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The Lions have earned respect in New Zealand but they're still outsiders

The tour is back in Auckland after a whirlwind three weeks that have seen Warren Gatland’s side grow.
Jun 21st 2017, 12:01 PM 19,267 28

Murray Kinsella reports from Auckland

AND SO WE’RE back where it all started in Auckland, after a whirlwind three weeks that saw Warren Gatland and the Lions doubted, written off, mocked, acknowledged, begrudgingly accepted and now even respected.

While the media coverage of the Lions in New Zealand [well, mainly just from the New Zealand Herald] became something of a farce at one point – everything the tourists did and said was taken apart – the tune has softened slightly in more recent times.

Steve Hansen Steve Hansen at All Blacks training in Trusts Stadium in Auckland on Wednesday. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

There’s an undertone of concern in some quarters and when one speaks to genuine rugby people, there is an agreement that the Lions have the strengths to test the All Blacks in the three-Test series that starts at Eden Park on Saturday.

It must be said that those same rugby people – coaches, players, knowledgeable pundits and supporters – have been saying the same all along.

They appreciated the difficulty of bringing together a squad of players who didn’t know each other in a short space of time. They understood that jet lag and travel affected the Lions in their earliest fixtures. They knew the Lions would get better with each game.

That’s proven to be the case and while there are now some childish mutterings about the Lions’ brand of rugby being dull, it appears that we are going to get the absorbing Test series that so many of us have been craving for months.

The Lions have delivered two muscular, strangling Saturday performances in a row – as well as Tuesday’s night’s four-try win over the Chiefs – in the build-up to this first Test and with the All Blacks having warmed up by reminding us of their attacking brilliance against Samoa, the excitement levels in Auckland are set to giddy.

The last of the 20,000 or so fun-loving Lions fans arrive into New Zealand in the coming days and the Kiwis are delighted to have them. Relations off the pitch have already been festive and this could be one of the great Test series, on and off the pitch.

Still, there is a nagging doubt in the back of the mind – these All Blacks could tear the Lions apart if things bounce their way. Never before has there been as clinical a team and if the Lions aren’t cohesive, error-free and intelligent, they will lose this series 3-0.

Fortunately, the signs are that Gatland’s men can be exactly those things on Saturday, having delivered a series of increasingly convincing performances, with their set-piece, physical power, kicking game ad ability to build pressure being particularly impressive.

Warren Gatland Gatland's Lions kept their momentum rolling on Tuesday night. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“They’ve got better and better, haven’t they?” said Chiefs boss Dave Rennie after his side’s defeat to the Lions. “They’ve continually stepped up.

“Our boys worked hard and tried but we were outmuscled really and got suffocated and they did a good job.”

Like Māori All Blacks boss Colin Cooper before him, Rennie seemed just a little bit stumped about what his team could have done to beat the Lions.

Every one of the opposition coaches on this tour has said that they knew what was coming from the Lions, and the All Blacks have a perfect picture after six warm-up games, but knowing and stopping it are very different things.

Rennie is certain that the All Blacks’ set-piece will deal with the Lions onslaught more adeptly, but Gatland will certainly have some confidence that his grizzled pack of forwards can impose themselves on the Kiwis and attack their possession at source.

The tourists’ defence is perhaps the most important piece of this picture. The Lions have held the Chiefs and Crusaders tryless, while the only try conceded against the Māori All Blacks was down to an individual error.

Andy Farrell’s defence is ready to go back to the “hurt arena” it occupied in 2013, according to the Englishman, and it will certainly be a completely different challenge for the All Blacks than what they faced against Samoa.

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Asked which area the All Blacks will most need to nail against the Lions, Rennie indicated that attack coach Ian Foster is an important man.

“They [the All Blacks] will have some plans but they’re going to do it under a fair bit of heat,” said Rennie.

“They may do it differently to us. We saw most teams playing off nine against them and going around the corner and running into another wall.

Kieran Read Kieran Read will be back at number eight for the All Blacks. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

“We tried playing more off 10, prepared to give up eight or 10 metres of ground to try and get quick ball off that ruck to try and stretch them on the next one.

“But they did a good job of slowing our pill down and when we came around the corner there was still a bit of a wall there.”

At this point, Rennie turned to the Chiefs captain, Stephen Donald.

“It seemed like a really good idea at the time, eh Beaver?” continued Rennie. ”Look, I’m sure the All Blacks will have a plan and as Beaver has said, they’ve got some pretty good cattle.”

Indeed, 2011 World Cup winner Donald believes that the quality of the individuals in the All Blacks’ set-up will allow them to stretch the Lions’ defence to breaking point.

The Chiefs attempted a number of short chips in behind the onrushing defence, but they were gobbled up most of the time on Tuesday. The All Blacks are likely to attempt similar tactics but they will be doing it with better players.

We knew it was coming and the way the game unfolded we couldn’t get anything going that we wanted to, so from our point of view it was obvious that they suffocated us,” said Donald of the Lions’ linespeed.

“They saw our little nudges in behind and a couple of our little plays, but to be fair the All Blacks have got some fairly handy individuals and they’ve been planning for this for a long time and I’m pretty sure they’ve got some tricks up their sleeve too.

“For us, it was just one of those nights, plenty of effort from the boys but in the end we were beaten by a bloody good Lions team.”

And that’s the feeling all around Auckland in this Test week.

The All Blacks are deservedly the favourites for the series, with the Lions coming in as outsiders, but all around the country there has been a recognition that the hosts are taking on a bloody good side.

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Murray Kinsella

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