Hansen sniping away, but Gatland has to focus on the Lions' rugby

The Lions face a crucial game against the Māori today in Rotorua.

Murray Kinsella reports from Rotorua

THE ALL BLACKS gave Warren Gatland plenty of food for thought at Eden Park on Friday night, and not just on the pitch.

Steve Hansen had another pop at the Lions boss, suggesting that Gatland might not have any great surprises up his sleeve, just his arm.

On Thursday, Hansen had predicted that the Lions would call up an additional five players and the tourists are now set to do exactly that after this weekend’s Test action.

Jonathan Sexton Johnny Sexton at Friday's captain's run in Rotorua. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

While the Lions insist it was always part of the plan – and Gatland did mention it as long ago as September – the way Hansen threw it into the public sphere made it appear that he was ahead of the story, releasing information that was the Lions’ by rights.

Hansen has also had a few snipes at Gatland in relation to his style of play and although the All Blacks coach doesn’t appear to have mentioned ‘Warrenball’ directly, Gatland did seem a little put out by that discussion when it was raised in Auckland last week.

There’s quite a lot in there and Hansen even cheekily brought up memories of the ill-fated Clive Woodward-led Lions tour of New Zealand last night when asked about Gatland bringing in those reinforcements to protect his Test match 23.

With certain sections of the New Zealand media happily lapping up Hansen’s every word and whipping it into something  stronger – the New Zealand Herald is suggesting that calling up five extra players will send the tour into disharmony – it must be temping for Gatland to take the bait and bite back.

While it might be no harm for the Lions coach to do so, it must not come at the expense of a focus on the actual rugby.

Hansen clearly thinks about what he’s going to say when it comes to media dealings, but we can be certain that it is never to the detriment of preparing his players to perform at their best.

It would be easy for Gatland to be incited by Hansen’s sniping, but then the Lions boss is experienced enough to know exactly how insignificant pre-match words become if your team delivers on the pitch.

Owen Farrell Farrell is currently sidelined. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

With the All Blacks having run 12 tries past an admittedly poor Samoa team in Auckland on Friday night, the Lions have to worry about what happens on the pitch.

With that in mind, today’s meeting with the Māori All Blacks in Rotorua [KO 8.35am Irish time, Sky Sport] is of huge importance, a week out from the opening Test against Hansen’s side.

The loss of Owen Farrell to injury is poorly-timed, given that it was likely we would have seen himself and Johnny Sexton partnering again in their promising 10-12 combination at some point in the game.

Interestingly, Hansen thinks that is the big surprise Gatland has been attempting to hold back for the Test series. How fascinating it would be if Farrell proves to be fit and lines out alongside Sexton next weekend.

For today, Sexton will steer the Lions’ ship at 10 and there is the core of the Test team around him. The front row of Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Tadhg Furlong has skill, energy, form and power, while George Kruis is the important lineout leader at lock.

Maro Itoje starts, but he could end up as an impact replacement behind Alun Wyn Jones for the Tests, while Sean O’Brien, captain Peter O’Mahony and Taulupe Faletau make up a balanced back row.

Conor Murray and Sexton are now the favourites to start the first Test as the Lions’ halfbacks, while the back three positions are George North, Anthony Watson and Leigh Halfpenny’s to lose.

A view of the team huddle as Jonathan Sexton talks Sexton speaks to the team in Rotorua. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Midfield remains the big question and today sees Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies pair up in their efforts to convince Gatland. Who knows what part Farrell might play yet.

A convincing performance and a win for the Lions would bring their rugby prowess back into focus, but victory for this revved-up and proud Māori side would only give Hansen and his media disciples more ammunition to take pot shots in the week before the first Test.

Māori All Blacks:

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15. James Lowe
14. Nehe Milner-Skudder
13. Matt Proctor
12. Charlie Ngatai
11. Rieko Ioane
10. Damian McKenzie
9. Tawera Kerr-Barlow

1. Kane Hames
2. Ash Dixon (captain)
3. Ben May
4. Joe Wheeler
5. Tom Franklin
6. Akira Ioane
7. Elliot Dixon
8. Liam Messam


16. Hika Elliot
17. Chris Eves
18. Marcel Renata
19. Leighton Price
20. Kara Pryor
21. Bryn Hall
22. Ihaia West
23. Rob Thomson


15. Leigh Halfpenny
14. Anthony Watson
13. Jonathan Davies
12. Ben Te’o
11. George North
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Conor Murray

1. Mako Vunipola
2. Jamie George
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Maro Itoje
5. George Kruis
6. Peter O’Mahony (captain)
7. Sean O’Brien
8. Taulupe Faletau


16. Ken Owens
17. Jack McGrath
18. Kyle Sinckler
19. Iain Henderson
20. Sam Warburton
21. Greig Laidlaw
22. Dan Biggar
23. Elliot Daly

Referee: Jaco Peyper [SARU].

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Murray Kinsella

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