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'I want them to express themselves' - Gatland backs Lions to bring x-factor
The Lions boss has split the tour into two parts in his planning.

Murray Kinsella reports from Auckland

WARREN GATLAND HAS split this Lions tour into two parts in his planning.

There’s everything up to the clash with the Māori All Blacks in Rotorua on 17 June, then there’s everything including and following that game.

The likelihood is that Gatland’s favoured Test side will start that fixture, a week out from the first clash with the All Blacks at Eden Park on 24 June.

Head Coach Warren Gatland during the press conference Billy Stickland / INPHO Gatland is hoping to see his players opening up. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

While the games before that will provide stern tests of the Lions’ strength, the truly decisive work begins with the Māori. There will be an influx of tens of thousands of Lions supporters for that second part of the tour too, the camper vans hitting the road.

The first part of the Lions tour kicks into gear on Saturday in Whangerai, when the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians provide the opposition for what will be the visitors’ most straightforward contest.

While the weather is set to be nasty and the Barbarians will be amped up for their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Gatland understands the need for his team to begin with a statement.

“The statement, first of all, is a win,” said Gatland on Thursday afternoon in New Zealand. “In 2009, we struggled in that first game. It will be hard on these players and the weather will play a part. We will go out there and give a good performance.

“They will be hugely up for it and have half a dozen players who are involved in Super Rugby squads. A large proportion of them are coming out of club rugby so probably haven’t played at a high intensity for a few months, so we have to play with tempo and put them under pressure.

“It’s about us concentrating on ourselves and setting down a marker for us to build on for Wednesday [against the Blues] and through to the Crusaders [on Saturday week]. It is an important week, this first one.

“I want the players to put us coaches under pressure and make the job difficult for us in terms of selection and who we are going to pick when it comes to the first Test.”

Chief among the players who will understand the need to make a strong early impression is Johnny Sexton, who starts in the 10 shirt on Saturday but knows he is under pressure from Owen Farrell.

The forwards in a team huddle Dan Sheridan / INPHO The Lions trained at North Harbour's QBE Stadium on Thursday. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“He’s been great,” said Gatland of Sexton. “He knows he’s under… he knows he needs to get some games under his belt. He knows that the competition is pretty fierce in that position, but he’s a competitor and that’s what has made him one of the best 10s in world rugby. I’ve got no doubt he’d want a good performance from himself on Saturday.

“He’s got some exciting players around him in terms of forwards and some pace in the backline. Hopefully, with his skillset, he’s able to put players in holes and create some space and cause the opposition some headaches.”

Sexton will kick the goals for the Lions as they look to start their tour with a comprehensive performance, while we will also get a first chance to see how Gatland is setting his team up to play.

Steve Hansen has already suggested that the All Blacks feel they know what is coming – direct and physical rugby – but Gatland says he wants to see his players opening up and attacking space when it shows.

The Lions head coach believes that some of his less heralded players could surprise the Kiwis in the coming weeks.

“I think we’ve got some players at the moment who aren’t known here, but they’ve got some x-factor and hopefully they can cause some surprises if we get some hard surfaces. We’ve got some pace, we’ve got footwork and we’ve got the ability in some positions to cause some surprises,” said Gatland.

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“That was a bit of the message today. I honestly feel we’ve got some players with some X-factor and to match the All Blacks, if you look at them at times, it just comes down to one or two magical moments.

“That might just have been an offload or someone does something special. We’ve got to give our players the confidence to do the same thing.

Head Coach Warren Gatland during the training Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“We can have one player who does something special, so as coaches we have to give them the freedom to go out there and play what is in front of them and be able to express themselves.

“I said to the players this morning, ‘If we’ve got a four-on-two on our goal line, then the decision to me is that you’ve got to move the ball and do something. I don’t want you to play by numbers, I want you to play what is in front of you.’

“I want them to express themselves, starting straight away, in this game. You have to give them that confidence that they can go and do that and maybe create something special.”

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