Wednesday 22 January 2020

Lions set to call up reinforcements for Chiefs game as Hansen gets prediction spot on

Lions coaches Rob Howley, Warren Gatland and Graham Rowntree
Lions coaches Rob Howley, Warren Gatland and Graham Rowntree

Ruaidhri O'Connor in Rotorua

It seems Steve Hansen has the inside line as to what’s happening in the Lions camp as Warren Gatland prepares to call for reinforcements ahead of the Test series against New Zealand.

The All Black coach yesterday knowingly predicted five players would be joining the touring party ahead of the clash with the Chiefs in Hamilton on Tuesday and while he might be one or two out, it seems his information is kosher.

He was certainly more forthcoming than Lions assistant coach Steve Borthwick who was in no mood to brief at the scheduled media briefing overnight.

As an exercise in obfuscation, it was a masterclass from the English forwards coach. As an exercise in public relations, it was of questionable value as he failed to provide any clarity on the issues of the day.

So, Hansen will again have the opportunity to tell the world what’s really going on in the Lions camp after this morning’s game against Samoa and, while doing so, put his own spin on the information.

The World Cup-winning coach has enjoyed baiting the Lions and Gatland in the build-up to the series and relished the chance to reveal the arrival of the new players and the potential negative impact they might have on the Lions’ morale.

With Wales up the road in Auckland, Scotland not too far away in Australia the likelihood is the bulk of the players will be drawn from those squads. Ireland are a 10 hour flight away in Japan, while England are even further away in Argentina. With the Chiefs game on Tuesday, proximity may be key.

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Did Borthwick have an update and expect Hansen’s prediction of disharmony to manifest itself?

“I think if there's a situation where call-ups are going to happen for any player that will be deal with at the appropriate time when an announcement's to be made. And right now there's no announcement,” he said.

“I'm not giving what anyone else is saying a second thought. I'm concentrating on our team tomorrow. I'm concentrating on coaching the team as well as I can.

“I think I've been hugely impressed by the leadership of the players, all the players in how close this group is.

All the players have worked hard to ensure it's a tight, socially cohesive group. If and when there's any situation for an announcement, that will come then. Right now there's no announcement and I'm concentrating on the game tomorrow.”

The funny thing is, Gatland himself predicted that this situation would arise back in September when he was announced as Lions coach. He did something similar for the Brumbies game four years ago, drafting in Christian Wade, Brad Barritt and Shane Williams 48 hours before the game which took place in the week of the first Test.

“One thing that I spoke about in the interview process, the hardest game is the Chiefs game before the first Test,” he said nine months ago.

“How do you protect that Test match 23? I know Wales are in (Auckland), Scotland are in Australia, England-Argentina and Ireland-Japan – so there is potentially an opportunity to maybe bring in four or five to maybe sit on the bench.

“That is my thought process at the moment. You want to protect that Test 23. It made a massive difference in 2013, we had players on the bench, but not exposing the XV to having to be involved.

“That is important. It’s getting the balance right, you don’t want the squad to be too big and unwieldy, how do you keep it small enough so everyone feels a part, feels like they have an opportunity, so you are not carrying two or three just for the sake of it. “

As for Owen Farrell’s thigh strain, Borthwick was unsurprisingly unforthcoming with any information.

It is fair to say the English out-half remains a doubt for the first Test as the coaching staff, not that the forwards coach was saying either way.

“He didn't train today, he's had a grade one muscle strain,” he said.

“The medical team take great care of him. Hopefully he'll be back on the field ASAP.

“When exactly it happened, I can't tell you. It was felt yesterday, dealt with immediately; he went into recovery protocols straight away.”

It was put to Borthwick that Grade I strains usually keep a player out for seven-to-10 days.

“I certainly don't go by that,” he said.

I listen to our medical team who are far more qualified than I am. He'll be back as quickly as he's fit and able.

“You deal with hypothetical and I'll deal with what the facts are. He'll be back as soon as he's fit and able to be back.

“What we're working for is improvement. Working on the aspects we're trying to develop.

“We need another step forward in performance. We’re looking to raise our level of performance in all different areas.”

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