‘Unknowns’ out to make a name for themselves in Lions opener
Gentle opener a chance to confound Kiwi critics
Towards the end of his team announcement press conference, a local news reporter attempted to put Warren Gatland off his stride by quoting the results of a poll that said 78pc of New Zealanders couldn't name a single Lion.
The Kiwi coach took the question in his stride, but later acknowledged that his team's mission is to leave the country having made a name for themselves. Starting tomorrow morning.
The opening fixture against the Provincial Barbarians is the only potential soft-touch game on a gruelling schedule and offers them a chance to garner momentum going into a run of games that takes in four of the five Kiwi Super Rugby franchises and the Maori before the Test series begins.
Gatland outlined his view that the Maori game tomorrow fortnight is the day that the tour switches from build-up to business time. His selection for that match is likely to give a broad indication of his line-up for the All Blacks.
Before then, he has promised to hand opportunity to everyone in the first three games. All 41 players have been promised a start, if fit, and the players whose club schedules allowed them to come into camp early are rewarded with a first shot in Whangarei tomorrow.
"I see the tour in two parts: everything up to the Maori game and then everything post that," Gatland said. "If we can go and play some good rugby and make people stand up and take a little bit of notice, it's going to create even more interest.
"The statement first of all is a win. In 2009 we struggled in that first game. It will be hard on these players and the weather will play a part.
International Rugby Newsletter
"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 and through to the Crusaders.
"It is important week, this first one, to get off to a good start. I want the players to put us coaches under pressure and make the job difficult for us in terms of selection when it comes to the first Test."
The three Irish players selected to start will have a major role in driving that performance.
Rory Best will be the fulcrum of a set-piece that will hope to assert its superior quality over the locals, while Iain Henderson has been handed the responsibility of calling the lineouts.
Gatland just stopped short of declaring that the third Irish starter, Johnny Sexton, was under pressure but with a three-way fight for the No 10 shirt now underway, he knows he'll need a big performance to state his initial case for selection.
With Owen Farrell and Dan Biggar set to start the next two, more challenging, games, the Ireland out-half will hope to assert his class on proceedings from the kick-off.
Playing alongside Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw and with a familiar face in former Leinster centre Ben Te'o outside him, Sexton is running a backline that trained as a unit in Carton House last week. Gatland informed the players of his intended selection last week, allowing them an opportunity to gel before travelling.
The Provincial Barbarians have been together for 10 days, but are lacking in pedigree and game-time.
Although there is talent in the ranks, most of them are either fringe players in Super Rugby squads or club players. They'll be up for it, but if the Lions perform then they'll have few issues.
The result, Gatland said, is non-negotiable.
"To be honest we have to go out there and win," he said. "There's no doubt that it's important that we get the tour off to a good start. The next two games are going to be tough.
"Even though the Crusaders have been going well, potentially the Blues game may be a bit more physical because they have some very, very strong ball-carriers, where as a collective unit the Crusaders are very strong and are going to be tough to beat.
"So the next two games after Saturday are going to be tough tests for us as well but we need to get this tour off to a good start, and we need a good performance on Saturday. There's no hiding from that fact. I think the players are well aware of that."
Although a bench picked from a squad of 41 internationals should always be strong, the one selected by Gatland looks to have extra oomph.
Tadhg Furlong will get the chance to wear the red jersey for the first time when he replaces Kyle Sinckler. Jared Payne was selected on the bench on the return to his home stadium, but last night he was withdrawn due to a calf injury and replaced with England's Elliot Daly. Developing a group of replacements who can make an impact is key.
"That's often been the All Blacks' strength, the ability and the impact coming off the bench," Gatland said.
"Sometimes with the Celtic nations, we don't have that luxury and the thing that's exciting about the Lions is that you can have a real impact with players coming off the bench to make a difference and match, potentially, when the All Blacks make their changes."
Gatland also suggested that those expecting a version of his traditional power-game, nick-named 'Warren-ball' will be wide of the mark.
"We've got some players at the moment who aren't known here, but they've got some X-factor," he said.
"To match the All Blacks, sometimes it just comes down to one or two magical moments. That might just been an off-load or someone does something special. We've got to give our players the confidence to do the same thing.
"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."
When the tour concludes next month, this fixture will be a footnote, but right now it is everything for this group of Lions who need momentum if they are to have any chance of succeeding.
Provincial BaBas v Lions, Live, Sky Sports 1, tomorrow, 8.35am