Sunday 30 April 2017

Gatland - 'Ireland showed in Chicago that All Blacks are human'

Gatland wants Lions to follow Schmidt's side's lead and believe they can accomplish the impossible in New Zealand this summer

British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland, left, and Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt pictured at the Aviva during last year's Autumn Internationals. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland, left, and Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt pictured at the Aviva during last year's Autumn Internationals. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

He was at Soldier Field in November and for Warren Gatland the Chicago fire still burns bright.

A former All Black himself, he knows that his fellow countrymen are mere mortals who are simply very good at playing rugby. When they were winning 18 Test matches in a row, while winning back-to-back World Cups, it was easy to believe otherwise.

That's why Ireland's 40-29 win over New Zealand last autumn was so important for the Lions coach as he embarks on what many believe is a mission impossible.

Yesterday he named a whopper 41-man squad for the gruelling 10-match Tour, which kicks off in 44 days' time in Whangarei on the North Island.

Eight of the starting XV who beat the world champions so brilliantly have been named in the squad, but Gatland hopes it is the message of their achievement that hits home among the wider group of players making the journey.

Belief, he knows, is a hard attribute to imbue on players. It is far better when it is the result of actions played out in front of their eyes.

A number of England players experienced it in 2012 when they beat New Zealand in Twickenham, but Chicago was a timely reminder of the fallibility of the hosts.

"As coaches, you're trying to deliver that message sometimes when you're playing the All Blacks about confidence and self-belief. You're not too sure when you get that glazed look from the players if they honestly believe that," Gatland confessed after naming his squad in London.

"Ireland doing that in Chicago was pretty special. To see the All Blacks come back and almost look like they were going to steal it and then for the Irish to, in that last 10 minutes, put them under pressure. To see some of those world-class players be human, make some mistakes, show some frailties, that gives you that self-belief and confidence.

"As a coach you're trying to deliver that message, to put players and teams under pressure and they will make mistakes.

Conor Murray celebrates Ireland's victory over New Zealand at Soldier Field, Chicago, during last year's Autumn Internationals. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Conor Murray celebrates Ireland's victory over New Zealand at Soldier Field, Chicago, during last year's Autumn Internationals. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

"Andy Farrell being a coach with England and Ireland, the Ireland players having won, and some of the England players having won in 2012... you've got to go there believing."

The challenge facing Gatland and his squad is undoubtedly a daunting one. His decision to select so many players - just three shy of the heavily criticised 44-man panel picked by Clive Woodward in 2005 - is borne of a need to field a team in the opening week and hit the ground running.

Read more: Warren Gatland reveals Conor Murray injury setback and has issued the scrumhalf a fitness ultimatum

Woodward was also panned for splitting the squad into two separate units, but Gatland conceded he will have to do something similar due to the "toughest ever" schedule.

The Guinness PRO12 and English Premiership finals take place on Saturday, May 27 and the Lions depart for New Zealand the next day. Although the opening game is a gimme against a Provincial XV, fully stocked Super Rugby sides await.

The New Zealand franchises are expected to have their All Blacks available, meaning the twice-weekly game schedule will be a fearsome test.

Ruthless

Anyone who had forgotten Gatland's ruthless streak from his last selection call as Lions coach got a reminder yesterday. England captain Dylan Hartley was cast aside, while the coach risked the wrath of the entire nation of Scotland by selecting just two members of Vern Cotter's side - citing their away record and, in particular, their performance in defeat to England as justification for the selection call.

Although Wales, Scotland and Ireland are not far away from their own tours, Gatland is also conscious of the difficulties of flying in back-up players in case of injuries.

In 2013, his decision to call-up Tom Court and Shane Williams - both holidaying in Australia - did not go down well. This time, he hopes to avoid the need for such stop-gaps.

While the numbers involved in this tour are not far off Woodward's party, the head coach feels his men will not fall foul to the same pitfalls incurred by the World Cup winner on the tourists' last visit to New Zealand.

From the appointment of Tony Blair's spin-doctor Alastair Campbell as press officer to the awful anthem, customised iPods and Brian O'Driscoll's 'tossing the grass' response to the Haka before the first Test, that tour has gone down in the annals as 'How not to do the Lions'.

Given his own heritage, Gatland hopes to get the tone right and will be encouraging his players to brush up on some New Zealand culture before they travel. He believes a failure to understand the location is a major downfall many touring teams suffer in his homeland.

"The thing people don't understand is that there are teams who go to New Zealand and they don't go there culturally prepared," he explained of his approach.

"What I mean by that is, particularly in 2011 (during the World Cup), teams rocked up there not prepared culturally for what's going to happen."

Read more: Johnny Sexton under pressure to secure Warren Gatland's nod for Lions No 10 shirt

Gatland explained that the squad will receive a Maori welcome in Waitangi Marae on the day after their first match and will try and set the tone at that event.

"We'll get welcomed there, we'll accept some Maori challenges," he said.

"They speak, they sing, so we'll reply as well. My hope at the moment is that we have (team manager) John Spencer to speak, he'll have to sing.

"Someone will speak in Irish and will sing, someone will speak in Welsh and will sing, so culturally, we'll get some respect by doing that. I don't think the two Scots will be able to speak Gaelic, but maybe they might."

He also wants his team to watch a hand-picked selection of New Zealand films to prepare them for the Kiwi culture.

"If we go there prepared and we understand our opposition, understand our enemy a bit better... a lot of people in the past who have been there haven't been prepared well enough for that," he said.

"It's a really tough place to go to and tour. The intensity, the knowledge of the nation, it's not going to be like Australia in 2013 when we arrived in Melbourne and all of the people were saying: 'Who are the people wearing red jerseys?'

"Wherever we go, we're going to be inundated by fans who are incredibly excited and also very knowledgeable about the Lions, the players and the expectation as well."

Irish Independent

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