way, having learned from Ian McGeechan on the 2009 tour of South Africa.

There won’t ever be Lions tours like those in the amateur days or even 1997, but Gatland will be placing a premium on his players working hard together and also being given the freedom to let their hair down together at crucial times.

There is a whole lot of nonsense and overhype that goes along with the Lions in this day and age – the stuffed toy lion named BIL must go – but there is also a hell of a lot of fun and intrigue.

The 2017 crop aren’t being given much of a chance in most quarters, but Gatland and his players will be loving that fact.

Bring on the battles.

The42 is on Instagram! Tap the button below on your phone to follow us!

‘Hopefully, it’s a bit of blueprint for other teams because it’s an attractive style’

Huge markers laid down as Ireland beat England and Fiji in 7s

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

Read next: