IN HIS ROLE as Lions head coach, Warren Gatland will arrive in Chicago later in the week with the hope of ticking two boxes off on his scouting report ahead of next summer’s tour.
His trip to Solider Field serves two purposes; to run the rule over the All Blacks and, more importantly, cast his eye over a number of Ireland players in the much-anticipated Test match.
While the 2017 tour of New Zealand remains a distant thought, yesterday’s jersey launch marks the start of the final countdown for Gatland and his staff ahead of the daunting series against the world champions.
Saturday’s Test provides him with the opportunity to see how Steve Hansen’s side fare against northern hemisphere opposition and how Ireland front up to the stiffest of challenges in world sport.
Ahead of the game, Gatland, a former Ireland head coach, has given a clear indication that Joe Schmidt’s players have a chance to stake a claim for Lions selection over the two fixtures against the All Blacks.
“There’s a couple of things that are positive from a Lions point of view,” he said, when asked if the Irish players were at an advantage for selection given they play the All Blacks twice this Autumn.
“The Welsh boys have gone in the summer so it’s been a good experience for them. It’s great that Ireland is the only northern hemisphere team [of England, Scotland and Wales] to play the All Blacks from a Lions perspective; that’s a huge bonus and huge opportunity for those Irish players to step up and stake a claim basically in terms of a performance against the All Blacks.
“The other thing that’s quite good is that the All Blacks don’t get the opportunity to play the other three nations which potentially leaves them a little bit cold after the November series. The next game the All Blacks are going to play is the first Test against the Lions next year.
“I just really hope the Irish boys do do really well because they have done well against southern hemisphere teams in recent years and it’s a big game in Chicago. There will be a huge amount of Irish support for them going there and then they obviously come back and they’ve a game in Dublin and that’s another massive game.
“If you come out of that as a player and you’ve done really well, the first thing that I’m going to do as a coach is look at that and put a big tick next to your name. I’ll remember that.
“I think both tournaments are a little bit different. The Autumn is a step up but the Six Nations is the bread and butter, our competition, and the players need to perform there and definitely from an Irish point of view if those players do perform over those two games then I’m definitely going to take notice of that.”
Gatland’s decision to step away from his role as Welsh head coach to concentrate on the Lions job means he has the opportunity to take in as many games over the November Test match schedule as possible.
He very nearly masterminded the downfall of New Zealand back in June, with Wales giving the All Blacks a run for their money on two occasions before eventually falling away in the closing stages.
In the first Test at Eden Park, Wales matched the hosts for large parts and were in with a realistic chance of a historic victory before the All Blacks powered through the final quarter.
Similarly, a dominant second-half performance in the second Test ensured Hansen’s men avoided a slip-up — but Gatland knows what it takes to be competitive against the All Blacks.
“We experienced being right in the game for the first 60 minutes,” he explained.
“In the first Test we should have scored before half time and that would have given us a lead. Argentina have done well against them for 60 minutes.
“What we found is definitely the All Blacks have taken the game to another level. What we found is the GPS numbers from the World Cup to the Six Nations increased by 30 per cent. That’s something I haven’t experienced before.
“The Irish players are going to be aware that this is going to be a pretty tough physical encounter. Not just the 15 but the 23. One of the things the All Blacks do is they make changes early in the second half. It’s pretty much a 23 man squad for them.”
It’s a simple question with a hard answer; what does Joe Schmidt need to do to nullify the threat of the All Blacks and, at the same time, offer enough attacking threat to win the game?
“They should have won that game in Dublin I was there that day,” Gatland adds. “It’s going to happen at some stage and it probably should have happened a few years ago. As Irish players you want to get that bogey off your back and as an All Black you don’t want to be part of that team that loses to Ireland.
“People have had different approaches. In June when we were down in New Zealand we went out and tried to be as positive as we could and move the ball a lot and in the first two Tests we scored five tries. No one else has been able to do that against the All Blacks and Argentina I thought had some success against the All Blacks by being directed around the fringes.
“From Joe’s perspective, it’s getting the balance right isn’t it? You want to play a little bit of heads up but at times you have to be smart about the way you play. You have to go forward against the All Blacks and they get you to the wide channels and they’re counter-rucking and they come off really hard off the line defensively and sometimes we talk about earning the right to go wide by getting on the front foot and I think Joe will be aware of that but you have to be smart in terms of playing territory with them.
“It’s going to be tough. The thing about it is the Irish can go there as under dogs. Hopefully there will be external stuff from the All Blacks in terms of off field engagements and a bit of sightseeing, AIG wanting them to be involved in different things.
“The Irish are going definitely as under dogs and hopefully they can catch the All Blacks a little off guard.”
Canterbury has unveiled the new ‘untouchable’ British & Irish Lions Jersey by projecting a hologram into the London skyline yesterday evening. Canterbury’s innovative stunt on the Southbank marked the launch of the official jersey that will be worn by the British & Irish Lions players in the highly anticipated 2017 Tour to New Zealand.
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