Graham Henry: Lions' 'suicidal' schedule makes their New Zealand task almost Mission Impossible
Graham Henry believes that the Lions are the only credible challengers to New Zealand's pre-eminent status although the former Lions and All Black coach acknowledged that the 'suicidal' schedule makes their task almost Mission Impossible.
"Yes, most possibly so, as it is certainly the most difficult itinerary in the history of the game," said Henry. "I don't know who arranges these things but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be a coach or a player. I just hope it doesn't impact on the tour because these are the best two teams in the world going head to head.
"It is a hugely stimulating prospect, for everyone here in New Zealand as well as round the world. Rugby needs this to be a real contest. It is a major worry that Australia and South Africa have fallen away so much and so quickly. Eddie Jones is doing a great job with England but those teams don't meet until 2018. For the game's sake, it is so important that this is a competitive series. It is what the sport needs, for New Zealand to be challenged."
That is precisely what did not happen the last time the British and Irish Lions toured New Zealand, 12 years ago in 2005. Henry, who coached the Lions in 2001, had taken over as All Blacks' coach 18 months earlier and was up against England's World Cup-winning coach, Clive Woodward. It proved to be no contest, New Zealand swatting the Lions aside in the Test series, 3-0, with All Black fly-half Dan Carter in his pomp. That team were to be the genesis of the side that eventually reached the Holy Grail of a World Cup triumph on home soil in 2011, repeating the feat under Steve Hansen in England four years later.
Much as Henry has self-evident leanings towards his countrymen, there is no disguising his affection for the Lions or his relish for the upcoming fray. Steeped in rugby lore, Henry, 70, knows that the wellbeing and credibility of the sport needs high-octane competition.
For all the romantic bombast and hype that can surround a Lions tour, there is no disputing the fact that the concept comes under scrutiny every time a series is lost. The Lions are assailed from various quarters, with a clamour from Premier Rugby to reduce tours to five weeks in future. "The Lions are one of the cornerstones of the game and must be fostered and safeguarded," Henry said. "Warren Gatland and his Lions will be welcomed with open arms."
Henry pays tribute to the quality of the 41-man squad that Warren Gatland has picked and acknowledges, too, the wisdom of having a coach at the helm who knows how a Lions tour works. "That experience is massive," said Henry. "Warren knows what it requires and how to get the job done. This is his third tour. Experience counts for a lot. Look at what happened with Stuart Lancaster and England. That would have taught him so much. Stuart is a bloody good coach and I hope he gets another crack."
Henry's grave reservations about the arduousness of the schedule keep surfacing, so too the fact that New Zealand rugby is in rude health with its Super Rugby franchises sweeping all before them. And even though the All Blacks have not played since November, Henry warns against the notion that they might be under-clubbed or still in transition.
"We all thought there might be a dip after the 2015 Rugby World Cup yet the All Blacks played some of the best rugby they have ever played in 2016," said Henry. "They are setting new standards. That's what drives the All Blacks every time they get together. You blokes tend to get excited about a Lions tour. Well, when it only happens once every 12 years, imagine what that means to a player here.
"These All Blacks have only got one crack at it. It's a great contest in prospect, which is why I sincerely hope that the Lions come through the build-up games in as good a shape as possible, and in the sort of shape that, frankly, they will need to be in. A lot of these blokes will be coming up against a style of play, a fast, dynamic, ball-in-hand style, that they are not used to having to combat week in, week out. All the five franchises they will face, as well as the Maori, play in a very similar style."
One glance at the Barrett brothers, fly-half Beauden and full-back Jordie, in action for the Hurricanes, with their vision and pace and intelligence, is enough of a foretaste at the threats lying in wait to put any Lions follower on full alert. Gatland, however, knows this terrain better than anyone and has picked a squad that has a hard core within it. Henry, though, advises against seeing the series as a black-and-white battle between the heavyweight Lions forwards and the fleet-of-foot New Zealand backs.
"You can't really be successful over a long period with only one of those elements," said Henry. "The game hasn't changed in that regard. There is a difference in style. You are reared with what you know, and climate influences that. Eddie Jones has recognised that and taken England back to basics. But just as the All Blacks forward pack can handle itself so can the Lions backs do a bit. You can't have one without the other. You've got to get ball to play with."
One area in which Henry does sense an advantage for the Lions is in goal-kicking. "Owen Farrell is the best in the world at the moment, good leader too, but our guys do have a habit of dealing with whatever is put in front of them," said Henry. "Look, all that really matters is that it is a fabulous series. The 2015 Rugby World Cup was terrific. And we all want another injection of that."