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Dublin: 10 °C Monday 17 June, 2019

Finally, the rugby can do the real talking on this Lions tour

Warren Gatland and Steve Hansen have an intriguing tactical battle ahead.

Murray Kinsella reports from Wellington

ANOTHER QUIET DAY on the Lions tour.

First we had Robbie Henshaw and George North ruled out of the remainder due to injury, then Steve Hansen criticising the New Zealand Herald for their clown treatment of Warren Gatland and sharing his respect for the Lions boss.

Warren Gatland It was a busy day for Warren Gatland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Next up was Peter O’Mahony’s fall from grace and Gatland’s decision to go with Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell for the second Test. The All Blacks ruled Ben Smith out of the rest of the series due to his concussion problems, and there was still time for the New Zealand media to suggest that Mako Vunipola had been busy off the ball in the first Test.

Teams named, controversy out of the way, we can now look forward to what should be one of the most fascinating Test matches of this decade.

The Lions are in make-or-break territory, trailing 1-0 in this series. Win in Wellington on Saturday and they will bring major momentum into the final Test in Auckland. Lose and they face a miserable week before the prospect of being whitewashed at Eden Park.

Ahead of the second Test at what is expected to be a wet and windy Westpac Stadium, the tactical side of this game is intriguing.

The All Blacks went direct first time around, targeting the Lions around the fringes of the rucks and getting great returns from strong ball-carrying, intelligent decision-making and lightning-quick ruck ball.

For the second meeting, the Lions aren’t exactly sure what way Hansen’s side will set up as they look to negate the tourists’ aggressive linespeed.

“We have got to stop their momentum off nine,” said Gatland, “but they may come with a different plan. They may look to throw the ball around, they may plan to kick the ball a bit more and we have got to be ready for that.

“If you want to stop linespeed you can do it in a couple of ways. You can either do it by coming hard off nine which stops your linespeed out wide, or you attack close and go back up the short side, or use a kicking strategy.

British and Irish Lions team huddle during the training The Lions trained in Wellington today. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“They have gone about it one way, they may come with a different plan on Saturday and we have got to be prepared for that. We have worked hard on all three scenarios at how they might come at us and we are prepared.”

Hansen was unsurprisingly giving away few clues as to how the All Blacks would look to pick the Lions apart this time, but he did point to the Kiwis’ ability to threaten in more ways than one.

“He [Gatland] is going to second-guess what we do, so are we going to play off nine again,” said Hansen, “and then we have to second-guess if we play off nine, are they going to shut that door, and if they shut the door, what other door have they just opened?

“You can’t do everything. That’s the beautiful thing about our game – it’s all about space.

“And if you can find it, then you are in business. First of all, you have got to go forward and there is going to be a tremendous battle there because they will be a little wounded from last time out and they will want to prove a point.”

Continuing the theme of this fascinating tactical battle, Hansen rolled out his classic phrase – the one piece of advice from his father, Des, also a rugby coach, he cherishes more than any other.

“A lot of what we do is based on what the opposition will do,” said Hansen. “It’s a principle I learned a long time ago as a young player off my father – the opposition give you all the options from what they do on defence, and that hasn’t changed.

“They will want to be a lot more competitive in the breakdown. That will force some thinking in their camp. This is why coaches love coaching and players love playing, because it is cut and thrust. It’s about reacting and adapting.

Beauden Barrett Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“How they use their team to defend and what type of defence they use will depend on what we do. We can assume some things, believe nothing, and then when we get out there we will confirm it.”

The All Blacks are, of course, the most dangerous beast in Test rugby but they themselves provide an indicator of how far wounded pride can drive teams.

Ireland turned them over in Chicago in November, winning the physical battle, but the All Blacks bounced back in the return clash in Dublin in utterly ferocious fashion, battering Joe Schmidt’s side into submission.

Hansen understands that a similar backlash may be on the cards for his side in Wellington unless they can go to another level of physicality themselves.

“Quality teams don’t lie down,” said the All Blacks boss, “they stand up and get counted. Losing hurts, it sucks. It’s not a great idea, and it comes with a lot of pain, so you don’t want to do it, especially when you are a quality team, because you are not used to it.

“I think they will come with everything they’ve got, and we need to be prepared for that and bring everything we’ve got to match it.”

And from all the signs Gatland has seen this week, the Lions will bring a response.

“We know the series is on the line,” he said. “The players have spoken about it being the biggest match of their careers.”

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Murray Kinsella

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