WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Win. That’s all British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland said he expected from his side in the tour-opening clash against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians on Saturday.
That may be Gatland’s bottom line but much more will be expected of a vastly experienced squad for the Whangarei tour match against a team made up of players from the host country’s semi-professional provincial competition.
Pundits in rugby-mad New Zealand, never afraid to play their part in boosting the national cause, have suggested that anything less than a 30-point differential should be considered a loss for the tourists.
Most importantly, the Lions need to show they have come to New Zealand with an attitude that will carry them through matches against five Super Rugby teams, the Maori All Blacks and three tests against the world champions.
Despite having world class goalkickers Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell in the matchday squad, Gatland knows the Lions will need to score points in increments of more than three to beat the All Blacks.
In short, they need to score tries, probably a lot of them, and they will not get a better chance to show they can than against the Barbarians.
”It’s important we get the tour off to a good start,“ Gatland told British media. ”There’s no hiding from that fact, and I think the players are well aware of that.
“I said to them ‘if we’ve got a four-on-two on our goal line then 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’.”
As an assistant on the 2009 tour of South Africa before getting the top job four years later in Australia, Gatland is well aware of the alchemy Lions coaches have to practice in tour matches to get their best sides out for the tests.
He needs to juggle the expectations of 41 highly competitive individuals all vying for a test jersey, while gelling combinations and sorting out who is best to implement the plan to beat the All Blacks.
Gatland has said everyone in the squad will get the opportunity to stake their claim before his first choice team is pencilled in for their match against the Maori All Blacks, a week before the opening test at Eden Park on June 24.
“It’s about giving everyone an opportunity, and keeping harmony in the squad, that’s paramount for these guys at the moment,” Gatland said.
“I think it’s important these guys are putting themselves in the shop window. They’ve got a chance to prove themselves and with a little bit of luck they’re in contention for the tests.”
His selection for the Barbarians game was ultimately forced upon him due to the limited build-up the team had together, with the side chosen from the players who were able to attend the training camp in Dublin.
That, however, had played into the Lions hands according to experienced Wales lock Alun Wyn Jones.
“I think we have quite a diverse selection and the gelling together is the focus for us in this game,” he said.
”We have got a good group of lads who are starting to bond really well off the pitch and that’s massive.
“We haven’t played any rugby yet but that will be the true test of where we are.”
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Nick Mulvenney