Friday 24 January 2020

Warren Gatland expects his Lions to be familiar with haka in time for first Test

Warren Gatland believes the British and Irish Lions could be "familiar" with the haka by the start of the Test series against the All Blacks.

Head coach Gatland feels the Lions could benefit from the haka becoming "regular preparation", with the tourists facing the traditional Maori challenge outside of Test matches for the first time.

Super Rugby outfits the Blues, Crusaders and Chiefs will perform it in the build-up to their Lions clashes - and Gatland hinted that could dent the mystique of the famed challenge.

"There's no plan for the haka; we'll just face up to it," said Gatland, with the Lions to face it for the first time this tour against the Blues on Wednesday.

"The nice thing is that players are going to get an opportunity to face the haka on more than one occasion.

"For me the experience, the more times you face up to it, you don't mind it, it's a motivational thing; it's not intimidating.

"And I'm pleased my players will face it more than once. You become familiar with it. It becomes part of regular preparation for a game."

Tour captain Sam Warburton will skipper the Lions in Saturday's opener against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei.

Lions boss Gatland's son Bryn will face the tourists in Barbarians colours, in a direct confrontation with Ireland fly-half Johnny Sexton.

Midweek matches on previous Lions tours have been littered with overzealous stars sometimes overstepping the boundaries of acceptable physicality in bidding to make a name for themselves.

The spectre of the double tackle from Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu on Brian O'Driscoll that ended the Irish centre's tour in 2005 still looms large over the All Blacks and Lions.

Former New Zealand hooker Mealamu even recently admitted he "still feels a stink" about that tip-tackle, though all associated with New Zealand insist the challenge and resulting injury were both accidents.

The All Blacks held nothing back in a bruising encounter with Ireland in Dublin in November, as they hit back from their first-ever defeat to Joe Schmidt's men in Chicago just a week earlier.

Robbie Henshaw was carted off after a head-high shot from Sam Cane in that 21-9 loss as the All Blacks atoned for the 40-29 defeat to Ireland in the USA.

The likes of Henshaw and Sexton could come in for some rough-housing across the course of a punishing tour - but Gatland insists he does not expect any of the Lions' opponents to overstep the mark.

"It's not something that's crossed my mind at all: in my experience of New Zealand teams, they play to the limit, they play to the edge but I don't think they go out there with the purpose of trying to injure players or trying to injure people," said Gatland.

"We know it's going to be tough, it's going to be physical, but at no stage do I think these games will go over the top in terms of physicality from both sides.

"We want it to be tough, but we want some good, clean, hard rugby.

"And I'm confident that all the teams we come up against will go in there with hopefully the same attitude of playing some good rugby on the field, and some entertaining rugby as well."

Gatland insisted Saturday's tour-opening XV effectively selected itself, permed from the players who have contributed to every training camp so far.

Those who missed the early stages of training due to club commitments are still being phased in and brought up to speed.

Gatland remains intent on handing every player on tour the chance to state their case for Test selection, with the first clash against the All Blacks slated for June 24 at Auckland's Eden Park.

However, the Wales coach also conceded he intends to have a fair idea of his starting XV for that first Test by the time the Lions face the New Zealand Maori on June 17 - giving the touring squad four matches to prove their point.

"The Maori game is important for us," said Gatland.

"You might be reasonably close to knowing the first Test starting XV by then.

"It's a little down the track as well."

PA Media

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